Off mic with Phil Smith: A Compendium

I am currently on my summer holidays, but that doesn’t mean that followers of The Interpreter Diaries shouldn’t have something to read, so I’ve decided to share with you a series of articles by another interpreter-writer.

“Off mic with Phil Smith” is a column written for Communicate!, the AIIC webzine. Phil Smith is a freelance conference interpreter and fellow AIIC member. In this column, he writes about just about anything, not only what he does for a living – although interpreting always manages to find its way into his articles somehow.

Phil’s articles aren’t written in the form of a blog, so unfortunately they are not all available in one place – until today, that is. After undertaking some extensive and painstaking research (actually, I just Googled “Off mic with Phil Smith”), I have put together this compendium of Phil’s articles for your enjoyment, all of which have been published in Communicate! over the last several years.

Happy reading!

Work life imbalance (summer 2005)

Relay race (September/October 2005)

Communication breakdown (November/December 2005)

Diary of a technologically novel assembly (February/March 2006)

Breakfast (May/June 2006)

A sense of loss (Summer 2006)

Looking the part (October/November 2006)

Booths (December 2006)

Private market forces (September 2007)

Little triggers (spring 2008)

Skin deep (Summer 2009)

Respect (fall 2009)

Ordem e Progresso (summer 2010)

Food for thought (fall 2010)

Franz Pöchhacker at the UPF

A few weeks ago, Franz Pöchhacker of the University of Vienna held a public lecture at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. My colleague at AIB, Mary Fons, was fortunate enough to be able to attend the lecture, and generously agreed to tweet the event using @AIBInterpretes.

Following the tweet report, there was a request that Mary publish a summary of the lecture for those who were not able to attend the talk. Since AIB doesn’t have a blog of its own (yet!), I offered to publish the report here on The Interpreter Diaries. So here it is! Thanks, Mary – and happy reading!


Franz Pöchhacker, Interpreter Studies: Evolution and State of the Art – 30 May 2011, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Pöchhacker was an engaging lecturer with a sense of humor. He managed to cover the history and present trends in the field of interpreter studies quite comprehensively in the relatively short time available.

 I, on the other hand, will be unable to give a good summary of his presentation (I suspect reading his book is probably best). We interpreters may be good at multitasking, but frankly, tweeting AND summarizing AND asking questions AND followup questions is a bit too extreme for me to handle. So all you’re going to get is what struck my fancy and some ensuing thoughts.

Just Do It

First, I liked this quote: “Our primary concern [as interpreters] is being able to do [the job], rather than make interpreting an academic study, but the two should go together.” The first half of the sentence is the part that made me want to cheer, but that’s probably because I wasn’t persevering enough to complete the research section of the excellent trainer training course run by Barbara Moser which I attended back in the 90s. I enjoy hearing about research, reading conclusions and sifting the evidence to see if I agree, but actually doing research myself, and doing it properly, is not the kind of hard work I seem to excel at, since interpreting itself with all its adjoining tasks (studying, invoicing, record keeping, networking…) keeps grabbing my attention.

Interpreters In Ancient Egypt

A historical tidbit to bring up in conversations – the title “Overseer of Dragomans” was used in 3000-year-old Egyptian documents (6th dynasty, for those of you in the know). This means that not only did interpreters exist – they must have been around for ages, however informally, whether mentioned or not – but they existed as some sort of profession and, moreover, overseeing their work warranted a lordly title. Chairing a meeting of interpreters these days has been unfavorably compared to herding cats, but it’s got to be easier when the interpreters are, in effect, your slaves or subjects – perhaps we should ask some of those agencies we all love to hate.

As an aside, I wonder what the overseeing was like… for some reason I keep imagining Python-esque or Les Luthiers-like scenes in which the interpreter is either mis-corrected, beaten up as the bearer of bad news or required to interpret increasingly disparaging statements about himself. (Yes, it’s typically a “he” in these sketches.)

Theory: A Definition

The meat and potatoes in the presentation was Pöchhacker’s description of modern theory and research, with a historical overview followed by a representation of paradigms. Most interesting was the proposed definition of interpreting – “a form of Translation [please note capitalization] in which a first and final rendition in another language is produced on the basis of a one-time presentation of an utterance in a source language”. It’s based on the ideas of Otto Kade and worded to include signed interpretation – and live subtitling, for that matter.

Still, some things fell between the cracks. As the speaker explained, the definition leaves out the “fake consecutive” or “simultaneous consecutive” technique that involves recording the speech and then doing simultaneous interpretation from the recorded version. (I’d be terrified to try this without backup note-taking, being all too familiar with equipment malfunction!) I also add upon further consideration that it leaves out those situations in which we are asked to interpret videos for which there is no script and, in order to accommodate the client, we watch them once or several times over in advance to get the typically fast-paced content straight and hopefully filter out background noise or music. Anyone who tries to tell me that’s not interpreting is picking a fight!

What To Study And How

Pochhacker is quite rightly of the school that “Interpreting is interpreting” but of course differences have to be acknowledged and accounted for. Different techniques, different settings and power structures, different technologies, different locations and different degrees of language relatedness (my addition) have a bearing on how we work, live and are assessed or assess ourselves for accuracy and ethics. We do well to use research to learn about issues we have never consciously come across and consider whether they should have a bearing at how we go about our work. (For instance, a video of a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.)

I really must bring this piece to a close, so I recommend reading Pöchhacker on the memes and paradigms that pervade interpreting studies. I do think it’s somewhat excessive to speak of paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense when referring to the different perspectives brought to bear in interpreting studies – sociological approaches do not cancel out neuropsychological ones, abandoning either would be a great disservice to the profession and to science, and they all use the methods of long-existing disciplines. Ultimately, the main thrust of the presentation is that ideally we interpreters should be aware of current research trends and findings obtained from many different perspectives and involving many different manifestations of interpreting.

Walking The Talk

We all love to theorize, expatiate, and recommend, and often neglect our own recommendations when our roles are shifted. For instance, I shocked myself by instinctively tapping on the mic before asking a question! All through the presentation, which lasted a couple of hours altogether, a student interpreter was slugging away in a tiny booth. Someone tweeted that I should relieve her, but I didn’t see that tweet until later and it never occurred to me to step in that way, as her teachers were in the room. However, in hindsight I realize that I should have commented on the matter. After all, unless this was done deliberately as part of some interpret-till-you-drop-and-check-results research project, we do know it’s not a good idea to keep interpreting simultaneously for hours on end, and having students do it is probably a mistake on many levels. My midsummer resolution will be to point out this sort of situation in the future whenever I’m among the audience and not in the booth – especially when the interpreters are students.


Mary Fons is a Barcelona-based conference interpreter, member of AIIC and one of the founding members of AIB. She is a regular contributor to Communicate!, the AIIC webzine.  

A Blog is Born

Angels, Devils

This is how the internal monologue went (picture the little angel on the shoulder): “You know, you really should start a blog. You’re into new media, you like communicating, you have plenty of views to share with the world – and hey, with all the time you spend waiting around in airport lounges, you have plenty of time to write!”

Then came the first objections (from the little devil this time): “Sure, I like new media and the social networks, and appreciate what they can do to spread messages and build community. But there’s a big leap from occasional tweeting and Facebook posting to becoming a bone fide blogger. And anyway, with so many illustrious, insightful bloggers such as Bootheando and In my words already on the scene, what could I possibly contribute to the debate?”

“You know,” continued the angel (or was it the devil? At this point it became a bit confusing), “Why don’t you just give it a shot? At the very worst, nobody will read your posts but your Aunt Trudy* back on the ranch. But you never know, maybe some misguided soul out there will appreciate what you have to say. And one way or another, you’ll finally be able to relieve that pent-up urge to shout your message out to the world!”

The decision to launch a blog having thus been taken, I naïvely thought the hard bit was over. But no, it had only begun! The whole blogging experience is proving reminiscent of pregnancy and childbirth: you spend nine months worrying about what those eight or so hours of childbirth will be like, and completely overlook the fact that the real work starts when that bundle of joy comes home and you suddenly realize you have a very long, very tiring eighteen years of child-raising ahead of you (or more, if you are a Spanish mother who can’t bear to kick her kids out when they come of age).

But I digress – those of you who decided to read a blog named The Interpreter Diaries almost certainly did not do so because you wanted to hear about the joys of motherhood.

What’s in a name?

Yes, the name – that was the next hard bit. What should I call my brand spanking new blog?

At this point I almost gave up again, the path already being so well-trodden by aforementioned illustrious, insightful, not to mention cleverly named blogs. And it’s not just blogs: Off Mic with Phil Smith, not officially a blog but a regular contribution to AIIC’s newsletter Communicate!, already offers entertaining insights into the world of interpreting. Interpreting has even been done in cartoons, as those who are familiar with the work of Benoît Clicquet (AKA Clic!) will know.

But no, I was stuck with it. I had decided to write a blog, and those who know me personally will be aware that once I’ve decided to do something, there is no talking me out of it. So I had to find a name and a voice for my blog and get on with it already.

That’s how The Interpreter Diaries was born.

Fine, you got your blog. So what’s it going to be about?

Good question. Interpreters tend to have many and varied interests and be involved in a wide range of professional activities, and I am no exception. This blog will reflect that.

The Interpreter Diaries will be about my conference interpreting at the European Institutions and on the private market in Spain. It will explore the ins and outs of my consultant interpreting for AIB, the Barcelona-based interpreting secretariat of which I am a partner. It will be about AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters, and its core messages of quality standards and professional ethics. It will also be about my work over the years as an instructor on the Master’s in Conference Interpreting and the Post-Graduate Diploma in Public Service Interpreting at the University of La Laguna.

The Interpreter Diaries will not be about translation, although I do some of that as well – again, there are so many good translator blogs out there, and I had to draw the line somewhere. However, it will undoubtedly have its bit to say about business travel (a necessary evil in the life of any interpreter), learning languages, and possibly many more things that escape me now but which my little angel and devil, and hopefully my readers, will be sure to bring to my attention.

But I see I have exceeded the maximum word length recommended for blog posts (curse all those online how-to guides for cutting me short just when I was getting started!).

So I will end this first post, thank Aunt Trudy and anyone else who may have made it this far, and say I hope to see you again here soon!

* I really do have an Aunt Trudy, she really does live on a ranch, and she is my friend on Facebook, so she might well be reading this – Hi, Auntie!