What to Do When You Suck

I’ll be damned if I know!

Most interpreters who write blogs are full of advice, which is always useful for a novice. But what I never see on interpreting blogs (maybe I haven’t looked hard enough) is self-criticism. It is always other people who suck: beginners, agencies, speakers. I think it is presumed that if an interpreter should speak on his or her own behalf, they are only worthy of opening their mouths if they have lessons to teach, advice to offer, both based on an immaculate track record.

I do not have advice. I’m apparently slow to learn and to create strategies for myself. I do it well when I finally do it, but I trip and fall a few times before I learn my lesson. I navigate through. Until one day one of those meetings comes. A meeting where everything that can go wrong goes wrong, where, in spite of all your prep work, no strategy works. The content is highly specialized and extremely complex, the topic is completely new, terminology is abundant, language is cryptic, there are no equivalents in your mother tongue (because you come from a country that had no idea what a market economy was until 20 years ago and that imports both solutions and problems (along with their names)), the speakers insist on speaking their own strange versions of English, with thick accents, bad grammar, long digressions, incomplete sentences and fast.

You’ve read all the documents, but when the experts start to speak, their words fly through you, without ringing any familiar bells. You know better than to focus on just words, but you fail to see a message beyond the banking jargon. Your technique has saved you on a number of occasions, but now the speaker virtually mops the floor with you when he starts to speak about the resolution (yes, really!) of financial institutions, but makes long digressions about German administrative law. You know better than to fall into that trap, but you fall anyway. You’re so happy when you hear words you  finally do understand, that you make up sentences with them, not knowing whether that’s what the speaker said or not. You do guess-work, not interpretation. Bref, you suck! Big time.

Since I found no mention of this kind of situation in the literature, I don’t know what one is to do in such cases. Since I was completely out of my depth (OK, I was fucking drowning!), I was at a loss for any ideas, solutions, strategies, techniques that I could adopt to save myself. I wish I could say I was trying to keep afloat, but what I did was manage not to die. So what does one do? I don’t know, but I can tell you what I did.

1. I cried.

So cry! Let it all out. You’re a mediocre to bad interpreter, after one year of working almost every week, you are not capable of delivering in a meeting. Your technique is shit, you can’t speak your own mother tongue, you don’t understand English, your teachers were idiots for ever letting you pass exams, your bosses are dumb for ever letting you near a console. You are never getting work again! You thought you were smart, but your whole life is a lie. All your peers are doing better than you. Your parents are delusional, you don’t deserve their love. You are almost 27 and still unmarried, you old maid, you! You have adult acne, you’ve been putting on (more) weight, your roots show, you have split ends. You are the typical subject of passive-aggressive posts on interpreter blogs. Well, not you personally, but fucktards like you.

Anything else wrong with you? Good! Moving on:

2. Disconnect.

Try to nap, and, if you don’t have time, read something that doesn’t have to do with work for about 30 or 40 minutes, watch the news or a light TV show. It’s good to remember that your job isn’t everything out there and that there are people who are worse off than you (as cynical as it may sound, other people’s problems do have the gift of making me stop whining).

Done? OK.

3. Prepare for tomorrow’s meeting.

And do it well. Don’t underestimate the difficulty or plunge into the abyss of despair. You have to be in shape because your damaged self-esteem can’t handle another botched day in the booth. Work well. You’ll have time to think about how bad you were later. Now go to sleep.

So this is what I did. I cried my eyeballs out, read a magazine, prepared for the next meeting, went to bed and did all right in the booth on the following day, even though it wasn’t easy at all. But it isn’t over. There is a step 4.

4. Figure out what went wrong and how you can keep it from going wrong in the future (if you ever get contracts again).

This is guess-work again, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

  • We don’t do pretty: too much focus on terminology – in trying to avoid Anglicisms (big no-no in our booth), I attempted to come up with the best equivalents in Romanian. That meant 4-5 words in Romanian for every 2 words in English, which led me to waste time and to miss the essential parts of the ideas that followed. I lost who was doing what, whether certain actions are good or bad in the speaker’s view etc. I was too busy speaking at certain points, and forgot to listen.
  • When forced to choose between text and speaker, choose the speaker! I have never learned how to work with a text in the booth, so I’m still at the stage where it hurts my work to read, listen and speak at the same time. In my desperate attempts to not lag behind, I thought the ppt presentations could help me keep up, but they didn’t, as I wasted a lot of energy looking at the slides, instead of listening and trying to understand (something, anything).
  • Freestyling is not always a good idea: I’m not so sure of this one, because either people understand everything better than me or are better at hiding the fact that they don’t understand. If they do bullshit at all, their bullshit sounds a lot more plausible than mine. I don’t have experience, my BS is less than credible, anyone can call my bluffs. Interpret, don’t guess!

I don’t know what difference that would have made a few days ago, but I’ll be better prepared for the next meeting on the resolution of financial and credit institutions (you read that right!).

5. Apologize.

This should probably have been step 1, but I was too busy trying to find a bathroom to cry in.

And life isn’t all that bad… You’re a good human being, your friends like you, your parents would love you no matter how dumb you turned out to be. Sure, you could lose a few pounds, but your boyfriend still thinks you’re sexy, and if you had a six-pack a year ago, you can get one again. A day at the beauty salon and you’ll be as good as new.

You remember there were conferences and meetings where you did well to great, in spite of the difficulty. You’re not a complete idiot. Life is good. There will be other meetings…


One of the colleagues in the booth that awful day was your boss…

So it’s a good thing I didn’t set this blog out to be an interpreting blog, because I may need to change my career soon…