An Interpreter’s Softest Skill: Flexibility

What do you think is the most important skill a conference interpreter learns through experience and not at university?

Punctuality? Well, that’s a skill we learn at university. Let’s remember the age-old mantra repeated by almost every professor in conference interpreting departments: “Everyone else can be late for a meeting, including the speakers. The meeting will start somehow. But if the interpreter is late, then everyone has to wait”.

How about curiosity? That’s also taught at university. Exposure to different topics is the backbone of our training: You switch from one topic to another so fast that you learn how to remain curious and be a jack of all trades. That’s why we have no problem switching between different topics and terminologies.

There is in fact one skill that we, conference interpreters, use and cherish on a daily basis which is not taught at university: flexibility. We know what you think; most people believe that interpreters are usually stuck in a booth placed in a corner in a conference room. This is of course an important part of what we do. But it is, after all, only a part of it. Conference interpreters work in all kinds of environments some of which may not be so obvious.

Let’s look some of the places we have interpreted at so far: – iron and steel plants with boilers heating up to 1600 degrees
– cattle barns of food companies
– vaccine production facilities for medical verifications
– royal palaces to accompany heads of state in official functions
– discos for product launches
– forensic psychiatric prisons during human rights observation missions
– dog farms for search and rescue trainings During these mission, we have had to wear protective gear, fly in helicopters, be accompanied by private security guards… And sometimes we have had to pick colleagues who don’t have a fear of heights.

Interpreters can find themselves in all kinds of environments but their mission does not change: to ensure smooth and accurate communication between the parties involved. This requires the interpreters to make people feel like everyone speaks the same language and to help them forget that there is interpretation. Therefore, it’s key to work with professional interpreters who would not hesitate to turn down assignments on topics they are competent in. Perhaps more importantly, it’s key to work with flexible interpreters who can adapt to every situation.