Mind Your Manners!

Conference interpreters must be a very poorly behaved bunch. Why else would there be so many resources out there dedicated to teaching us proper manners? There are seemingly countless articles, slide presentations and videos explaining the dos and don’ts of interpreter etiquette, as well as the inevitable cartoons poking fun at those interpreters who don’t seem to have consulted any of the former before stepping into the booth. Today, I’d like to go through some of what’s out there.

To me, minding your manners as an interpreter should essentially be a matter of common sense: try to treat your colleagues how you would like them to treat you. However, for the novice interpreter, it’s not always clear just exactly how one would like to be treated, or what constitutes good and bad etiquette in the booth.

I still have vivid, and mostly painful, memories of some of my own slip-ups during my first few weeks in the booth. One day, I had to be reminded by a senior colleague not to munch my sandwich in full view of the delegates (“but I was on my break, what harm could a quick snack do?”). On another occasion, I was told never – NEVER! – to touch another interpreter’s console (“but your turn was over, I thought I’d just switch off your mike for you!”). Needless to say, these are lessons that I will never forget.

Fortunately, thanks to all of the resources available, interpreters these days should not have to learn the hard way. Let’s take a look.

Not just for newbies

The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) has kindly prepared not one, but two sets of guidelines on booth manners. The first, Understanding Booth Manners, is a short, checklist-style guide for beginners on the main points to keep in mind as they head off for their first assignment.

The second article, creatively named Booth Manners, was written for seasoned interpreters and is an in-depth, no-holds-barred, three-part exposé on the topic that has seen various versions published over the years (which just goes to show that you can never say enough about minding your manners, even to veterans).

A more concise discussion of booth manners can be found in AIIC’s Conference Interpretation Glossary, where it can be found under the entry Booth Etiquette, interestingly enough (apparently a show of lexical versatility was in order).

Miss Manners would be proud

It’s interesting to see that most self-respecting interpreter training courses include booth manners on their curriculum. Even the EMCI Core Curriculum includes a reference to them. There, they are called “working practices”, but I’ve seen instructors’ notes for this point and I can assure you that that’s just a fancy euphemism for how to behave yourself on the job.

The National Network for Interpreting is a UK-based initiative that offers a range of resources for trainers and students of conference interpreting. On their interpreting skills map, you will find no fewer than three resources on etiquette-related skills: tact & diplomacy, professionalism, and teamwork. That last link on teamwork leads to a slideshow of interpreting cartoons by Clic!, by the way, so if you are looking for a light-hearted approach to the subject, be sure to check it out.

The Interpreter Training Resources website, always a great source of information for trainers and students, has its own article on booth manners to offer. In this case, it’s an excerpt of the book (now out of print) entitled Conference Interpreting – Principles and Practice.

Booth manners and social media

To conclude this round-up of pieces on booth manners, let me just point you to a couple of resources on the social media. The brand new Q&A site interpreting.info (which I talked about in my last post)  already has four questions tagged with “booth manners”, with a total of 17 answers. I personally like the one that asks if it’s okay to use Facebook in the booth (how time marches on!).

And what compilation of interpreter resources would be complete without a video by Lourdes de Rioja? I’ll leave you with this entertaining video, featuring my colleague Matt Perret, called – wait for it! – Booth manners.

10 thoughts on “Mind Your Manners!

  1. So true, but you learn most of these things working.
    I agree in the not-touching the console, microphone or anything in the other interpreter´s area. I worked with an interpreter that was constantly waving his hand in front of me, touching the console and moving around my papers…impossible to concentrate with all that going on.
    I tend to eat my snacks outside or I hide behind the desk (and sometimes that is quite complicated)

    • The things that we poor interpreters have to put up with …

      I find it’s usually possible to sneak emergency bites of energy food from a stash hidden under the desk (or just step out of the booth a moment to recharge on both calories and oxygen-rich air). 😉

  2. Thank you so much for this interesting and informative post! I got a major telling-off from my teachers for ‘crowding’ my boothmate during an assignment, instead of letting her ask for help when she needed it. Needless to say, I was really embarrassed. I’ve learnt my lesson!

  3. In my experience, limited though it is, I have come to realise that, surprisingly enough, interpreters with much more experience than myself tend to do exactly the OPPOSITE as we were instructed to when we were students… Not to mention how awkward it is when some of those used to be your teachers… Fortunately those cases are more the exception than the rule.

    Just as an anecdote, I will never forget that one of my colleagues at uni long time ago once turned my mic OFF because “I had said something wrong”. You can imagine how I felt, I guess!

    • Talk about censorship! That’s big no-no.

      I think if you hear your colleague make a mistake that can be rectified quite easily, it’s best to note it down on a piece of paper and then put the paper where they can see it. They’ll find the right moment to glance over, and if possible work the correction into their delivery.

      If it’s not so urgent, there are many ways to tactfully raise the error later, during a break or between turns. “I’d never heard that translation for X, I usually say Y” is one way to point something out while allowing your colleague to save face ;).

      The best situation, however, is one where you can speak frankly with colleagues about the task at hand, and are able to give your comments while being equally open to hearing what they have to say to you! It’s useful to invest a little time in establishing a working rapport with your colleagues at the start of a job – having a friendly atmosphere in the booth will make everyone’s life easier when the going gets tough!

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  5. So far I have burst into laughter twice while my colleagues in the booth (mis concabinos) were interpreting, and I still have to figure out how not to repeat this. It was not due to their making mistakes, quite to the contrary – in both occasions the speakers were just mumbling nervously and the other interpreter was doing a great job making some sense out of that gibberish. But in both occasions it was getting just too surreal and I didn’t manage to rush out of the booth quietly. (Sigh!)

    • Thanks for the comment, Ramón. As a matter of fact, we were discussing giggle fits in class just the other day. They are not easy to deal with – especially when all three interpreters get the giggles at the same time (which is inevitably what happens!). One student suggested trying to think of dead bunnies until the giggles passed. What do you say, would it have worked for you?

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