Off mic with Phil Smith: Work life imbalance

My children are able to list my faults without pausing for breath. High on the list come my poor jokes.

With the unflinching eyes of youth, my children are able to list my faults without pausing for breath. High on the list come my poor jokes. I know, it’s hard to believe that my rib-crackers don’t find universal favour, but at least I can still use ageing material on colleagues. Next time we’re working together buy me a drink and I’ll run through a couple of the old routines, it’s good for me to keep my hand it. And I get thirsty.

I also fall down in parenting terms when I can’t answer simple questions like “what’s for dinner” after a week in Luxembourg, or “what have you done with my football shirt” when calling from a different time zone. Our children do suffer, the poor wee mites.

Another serious shortcoming is my inability to remember who is singing which song on the radio. I do try, honest. But it just doesn’t stick any more, which is a shock to someone like me who in his youth was an avid reader of New Musical Express and who remembers the days when groups plugged in their electric guitars. Au revoir street cred.

Where was I?

Ah yes. The priceless treasures. Some of the tricks of our trade come in useful when keeping the blighters in check. The little darlings still haven’t understood that we can listen and talk at the same time, so while ever-loving-spouse and I are discussing whether we’ve run out of breakfast cereal or whose turn it is to worm the cat, we can also follow young Jasper’s plans to invite round everyone in the school for a party next weekend when we’re away learning how to paraglide in Wales. The children are completely unnerved when they discover we know their plans.

Do we bring other work routines or skills home with us?

I once tried convincing my better half that we should only talk in half hour slots, as I’d planned to use her allotted 30 minutes to match up all my socks. It didn’t work though. She rejected the idea, and managed to tell me why in under thirty minutes.

Not all my borrowings from the world of interpreting have been as successful.

Innate mawkishness has more than once caused me to bring home a CD of music that had been tearfully explained to me as expressing the yearning of a mountain people who eke out their existence in some inhospitable terrain. I ask at home for respectful hush as I play it, only to be confronted with the reality of its sheer dreadfulness. And it had sounded so good in Ponchoperdido. But then which of us has not proudly uncorked a bottle of herbal brandy, only to realise once we get it home that it tastes like fermenting compost? Come clean, we’ve all done it. My particular triumph was a heady brew of apricots and stinging nettles. You’re welcome to a refreshing swig next time you’re at our house.

Another thing we tend to do amongst ourselves but which doesn’t work at home, is mixing languages. Clearly you can get away with it with colleagues, but back home it isn’t such a good idea to start telling a joke and realise half way through that the punch line only works in German.

We all know that the languages we have learned contain some phrases or sayings which are neater, pithier or simply funnier than those in our own language. With interpreters you can let rip. With non-interpreters they just think you’re showing off. So take care with those wise maxims used by the Cockaleeky tribe of the Western Isles.

I’ve been working up to this but now it’s confession time. I finish other people’s sentences for them. Not an attractive habit, is it? I know it’s partly their fault for diddling around, but they still don’t like it. I put this all down to my having been schooled in the art of anticipation. We don’t always know where a speaker is heading but as we’re trained to read the signs we can usually make a pretty fair guess. I was always taught to speak in complete sentences in the booth – not at all easy when you’re a beginner but something I’ve recently got the hang of. So combine an acute sense of anticipation with an aversion to unfinished sentences, and you get this compunction to go around tidying up sloppy speech. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

A recent exchange with a colleague illustrates the point:

She: Stop finishing my sentences, I’ve told…
Me: Well you were dithering.
She: No, it was a work in progress.

One of the children brought the subject up a couple of weeks ago because his friends had told him to stop finishing their sentences for them. “It’s because your dad does it,” they’d said. I was so proud, passing on these traditions to the next generation.

What about the rest of you? What have you brought home from the exhilarating and stylish world of conference interpreting that’s subsequently come crashing to earth?

You may well feel better if you come clean using the Comment facility. And don’t worry. This website is only read by people who are AIIC officers (it’s part of the job description) or insomniacs. Your secret will be safe with me.

Phil Smith is a UK-based freelance currently recovering from some dandelion and oak bark schnapps to the sound of Bavarian throat warbling.

Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH. "Off mic with Phil Smith: Work life imbalance". May 24, 2005. Accessed May 28, 2020. <>.


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Phil Smith


Great story Daniel.

When our oldest (now 24) was small she had a play phone. One day we overheard her saying "Yes, you want me to come to a meeting..."

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Daniel Glon


Salut Phil,

Je ne suis pas insomniaque mais j'avais du temps à perdre, alors ..

A propos de l'emprise du métier d'interprète sur la vie privée, quand mon fils avait environ 4 ans il s'identifiait bien évidemment à moi, son modèle. Il savait que j'étais "interprète de conférence" (il insistait pour dire ces 3 mots), mais il ne savait pas ce que c'était, ne m'ayant jamais vu à l'oeuvre (comme interpréter un Népalais incompréhensible sans les écouteurs .. rings a bell?). Un jour où armé d'une pelle, d'une brouette et de ciment je construisais un mur, et où il avait bien évidemment pris sa brouette et sa pelle en plastique pour faire de même, un ami venu me rendre visite lui demande: "qu'est-ce que tu es en train de faire?". La réponse a fusé: "je fais l'interprète de conférence".

Dur métier que le nôtre!

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Bertold Schmitt


Dear Phil, How good it is to regularly read your prose… And yes, I guess I can understand your status as a misunderstood provider of multicultural linguistic challenges to your poor central England Anglo-Saxon family… I also see your point when you mention the people you upset with your ubiquitous hearing… And I also feel with you as a finisher of unfinished sentences (By the way, Michael also does this)…

Yet the goodies we bring back are not always that bad… Ann loved the kimono I got in Kyoto, the children are always keen to discover the miniature monuments from the places I've visited and they recently loved the fluffy black NRG4SD crow that I brought back from Indonesia…

Of course, I also brought home the ugly cup from Seoul, which our Korean cleaning lady loved though. I was also the carrier of the stunning tee shirt that Ann decided to wear when she does the gardening, the inaudible DVD with indigenous music from a place I cannot even remember and the CD with trade data from Aceh before the Tsunami struck…

Being a hunter gatherer by nature, and having small children probably helps, as they still seem to admire what I do. I cannot stop myself from providing the family with all the fabulous niceties conference organisers leave in our hotel rooms or with the 167th piece of hotel soap… Fortunately I also share the house with a wonderful woman who has excellent taste, apart when choosing her partner, and who manages to rid the household of all the unnecessary items that are mindlessly left somewhere in the house for nobody to remember…

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Anne Miles


I too have brought back mournful gypsy music which I thought was wonderful but the family certainly didn't agree.

However, my greatest (genuine)success was with one of those free gifts you are given in your hotel room by the host government: an ashtray with a picture of an endangered lizard on the top. I just happen to have a colleague who smokes like a chimney and is heavily into newts, etc, so I took this back to him. Can you believe it, he actually knew what country this lizard was from and its name before I even explained?! We were both delighted.

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