Booth confessions

Interpretation Booths

Interpretation Booths (Photo credit: TEDxMonterey)

As I just finished a week in Strasbourg, I also finished several hours of booth time. The confined space of a booth is a very interesting microcosm. How the interpreters arrange themselves in the booth, who sits where and who sits next to whom, and so forth. Most booths on the private market only have two consoles, so your choice is basically just left or right. But do you prefer to sit near the door or in the corner? Which of the places have the best view? And where are you close to a socket? And do you have a colleague with an extremely strong preference (you really don’t want to spoil someone’s day). At the European institutions there are three pulpits (and interpreters) which means that someone has to be in the middle. I know that I share the aversion of the middle seat with many colleagues, make sure to be on time if you want to avoid it. If I’m first in the booth and have the privilege to choose I look at three things: socket, view, side. I don’t have any colleague I dislike or have had an argument with, but it has happened that I decided to sit in the middle because I knew the two colleagues I was about to worked with were not best of friends, to put it mildly.

How much and what you spread is also important. The booth is our work place so obviously we bring stuff to the booth, but that does not mean that your colleagues would like to share your lip-stick smeared, half-drunken, cold coffee, or that they appreciate having half of the Guardian rustle over their console (actually, the client may not appreciate that either). I had one colleague who was absolutely obsessed about eating in the booth. “This is a booth” she used to say, “not a train compartment”. And I don’t believe she’s entirely wrong either (although I admit to eating, discretely, in the booth), I don’t think your listeners will appreciate slurping over the microphone, neither from you nor your colleague.

I have another bad, although silent, habit in the booth – I put my lipstick on. I’m not really sure the listener really likes sharing my make-up routine. I try to combat this more tic-like behavior.

But it wasn’t really booth manners I wanted to share, but rather booth talk. When we’re on air there’s not much conversation going on between colleagues, and admittedly during some meetings there is not one spoken word exchanged between the interpreters, the meeting is just too dense. But when we’re not interpreting a lot is going on. I have touched upon the topic already here, but I wanted to reiterate it, because, this week,  I really felt how important it is. First and foremost there’s background and terminology check of course. But when working with colleagues you like, it’s amazing how quickly the conversation gets deep and intimate. It is as if the very intense work, the secluded space, and the short moment of time spark important discussions. I don’t mean that every time I meet somebody new I give or get long revealing confidences. But over the years I’ve heard all types of life stories, been part of important decisions, shared deep sorrow, great joy and much more. I’m amazed how many interesting jobs, travels, families and hobbies interpreters have. Provided you like other people and take an interest in others’ life this is really an upside of the job. And interestingly this does hardly ever happen outside the booth, it’s as if the booth is a perfect mix of space and time.

Oh, and a final word. Don’t forget to take your trash with you when you leave the booth. Leaving trash is disrespect for colleagues and technicians.

Day 18 My favourite type of interpreting

Interpreter Patricia Stöcklin note taking duri...

Interpreter Patricia Stöcklin note taking during consecutive interpreting, Garry Kasparov and Klaus Bednarz on the lit.Cologne 2007. Français : L’interpréteur Patricia Stöcklin prend note durant des traductions en série, Garry Kasparov et Klaus Bednarz au lit.Cologne 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regular readers of the blog, interpreting amateurs and colleagues will know that there are different types or modes of interpreting – simultaneous, consecutive and dialogue. But which type to we prefer? Well, I don’t know about you, but for me it depends a little.

I really like simultaneous, you get such a kick out of doing it. I’m sure endorphin levels are sky-high when you’ve finished a simultaneous spell. But one of the disadvantages with simultaneous interpretation is that you are often secluded from your client or listener. You’re put out of the communicative context.

This is the reason I really like consecutive. In consecutive you are part of the context to a higher degree. The interpreter becomes part of the team in a very tangible way. In many ways it’s nerve wrecking, imagine you’re doing a consecutive interpreting in front of TV cameras, and you know that it is not unlikely your interpreting will end up on YouTube, because you’re interpreting for a star, like Patricia Stöcklin above.

Then it’s much calmer, but also much more challenging when you’re dialogue interpreting for a patient and a doctor. It is a wonderful reward when, thanks to you, the patient gets the right treatment and the participants finally understand each other. You’re in direct contact with your users and it’s immediately obvious whether you make a difference or not.

So, I guess my conclusion is that I really like interpreting – all sorts of them.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.

In Translation – Saskia Holmkvist


Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

Last week I took my students to see a video installation by Saskia Holmkvist, a Swedish artist who has done a series of works on role distribution and power (no it’s not Saskia on the picture). One of her installations, called In Translation, deals with different roles in interpreting. In the installation, Saskia interviews two interpreters with their clients’ present. It is a Norwegian public service interpreter and Latvia’s former president’s interpreter. The interviews are short and deal with interpreting techniques and different issues in interpreting.

The installations are interesting from many different perspectives, though. First of all, the clients’ reactions when they were put outside the conversation. The minority language speaker in the first interview seems to completely disconnect from the communicative event, after a couple of minutes he is more interested in the camera than in the interview. I cannot help to speculate whether it reflects his earlier experiences of different interpreted communicative events, where at different occasions he may very well have been (unintentional or not) disconnected from the communicative event, and if he is used to it, he has also learned to deal with it. Another factor is also of course the asymmetric distribution of power in these types of interpreted events. This client hardly has any comments on his interpreter’s performance either. All this is absolutely not to say that the interpreter is not good, on the contrary, the interpreter comes through as very professional and impartial.

In the second interview the client has a completely different role, but now we’re talking about Latvia’s former president and his personal interpreter. This client is not waiting silently on the side. When he realizes that he is not part of the communicative event he jumps in with comments and statements. He will not silently sit beside the communication, even if his perspective is the users and he does not have any experience as interpreter, he still has many views on interpreting. His most interesting comment is probably the last one – something like; “The interpreter should not reflect on what I say, even if she doesn’t understand she should know I always have a goal with what I’m saying”. The relationship between this interpreter and this client is far from impartial, and she also says it,  when she represents Latvia (through her president) she wants Latvia to look good. Body language and spatial placement also shows that there is a more symmetric relationship between interpreter and client.

If the video installation comes anywhere near you it is definitely worth watching. There is more information here in Norwegian.

My free-lance office(s) or the benefit of wifi

Andy Bell, the cycling translator has shown his workplace on at least one occasion. As an interpreter my obvious work space is in the booth or at somebody else’s office. But as you know, interpreters prepare a lot, and with my PhD writing on top of that, I clearly have an office too. Or several rather… The truth is that although I’m well aware of how important it is with a room of one’s own (right, Virginia ;-)), I don’t live as I preach. I’ll give you a short walk through my different workplaces:

Bedroom i.e. morning and evening office as well as printing area (printer to the right).

Dining table i.e. shared office space when working with colleagues. (Yes it does happen!)

Guestroom i.e. my PhD library with small workstation.

Kitchen table: Puppy watch/Working lunch

Sofa corner, also scanner corner. Good for an afternoon coffee while scanning. Also perfect for reading assignments (background articles and books, prep reading for assignments etc.).

And for the occasions when I need a standing work position (and cook dinner).

I think you get the picture by now. I move around a lot during paper work and writing. This is due to space constraints, time constraints, but probably also to my restless soul. To my dear supervisor I would like to say – in case she worries – occasionally, I do manage to get some uninterrupted time to read and write…

Europeiska flerspråkighetsbloggdagen #babel2012

Dagen till ära tänkte jag blogga på mitt modersmål, ärans och hjältarnas språk. Europeiska flerspråkighetsdagen är ett initiativ som en del av Europeiska internetveckan och samordnas av Antonia MochanEuonym Här kan man anmäla sig.  Och här finns förresten en lista över de bloggar som deltar, Interpreting Diaries bland andra.

När jag bloggar på engelska så brukar jag alltid ursäkta min dåliga stavning (och korrektur läsning) med att det inte är mitt modersmål. Men nu får jag stå mitt kast! En annan ursäkt använder jag när jag undervisar och skriver på tavlan, när jag stavat mig fram till något i still med “simultantok”, säger jag bara glatt: “Jag är ju tolk, inte översättare. Jag är expert på att artikulera inte att stava”. Men allt det där räcker naturligtvis bara till en viss gräns, så nu står jag här med min tvättade hals.

Men egentligen var det ju inte denna brasklapp jag ville skriva om på flerspråkighetsbloggdagen. Jag tänkte istället skriva om vad som driver mig som tolk. Varför vill jag vara tolk och varför behövs tolkar?

I går höll jag en lektion i tolketik och behov av tolk i olika situationer. Vi diskuterade två artiklar: “Minoriteter i ett “hvitt retsvesen” av Arild Kjerschow och “Møter med innvandrerpasienter og norske leger” av  Bjerknes, Thor Rasmus, Lyngdal, Svein Børre, Bang, Anne. Bägge artiklarna belyser problem för grupper som inte behärskar landets språk i möte med olika samhällsfunktioner. Men i vissa stycken blir jag mörkrädd när jag läser den. I artikeln om möten mellan invandrarpatienter och norska läkare tar författarna upp många olika aspekter på detta möte och understryker hur viktigt det är att se bakom orden och försöka förstå den kulturbakgrund som patienter kommer ifrån. Men trots detta nämndes knappt tolkning i denna 14 sidor långa artikel. Ingenting om hur tolkning kan vara avgörande för just den kulturförståelsen. Kjerschow avslöjar för oss att den norska lagen ger domstolen rätt att besluta om tolk inte behövs efter att man bedömt den tilltalades språkkunskaper. Eller i situatioer där domaren behärskar språket. Ingenstans i lagen står det dock något om hur dessa bedömningar görs. Vem avgör om den tilltalade talar tillräckligt bra norska eller om domaren talar ett annat språk tillräckligt bra.

I en trist krönika av Johnson i går skriver han om en resa till södra Kivu i östra Kongo. Han berättar om svårigheten att kommunicera via tolk med lokalbefolkningen och avslutar med orden “An interpreter was necessary in those parts. I needed mine. I wish I hadn’t”. Ganska dystert för tolkar med andra ord.

Trots gårdagens ganska nedslående läsning är jag ändå övertygad om att det går att göra skillnad som tolk och jag gör skillnad. Det är just det som är så fascinerande med att vara tolk – jag märker att mitt arbete ofta spelar roll. Som den gången när jag följde med en vän till läkaren för att tolka och läkaren efter besöket spontant sa att: “Det var bra att ni var med, Madame, för jag inser nu att jag inte förstått riktigt allt vad patienten sa tidigare”. Och tolkar behövs för att göra just den skillnaden.

All tolkning fungerar inte och alla uppdrag är inte lika livsavgörande, men det kan bero på så många olika saker, och inte enbart på att tolkning som fenomen eller att tolken inte fungerar. Alla de som fungerar som tolkar, är inte nödvändigtvis utbildade, eller kanske ens kan så många främmande språk. Och i vissa situationer kan valet till och med vara att inte kommunicera alls eller att kommunicera via tolk även om det inte fungerar som det skulle önska.

Precis som i alla yrken krävs förutsättningar för att tolkningen ska fungera. Tolken bör kunna de språk som ska tolkas (jag har varit i rätten och hört rättens ordförande säga, men du talar ju ändå språk X då förstår du väl språk Y också), tolken bör vara utbildad till tolk, jag tror inte någon tycker att en ingenjör kan fungera som läkare även om ingenjören är nog så högutbildad, men en tolkanvändare jag talat med sa att ibland kunde man ju använda lokalvårdaren som tolk eftersom den personen var högutbildad i sitt hemland (den kommentaren är enormt sorglig ur många perspektiv för övrigt). Och tolken bör också ha haft möjlighet att förbereda sitt arbete och ha möjlighet att arbeta under någorlunda vettiga arbetsvillkor.

Det låter ju som jag slår in öppna dörrar när jag radar upp dessa grundläggande villkor, men alla tolkar har exempel på just motsatsen. Och inte bara tolkar. Johnsons krönika talar ju just om detta fast ur ett (ganska negativt) brukarperspektiv. Men när vi vänder på steken och tolkar får rätt förutsättningar, så är tolkarna navet i flerspråkighet. En majoritet av både världens och Europas befolkningar är två- eller flerspråkiga. Flerspråkighet är faktiskt normen. Tyvärr talar vi ju ändå inte alltid samma språk, även om vi talar fler än ett. Själva EU tas ofta som exempel på ett mångspråkigt projekt som inte skulle fungera utan tolkning och översättning, men betydligt fler projekt än vi tror skulle stå sig ganska slätt. I en väldigt rolig nyutkommen bok, Found in Translation, beskriver Nataly Kelly och Jost Zetzsche hur tolkning och översättning får hjulen att går runt, läs den!

Och vill ni sedan fördjupa er i flerspråkighet kan jag rekommendera Centrum för tvåspråkighetsforskning på Stockholms universitet som är en ledande institution för forskning om två- och flerspråkighet i världen. Där pågår enormt många intressanta projekt, som tillexempel det om polyglotter (vad är det som gör att vissa människor talar 12 språk flytande, medan vi andra kämpar på med att lära oss ett), eller det om hur barn som adopterats väldigt tidigt och inte minns sitt första modersmål överhuvudtaget ändå har kvar rester av det språk som de kanske bara hörde som nyfödda.

Ja, detta var mitt bidrag till flerspråkighetsbloggdagen. Inte så flerspråkigt inlägg kanske, men förhoppningsvis inspirerande ändå. Om ni kom hela vägen hit, särskrivningar och stavfel till trots!

I will miss you Miriam!


Candle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got one of the saddest messages. The wonderful professor Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan university has left us.

Dear Miriam,

I’m so extremely grateful that I have known you. You were, and will continue to be, a fantastic role model. I have admired you so much, your scholarly work of course, but also your kind, inclusive personality. I have no idea how you had time and energy for everything and everyone, but I understand you worked hard. I hope you got much good energy back from all of us and that you understood how much you meant.

Thanks to you so many good things exist in Interpreting (and Translation) Studies. I hope that we can continue to carry your torch and that your memory will live strong.

Do continue to keep an eye on us.


Read Miriam’s acceptance speech for the Danica Seleskovitch award. It’s a wonderful account of both her personal story and her life in Interpreting Studies.

Language enhancement


When you start an interpreting course one of the first things you that may strike you is how the language you thought you knew just fades away. Interpreting is an extremely complex exercise and your language skills have to be extremely solid. Whether we grew up bilingually or learnt languages later, most of us who are (or were) accepted into an interpreting program probably has the equivalent to a C2 level (mother tongue or near-native level according to the Council of Europe). But let’s face it, when we embark on our first consecutive – it feels like we just learnt our first words in that language.

So, although you are a skilled linguist, you will have to work on enhancing your language skills, and probably also the elusive concept of ‘culture générale’. But how do you do it? Since we’re not C3PO we cannot just add another hard drive or software, we just have to do it the good old way. And you probably already know it, but here’s a repetition.

First of all, listen, read, eat and sleep your language. You may have to do this both with your foreign language and your mother tongue. Unfortunately, there is now way around it – you need to listen to radio, read newspapers, listen to the news, both in your mother tongue and in your foreign language and with all the technical aid today this is not too hard. Log on to iTunes and see which pods suit you. I like NPR (the American National Public Radio), BBC, TV5 Monde, RFI (Radio France Internationale) just to mention a few. Many newspapers also have their own pod casts. And if you subscribe to different news apps you will get short flashes in you mobile.

When I brain stormed with my students someone also said “set your mobile, Facebook or web browser to your foreign language”. Translation is a good exercise too, when you translate shorter, idiomatic texts you get a feeling for expressions, idioms, prepositions and so forth. Attention to prepositions cannot be stressed enough, prepositions are probably one of the most difficult areas of language and preposition use has an unfortunate tendency to break down in stressful situations like interpreting. If you’re unsure about language in use, corpora is a good thing, in many multilingual text corpora, current texts are collected in order to compare language in use. Another way of mastering language in use as professor Harris pointed out in the comments is to learn poems or song lyrics by heart. As dull as it may seem it is a wonderful way of learning expressions and idiomatic language use.

Finally, and unfortunately, there is probably no way round vocabulary swotting. Flash cards is a good strategy here and one of my students mentioned Anki. I have not tried it – in my time we used cardboard and felt pen, but time changes :-). For my part I also joined an amateur theater group in English in order to immerse myself as much as I could without leaving Sweden. There are many other opportunities like that via Internet now, and thanks to different local groups you may also find opportunities to meet people IRL.

What’s your best language enhancement strategy? And do spare me of the pillow method, I’m far from sure it’s the best method.

Update: Just to be very clear – an interpreting course will enhance your language skills, but it is NOT a language course. All the basic language learning, including living and working abroad, will have to be done before the course. Otherwise there is little chance you will survive until your last exam.