Being prepared

This month Phil Smith plants his feet on the ground, his chin on his fist and his eyes on the past to explain to us the arcane relationships between scouting and conference interpreting.

In my early days in the job, just a few short years ago, I would consult experienced colleagues to discover how to become a good interpreter. Some of the answers were opaque: "Interpreters are born not made". Some veterans said that you needed at least one Hungarian grandparent to be a successful interpreter. Other colleagues had practical suggestions: fresh air, high protein intake, regular sex and preparation.

It's preparation I want to talk about today. I know, you were hoping for the protein option, but this is a serious publication. Preparation points towards a solid, both-feet-on-the-ground approach to the job. After all I had been a cub and a scout in my youth and was constantly prepared. You had to promise to do your duty to God and the Queen and to be prepared. I think it involved carrying a penknife and lacing your shoes in a special way. Nothing ever happened, but I was prepared. So you can see that the fine and noble art of preparation is in my blood, and it's a kissing cousin of the allied skill of making lists. Proper preparation calls for a list. This is a family trait because I come from a long line of list-makers. I think my Pa listed for Britain.

This brings me back to last year's events. Old Thingy rang about a terrific conference. European business leaders were meeting in a beautiful and probably haunted stately home set amid rolling countryside, and I seem to recall a babbling brook was part of the deal. You get the picture. There would be tons of languages, heaps of breakout sessions, good food, a fitness centre. In short, one of those conferences you don't tell your family about in too much detail.

"But remember," said Thingy at his most officious, "You must prepare".

The next day a 50-page book arrived setting out the conference agenda and objectives. This was followed two days later by a two-page mission statement in five languages. I'm a real sucker for a well-turned mission statement, they're just so 90s. I can spend hours in a happy world of my own comparing versions in five languages for deviation, hyperbole, deep structure, surface structure, bathos, anacoluthon, zeugma, digression, loophole and solecism. Or is that Spanish for sunstroke? Anyway, the next day our cheery postman brought a 75-page book containing the Association's constitution, rules of procedure and byelaws. This came in three languages.

The paper in my office had reached critical mass, so I needed to get to work.

"I'm not to be disturbed", I announce at breakfast to my family (you can tell it's breakfast because the floor crunches when you walk across it. Later in the day it's simply sticky). They looked stunned, but then I was shaved and dressed by nine.

To work. I sit down and start reading. Chapter I, Section I, Part I. I read steadily until I arrive at the section on the voluntary dissolution of the association in the event of an asteroid shower. I realise I'm dealing with professionals - they have thought of everything.

Next up are the agenda and objectives. This is straightforward. Participants want to exchange ideas and improve their business. The event will start with a get-to-know-you cocktail and there will be ample opportunity to network. So that's the interpreters sorted, ha-ha.

The mission statement is a work of art. Their aim is to be the best at what they do. They want to become a household name in every Finnish sauna and every central Asian yurt. The document is professional and polished. It's a mission statement to hang your hat on.

I am so pleased with my progress I ring Thingy to tell him I'm well up on the game. "Wait a minute," he says, "you've got all the speeches and country statements to come yet". He also tells me that an American academic will be travelling across the herring pond just to challenge some of the sector's basic assumptions and that I can download his closely argued paper at the website of Yankdebunk.Inc. So, not out of the woods yet.

Next day a courier arrives with two boxes, the sort you transport wine in. It's the speeches. This calls for the application of some serious ergonomic theory. I line the documents up, make a list, read, make a drink, read, spring clean my desk tidy, read, go for a short walk, read, stare out of the window, read, pay the milkman, read, talk to the window cleaner, read, observe how sycamore seeds twirl to the ground like little helicopters.

I decide to try the Internet so I can download the speech Thingy told me about. I get one of those strange messages: "This computer has just committed a lewd act and will now hand itself in to the police". We do a double reboot, one for the computer and one for me.

The file I want to download is the size of a small town, and my computer is not happy. It sends me another message: "This is an unknown file. It might have a virus, bacterial infection or herpes. It could have been written by a madman".

I can't ignore my computer when it has turned so garrulous. I ring Thingy and tell him my qualms about downloading the file. He tells me not to worry, as the American speaker is not coming because he's found a bigger and more lucrative bubble to burst in Munich.

Another thought strikes me. How will I get all the documents to the meeting? Just lifting it will mean risking a hernia. A man has to be careful when he reaches, er, 30. I will simply have to open negotiations with my ever-loving spouse to have the car the week of the meeting. Subtlety's the name of the game. "Shall I make you a cup of tea, my little flower?" I warble to the ELS. She puts down her welding torch, "And what are you after"?

Well finally the meeting day comes. Is there such a thing as reader's block? I think I must have it, well either that or housemaid's knee. ELS let me have the car after I'd promised she could watch the American wrestling on cable next week. Well it's important to work off your aggression. Personally I'm a great believer in the transference school and my favourite coping technique for stress is to provide lousy relay. It transfers the stress beautifully.

So, as I was saying I loaded the car to transport the documents to the venue. I've read every document they've thrown at me. I've looked up the difficult words. I'm prepared. Did you get that? I'M PREPARED!!

Oh, the title of the meeting? The Paperless Office.

Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH. "Being prepared". November 23, 2000. Accessed July 6, 2020. <>.

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You made my day!


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Brigitte Schön


Phil, old sport, never had an idea you were one of us! I mean the "good deed - be prepared crowd"!

Since I've faced similar challenges as well in the past, I've noticed one thing: After a printout of 550something pages (you want them for your meeting, don't you? And who can read the stuff off the screen? It's normally tough enough on paper!), I have to get a new cartridge (black)for my Lexmark Z51. If they are being really fancy and add coloured graphs et al, I have to replace the colour cartridge as well. That amounts to a cool (roughly)100 Euro every time. And who exactly pays THAT? So I suggest we do some thinking on that front..

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Burckhard Doempke


Sadly I can't match your style, Phil, but let me tell you about a similar experience I had only last week.

Confirmation of next day's conference at 4 pm the day before. Any documents, agenda, minutes of past meeting? Answer: We'll send you the docs all the delegates received by e-mail immediately. And so they did. All 496 pages of it (reports on biochemical tests on a multitude of plants and animals)in various e-formats, some readable, some not (at least not on my computer). Result: several hours spent flicking and clicking but none the wiser and still not found the agenda. Diagnosis: information overload can kill.

Postscriptum: next morning all the same docs were lying in the booth, including the agenda. It turned out to be a high-level meeting, approving or not expenditure on project number so-and-so; none of the technical terms, plant, animal, or disease names were ever uttered.

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Jennifer Linkletter


I really enjoy these little glimpses into a conference interpreter's life. At age 19 I am trying to get a grasp on two languages besides my own, in hopes of one day pursuing a career in this field.

Although you guys often depict an almost impossible job, you still manage to describe it in a charming way. Keep the stories coming... and don't forget to add one with a happy ending once in a while.

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Nur Deriþ Ottoman


Thanks Phil, for providing the occasional chuckle.

Getting too much documentation before conferences can be a nuisance sometimes, I agree.

But what do you do when you are told there are no texts for a given conference and the day you arrive in the booth you see a pile of hyper-specialised texts?

This is the usual thing in this part of the world. Any suggestions to pressure conference organisers?

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Graeme Clive Hodgson


as a former cub and scout myself... I can certainly relate to the proposed relation between scouting and interpreting.

I wondered if such a witthy, amusing and eloquent writing style is achievable in five different languages...

Sadly, I doubt it! Keep up the good work, and keep sending the humorous reflections.

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