Alexandre and James, interpreters

Tennis players and umpires, actors and directors, interpreters and event organisers – perhaps three of the most explosive working relationships out there, notorious for their volatility. How many times has a tennis player thrown down his racket at an umpire’s decision, an actor ripped up his script in front of a demanding director or an interpreter slammed down his empty water bottle at an organiser’s incompetence?

Since the dawn of eventing, organisers have found interpreters to be difficult customers. Having set up a booth, installed a HiFi system at great cost, handed out headsets to conference attendees and repeatedly tested the system in the control room, organisers have little patience for interpreters who still have complaints on the day. Nonetheless, interpreters have to perform high pressure live translation work and so require certain conditions – functional headsets, water, no distracting background noise and a comfortable space to work in, considering they spend all day in a tiny booth. Yet interpreters still seem to come off worse and have acquired a reputation for being divas. Are interpreters really complaining for nothing, though? To bring some clarity to both sides of the clash, we spoke to the two professionals themselves; a director of an event organisation company, and our very own James Anderson, interpreter and co-founder of Linguali.

Event Organiser:

When there is live interpreting at one of your events, do you have a strategy for ensuring that the interpretation will run smoothly?

Choosing recommended interpreters with good references and who have a good understanding of the themes of the conference.

Arranging meetings with all the interpreters beforehand and giving them a comprehensive written mission brief.

Sending them keynotes for prior preparation.

To have a reference interpreter for the event, who is in charge of the team of interpreters. That way we can efficiently pass information to the team through just one person on the day.

Establish an accurate quote ahead of time with travel allowances and registration fees

Respect the regulatory framework of the profession (working hours, expenses, registration fees)

What is your experience of working with interpreters?

For the most part, our experience of working with interpreters has been positive. The negative experiences are often linked to the interpretation itself; when the interpreter misunderstands the exact meaning of the speaker and conveys the incorrect message to the listeners. Beyond a good mastery of the language, a technical understanding of the subject is necessary for a good translation of the speakers.

Are you sympathetic when interpreters cause a fuss on the day?

Mostly, when an interpreter complains it’s because we have not respected their initial request; that’s why we try to prepare for their requests as much in advance as possible. The diva-ish whims are because of the personality of the interpreter, and are not linked to the profession in general – the job is highly regulated, but sometimes there are those who abuse that.

Have you ever had a particularly bad experience with managing interpretation at a conference?

Yes, we had one terrible experience once, due to poor working conditions: complaints about noise, heat…

James Anderson, Interpreter:

What conditions do interpreters need in order to work efficiently at a conference event?

More than anything, interpreters need to be able to concentrate – trying to keep up with the pace of a speaker, capturing their tone and humour, and sometimes having to deal with difficulties such as mumbling, unclear or nervous speakers and translating all that into another language, is challenging work. Any background noise will interfere with the high level of concentration required for interpreting. This is why we absolutely need booths – booths which are sound-proof and have a silent ventilation system. This is not something which can be skimped on by organisers. A professional conference interpreter is always well-prepared, sometimes taking days to prepare all the knowledge which might be required for one session. It is more than disappointing when the conditions at a conference haven’t been given enough attention and our work is affected due to the poor working environment. In order to maintain this high level of concentration without the slightest flicker of fatigue or distraction for up to three hours at a time, we need to be physically and mentally robust. We need to be able to drink water from our work station as we aren’t able to just get up and wander over to the water dispenser. Rooms that are too hot/freezing, do not have enough light or a clear view of the speakers are also not acceptable working conditions for stressful, high-precision work. To provide consistent, quality interpretation, interpreters need to rest from time to time – one interpreter should not have to work more than two 3-hour sessions a day, which should be separated by a break of at least 90 minutes. These are the basic conditions that we expect; for the full document of conditions required for interpreters, see the AIIC website.

What were the worst working conditions you’ve had to put up with at a conference?

Once we were given bidules to work with in an amphitheatre with no booth (happens often too!)

Do you think it’s fair that interpreters are sometimes criticized for being divas?

Sometimes it is a fair criticism yes, although often they are perceived as being divas because non-interpreters do not understand how difficult the job is and how easily and interpreter can be disturbed. Their main concern is doing the best possible job; they don’t enjoy moaning. Well not all of them anyway.


Any conference event is pulled off with a lot of stress and pressure behind the scenes, as there are so many factors to bring together perfectly in order to succeed. Here at Linguali, we understand the pressures on an event organiser, as well as the high level of work demanded of an interpreter. It’s easy to see how the clash comes about. The interpreter’s complaints are indeed justified, as when an interpreter is given the required working conditions by an organiser who truly understands their needs, they will perform excellently; a high level of interpreting will in turn be a reward to the event organiser.

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