Note: this video was recorded just a few weeks before covid happened, and even to me, it feels like a different planet, partly since it was in a context where meeting preparation could still be considered a (relatively) burning issue in conference interpreting. This is sadly not the case at the moment, but hopefully calmer times will come and we will be able to concentrate again on the really essential issues of the job we do. (Though if you think about it… could it be we’ve all brushed aside the basics of the profession a bit too much these last twelve months – and wouldn’t they very much deserve our renewed attention? If nothing else, they’re part of the fun of the job!)
Preparation is an essential part of the job of conference interpreter. This cannot be repeated enough. At the same time, the concept of “meeting preparation” is all too easily simplified to: I will make a long list of words as a glossary, or: I will read all the documents they send me in advance. Which is of course fundamental – but meeting preparation is not just about that. By all means, always, always prepare the documents, the vocabulary. The more thoroughly you do this, especially when you’re starting off in the profession, the better you will get at it over time. In fact, thorough preparation for one specific meeting can double up as preparation for many more. For my very first interpreting contract I literally spent a whole working week preparing. It was just a one-day meeting of one specific trade union, but apart from the documents available, I read up as much as I could on things like collective agreement traditions around Europe; I also made a long glossary, a very general one (well beyond the official documents), that I then used for years in many other trade union meetings, and kept updating.
So meeting documents is often where you’ll start, but they’re also not enough. Conversely, not receiving a full set of documents is no excuse not to prepare: it is arguably even more important then, since you know a lot less about what to expect. If all you have is an agenda, try googling each point, find out about the people and organisations involved. Cut and paste in different ways, combine different keywords, Boolean symbols, just google anything and everything, even if you initially feel lost: the chances are that one thing will lead you to another and you will hit on something close to what will come up, and you’ll be boosting your searching skills at the same time. If all you have is a title, the same applies. You must be selective: although there is far too much information online and much will be irrelevant, that’s no excuse not to try. Through trial and error and practice, it will get easier over time, and increasingly useful. Quickly and accurately hitting on what is relevant is a key skill to develop as an interpreter! This applies not just before a meeting, but also once it has started, such as to cover new points or to help out a colleague, and there speed is the key. In the Uyghur example I describe in the video, we managed to save the day as a team by quickly launching a very specific search based on what we had phonetically heard combined with keywords from the context it had come up in: and lo and behold, the second or third result gave us the answer.
At the same time, nobody knows what will come up when, so you shouldn’t disregard the seemingly irrelevant either: maybe that interesting issue that you found out a month ago and that turned out not to come up then will be unexpectedly useful in your meeting today. Preparation in its widest sense is based on general knowledge, acquired even years before you even set foot in a booth, that further and further expands over time. I remember a meeting where the name “Dreyfus” was mentioned so totally out of context that it would have been easy to miss (and probably needed three sentences as a translation, as it carried so, so much more meaning than a mere surname). And even the totally random and apparently useless facts and information that so many of us interpreters take great pleasure in can, and do, come in handy in the most unexpected contexts. This knowledge can be explicit or implicit, or even simply stuff that catches your attention but that is not knowledge in the strict sense of the word. We cover so many different subjects without being experts at anything, and that’s fine: it is all useful for the job. As in the Somalia/Somaliland example: all these little things we know or kind of know can and do help us identify what to look out for while listening (or indeed while preparing), which is essential for understanding the speakers.
Understanding how different types of meetings “work” is also acquired over time, through experience and attention; asking experienced colleagues is a perfect place to start. Being familiar with meeting dynamics and procedure in general will not just give you pointers as to how to select the relative importance you give to each document in your dossier or to each issue on the agenda: more importantly, it can also mean the difference between understanding what the speaker is trying to get at or rather feeling a bit lost even if there are no difficult words anywhere. Yes, this can and does happen and can be very confusing, but it’s simply proof that words are not (or not all) what interpreting is about: there’s a whole communication setting that you need to get if you are to mediate well amongst participants, and proper preparation helps – including following the meeting attentively, of course. If you’ve prepared and followed well, you might find yourself understanding the point even when you don’t actually know all the words!
The more you know what to expect before you step into the booth, the better job you will do. Every morning I start my day with a newsletter on European current affairs, which means I keep up with things that can and do come up at any time (you never know what will be useful when, etc), and also that I find out what’s happening that day – I remember a meeting once started with the off-the-agenda topic of “the Danish referendum today” and how I was so, so relieved that I had read a paragraph about it over coffee! Football results are also a classic example of initial small talk, and something all interpreters should follow. In the video I also describe how I’ve been reading a quality weekly for almost twenty years. It is very much meeting preparation: not just because important current events will most certainly come up the following week, but also because over time, this builds up general knowledge and the understanding of the issues at stake and the logic behind them – as in the financial section and economic committee example. But at the same time, it’s not just work: I read about these things because it’s what I’ve always done, I enjoy it, I just pick the articles that catch my eye. Indeed, discovering the profession of conference interpreting was a stroke of luck for me: I not just fell in love with the activity itself, I even finally found a purpose for all the random knowledge that I had been gathering for years, for all those books and literature and science and art, for the travelling and the languages…
And that’s what it’s all about, to me. An insatiable curiosity, loving to be an interpreter, aiming to excel at the job… Interpreting is just so much fun, preparing for meetings and learning random stuff is just so much fun, and when they both come together you’re much more likely to get that fuzzy feeling that you’re doing a good job. Enjoy!
Isabel PAYNO JIMÉNEZ-UGARTE is a conference interpreter in the Spanish booth at the European Parliament