Plane talking

OK - you've heard about the demanding work of a conference interpreter and all the preparations that go into it. But what happens after the conference is over? What does the typical freelancer think a

Some people like to chat on planes and others keep themselves to themselves. And you? Are you a conversationalist when flying, or do you bury your nose in a whodunit or catch up on your mission statements? Observation has taught me that people are more outgoing when they are flying home; this sociability increases towards the end of the week as people return home having attended their meeting or signed their contract.

There are certain rules to striking up an airborne conversation, and the result puts me in mind of those language primers we all remember and love.

It usually starts on neutral ground. In both senses perhaps, if you talk before take off. Here's a kind of worked example. For starters: "Only 40 minutes late". Or "full tonight".

If the other person is up for a conversation they'll come back with a suitable rejoinder "Hope my bag makes it" or "ATC likes to do their Christmas shopping this time of year". The experts call this phatic communication because you are just establishing some genial common ground; it is not designed to convey a significant message. At least you hope it isn't. We've all been stuck next to professional raconteurs of airline woe, and quite frankly other people's lost luggage/missed flights are boring. Except my recent experiences, of course. Full details and signed photograph of me with baggage tracing chart on request.

The next conversational stage is to check where you are each going. Of course you know where the plane's going, but may be flying to, say, New York, although your final destination is Spitsville. There are other important details to get straight. Will you drive home or will your ever-loving spouse be picking you up? Such are the minutiae of the frequent traveller's life.

The time has come to snick up into a conversational higher gear and get onto the serious stuff. "So, what line of work are you in?" The people I talk to on planes are usually computer experts or involved in the car business one way or another. Something tangible. It is interesting to see the reactions interpreters get when say what their challenging and testing work is.

Once you have come clean you are now at a juncture. Or do I mean junction? Whatever. At this point your neighbour could entirely lose interest in your job. Subtle signs include an attempt to steer you back towards the world of, say, windscreen washers or his picking up a book. But sometimes they want to know more.

Here are some of the things people say:

- "I thought you had to be foreign".
"Were you brought up bilingual?"
"You must be really clever to do that job".

Don't deny it. Try a slightly deprecating wave of the hands as if this idea had never occurred to you before.

- "I met some interpreters once".

What though? Interpreters at work or socially? A discreet affair perhaps? Any chance of some blessed gossip?

- "Well," I say "I expect I know them. It's a small world, ha-ha. One big happy family".
- "Began with an eff"
- "Ah. The incomparable Pietro Farrelli"
- "No, he wasn't Welsh. But you're getting there"
- "Well what languages did he have"?
- "Oh. All of them"
- "Pedro Arenas then"
- "That rings a bell. He was at the meeting but spent most of it buying wine".
- "Charlie Chimichanga perhaps"
- "Maybe. It was a meeting about the merchandising of fish tanks"
- "Oh, yeah, I heard about the fish tank meeting. Lots of breakout sessions with different teams. Successful was it?"
- "Well guppies are through the roof this year thanks to certain habit enhancement techniques we picked up at the meeting. It was in Spain"
- "Yes, in Poncho Perdido wasn't it?"
- "You heard about the meeting?"

Etched on the heart, you might say. How dare they hold a big meeting with zillions of interpreters and not take me! Could a man complaining about not being offered a meeting on ornamental fish said to be carping? Be cool in this hour of stress.

- "I heard it rained and you all got food poisoning".
- "No it was brilliant and we all put on weight."

Rats! Next time I'm going to read my book.

Phil Smith is a very frequent flyer and a member of AIIC.
Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH. "Plane talking". October 12, 2000. Accessed May 31, 2020. <>.

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tosaj, maria


What a wonderful sense of humour you have! I always enjoy reading your material. If there were more people like you, life would be grand!

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Haide Spaeth


Charming and witty as usual. I always enjoyed your stories about aiic-meetings, etc., and kept many of them, but unfortunately not all. Hope you will publish them as a collection in a near future. They remind me that our professional life is very amusing, if one is able to see it the right - the humorous, your way! Thank you for it.

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Helen Schneider


Yes, I recall reading Phil's most enjoyable accounts of AIIC assemblies. I had begun to think that they were a figment of my overwrought imagination. And then this article appears and I discover that Phil is still out there and could well become the Bill Bryson of the interpreting world. Keep up the good work, Phil. If things don't work out in the booth, you could always try talking to The Independent...

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nathalie pham


I enjoyed reading your story Phil

merci pour ton humour

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P. Farrell


Welcome back Phil!

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Anna Balaguer


Thanks for your vision of the lighter side of the interpreting life. It's a relief. So many interpreters take themselves and their lifestyles way too seriously.

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Vera Futscher Pereira


I really enjoyed this article.Funny,short,well done!I remembered the name of the author well from the extremely funny minutes of some meeting that were published in the aiic bulletin a long time ago.This kind of stuff is a real bonus for the readers of "Communicate".

Best wishes

Vera Futscher Pereira

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