Readers' letters

This selection may be on the imaginative side but entertainment is a proven form of language enhancement.

Authors' Preface

AIIC is recognised throughout the world as the expert in all matters relating to conference interpreting. Not a day goes by without the office in Geneva providing guidance, advice and, occasionally, some soothing human sympathy.

AIIC has allowed two of its archivists a peep into the postbag. Our findings deserve a wider audience for they afford us all a deep insight into the pressures that surround people at the pinnacle of their profession.

We have maintained the anonymity of the writers, but have striven to present a representative cross-section of the issues facing us as we enter the 21st century.

Dear AIIC,

I recently travelled all the way to Iceland, only to find my delegates spoke perfect English. I'm a busy man and have better things to do. Please advise. A Colleague.

Reply: Did they pay you?

Dear Aunty AIIC,

Last week I had to spend three days in the booth with a colleague who suffers from extreme body odour. Trouble is, he's a close friend of the Chief Interpreter.

Yours with nose-clip.

Reply: In these delicate circumstances you could perhaps use air freshener and say you need it for your hay fever. Such sprays now come in an exciting range of April-fresh fragrances.

Dear AIIC,

A local organiser, Julian van Grope, has asked me to work at a two-week meeting in Tahiti, but I have none of the conference languages. I am a bit concerned. Fifi

Reply: Dear Fifi, try and establish van Grope's true feelings towards you before you commit yourself.

Dear Geneva,

At an interpreter dinner the other night, colleagues chatted amongst themselves during my "how-I-saved-the-meeting" routine. Is there no respect any more?

Reply: Colleagues need to relax after work, so next time, try to wait until post-prandial mellowness descends.


I have been spending alternate weekends in Santander; however a colleague has it in for me and won't sign for my Spanish "C". This is a blatant case of double standards because I had no trouble with Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian and Danish.

Reply: It is difficult when our hard work goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Do not give up. However are you quite sure you have spent enough weekends in Santander for your Spanish to be really solid?

Dear Colleagues.

Our booths simply aren't big enough. I have five newspapers, 2 magazines, my laptop and my basked weaving kit in this confined space. And I keep losing the microphone. What is the use of the AIIC technical committee? Yours incommunicado...

Reply: The Technical Committee needs your input. Keep up the good work.

Dear AIIC,

Today the speakers were much too fast. I tried to help by banging on the window and I sent the team leader to remind them at least three times per hour, but it did no good. During the coffee break I made a witty remark to the keynote speakers saying he may well be an eminent surgeon, but he's a dismal speaker. The organiser has now said they do not want me at next year's congress. What is AIIC going to do about it?

Reply: it is difficult when your best intentions are misunderstood and we must realise that some organisers are touchier than others. Should a similar occasion arise in the future, I would suggest a quiet word in the organiser's ear.

Dear AIIC,

I want to join AIIC please. I speak 15 languages fluently and have modest expectations. I also have an excellent knowledge of the European motorway system. Yours hopefully,

Reply: Have you thought of applying to a motoring organisation for a post as a multilingual clerical assistant?

Dear AIIC,

After five years at Interpreters' School and having been failed three times at the final examinations, I am beginning to feel persecuted. Please send me details of your complaints procedure.

Reply: Might we suggest you look elsewhere? There are bound to be openings for someone of your persistence.

Dear Aunty,

I must register a protest at this trend to pay by cheque and bank transfer. Don't organisers have any real money these days?

Reply: A cheque will generally clear within four working days, but you should open a bank account.

Dear AIIC,

I am eager to join but nobody I have worked with is prepared to sponsor me. I feel this is very unfair, as I have learned Danish specially. I consider that the rules should be amended to allow for cases like mine.

Reply: You have not told us what your other working languages are, so it is difficult to assess your case. Hope this helps.

Dear AIIC,

I have a 3-week contract in Geneva and rang the AIIC office to book my hotel and arrange some theatre tickets. They told me to book direct. What on earth are we paying them for?

Reply: To extend AIIC's activities to tourist services would involve a considerable financial commitment. Would you be prepared to pay higher dues?

Dear AIIC,

A question of etiquette: an organiser I know likes to crack jokes. As he gives me a lot of work I like to laugh, but when does spontaneous reaction become sycophancy? I do not know where to draw the line. Do you?

Reply: As you do not mention how many days work this organiser gives you per year, it is difficult to be precise.

Dear AIIC Wardrobe Dept,

I have been given to understand that I have been dropped from the regular team of the Underwater Cycling Federation because my mode of dress is not in keeping. How should an interpreter dress?

Reply: As a general rule skirts should be no more than 13cm (5") above the knee. Check you can sit down decently. Cleavages should not be distracting, as some delegates are elderly and excitable. A word to the men: jeans should be clean and in a good state of repair. Avoid plastic shirts and steer well clear of shell suits. And for everyone: grunge is only suitable for certain types of engineering meeting.

Dear AIIC,

My husband is an interpreter at a major international organisation and we have invited the chief interpreter to dinner. Could you suggest a menu for a successful evening? Hints on topics for conversation and those to be avoided would be very helpful.

Reply: What a tall order! When entertaining a VIP, e.g. a chief interpreter, a golden rule is to avoid ostentation, especially if the VIP is your employer. It might otherwise be thought that a proper sense of rank is absent. So avoid tureens piled high with caviar, flying in lobster from New England, larks tongues en croute, angelfish cheeks in aspic etc, much as you may enjoy them. In conversation the golden rule has always been to keep off religion, politics and - dare I say it - sex. In interpreting circles it is advisable to add colleagues to the list of taboo subjects. I realise that this leaves you with very little, but suggest the weather and flower arranging.

Dear AIIC,

My daughter has just announced her engagement to a conference interpreter. Is this a suitable job for a prospective son-in-law? I turn to you because I drew a blank with "Women's Own".

Reply: Conference interpreting is a highly specialised and extremely skilled profession, so it is hardly likely that Womens' Own would be able to help. In marrying into our milieu, your daughter will be entering a world of which she may have little experience: global travel, dinner with Presidents and Prime Ministers, luxury hotels and glamorous venues. Is your daughter suited to this world?

Dear AIIC,

How is name-dropping viewed these days?

Reply: Whose? But generally speaking the bigger the better.

Dear AIIC,

I constantly have to explain my job to my neighbours on planes. Does AIIC have a small format set of memory notes to make sure I don't slip up?

Reply: The Public Relations Committee has produced an extensive range of visuals, fold outs, fact packs, flyers, bromides, leaflets, newsletters, glossies, handouts, posters, cards, labels, pochettes, manuals, directories etc. They may contain what you need (and can be consulted by appointment at the AIIC office).

Dear AIIC,

What is AIIC going to do about the terrible conditions in the Business lounges at Brussels airport on a Friday night?

Reply: May I point out that as we are based in Geneva, we are unable to take up your query.

Dear AIIC,

A younger colleague with blond hair has replaced me on a regular team. Do you think a visit to the hairdresser would help?

Reply: You do not mention your age or whether the recruiting interpreter is male or female. Empirical evidence does however suggest that there is a close correlation between young (under 35) female blond interpreters and older (over 40) male recruiting colleagues. Obviously more research is needed.

Dear AIIC,

When eating with colleagues I generally have a consommé and a low-fat mineral water, while they tuck into roast meat, fish and fine wines. They then want to divide the bill equally between all diners. Is this fair?

Reply: Admittedly at first sight it may seem a little inequitable but as you are presumably all receiving a fee, perhaps less so than might appear. If however this thought is insufficiently consoling, might I suggest that solitude can have its compensations?

P.S. Medical advice suggests that mineral water and soup is not enough for a grown man.

Dear AIIC,

I'm a worried man. At a recent meeting I organised I saw the interpreters chatting and laughing with my client. Is this allowed under AIIC rules?

Reply: AIIC rules have been under revision for the past 35 years and it will take us some time to check the answer to your question. In the meantime we are having delivered to you by airfreight copies of existing rules and proposed amendments. Until matters are clarified you might like to consider adding an appropriate clause to any contract you prepare, e.g. "no contacts with delegates or conference organiser shall take place unless previously cleared with the team leader".

Dear AIIC,

I would like to become an interpreter. How important are foreign languages?

Reply: Opinions are divided.

Dear Aunty,

Although I have worked happily on the international circuit for several years, I do feel my work lacks a solid theoretical framework. Can AIIC supply the support I seek?

Reply: You may find the joint AIIC Training Committee/Research Committee thesis "Transcendental Grammar" of great help. This is available on microfiche from the AIIC office. The disadvantage is the space the microfiche reader takes up in the booth. Invaluable reference works include: "Across the sentence boundary into the gravitational field", "Cognitive ambitions and homo sapiens", "Redundancy and Otiosity in uncued spontaneous speech", "The intentional meaning paradigm and its role in the identification of semantic strategies", "Psycho-semantic aberration in community speech", "Code switching and modern diplomacy" and - last but not least- Gowers' "Plain Words".

Dear AIIC,

I don't know whether to call you AIIC or aiic.

Reply: Glad to see you're on our case.

Dear AIIC,

Colleagues now want to send me documents via e-mail. Has AIIC considered the ethical dimension?

Reply: Just a few short years ago people thought the automobile was the devil's work. And look where we are now.

Phil Smith and Jennifer Mackintosh are both members of AIIC residing in the United Kingdom.
Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH,Jennifer MACKINTOSH. "Readers' letters". February 10, 2001. Accessed July 7, 2020. <>.

Message board

Comments 6

The most recent comments are on top

JC Lloyd-Southwell d'Anvers


Dear Auntie AIIC,

Have only just found this page with all these real gems,and that being the case, we should perhaps set up a 'Jewellery Committee' what a hoot, these are real gems indeed and what fun having to respond with full of wit, bravo to Jenny and Phil!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

ulla schneider


very informative but

am worried about the colleague who worries that he may have recruited the colleague with b.o.

i think he too deserves an answer from aunt aiic.

after all, what about future meetings?

and how come he doesn't know? labyrinthitis, a condition which may cause the loss of smell and taste faculties is perhaps the cause. any research on interpreters and labyrinthitis?

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Brian McGinley - EPO Munich


Was I the one who recruited the guy with the body odour? I think I should be told.

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Susana Hovell


Dear Jenny and Phil,

Next time I am baffled by a colleague's behaviour or wonder how to deal with a 'situation', I'll know where to go! Aunty aiic will certainly provide wise advice on almost any issue. Never lose your sense of humour is the greatest lesson of them all. Merci!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Bertold Schmitt


I loved the lot. Dear Jenny and Phil, keep up the good work

Total likes: 0 0 | 0

Daniel Glon



The day finally arrives:  Forrest Gump dies and goes to Heaven.

He is at the Pearly Gates, met by St. Peter himself.  The gates are

closed,however, and Forrest approaches the gatekeeper.

St. Peter says, "Well, Forrest, it's certainly good to see you.

We have heard a lot about you. I must inform you that the place is

filling up fast, and we've been administering an entrance examination for


The tests are fairly short, but you need to pass before you can get

into Heaven."

Forrest responds, "It shore is good to be here, St. Peter.  I was

looking forward to this.  Nobody ever told me about any entrance exam.  Sure

hope the test ain't too hard; life was a big enough test as it was."

St. Peter goes on, "Yes, I know Forrest, but the test I have for you

is only three questions.

Here is the first:  What days of the week begin with the letter T?

Second: How many seconds are there in a year?

Third: What is God's first name?"

Forrest goes away to think the questions over. He returns the next day

and goes up to St. Peter to try to answer the exam questions.

St. Peter waves him up and says, "Now that you have had a chance to

think the questions over, tell me your answers."

Forest says, "Well, the first one - how many days in the week begin

with the letter 'T' ?  Shucks, that one's easy. That'd be Today and Tomorrow."

The Saint's eyes open wide and he exclaims, "Forrest!  That's not what

I was thinking, do have a point though, and I guess I didn't

specify, so I'll give you credit for that answer. How about the next one?" asks

St. Peter

"'How many seconds in a year?'  Now, that one's harder," says Forrest,

"but I thunk and thunk about that and I guess the only answer can be


Astounded, St. Peter says, "Twelve!  Twelve!  Forrest, how in Heaven's

name could you come up with twelve seconds in a year?"

Forrest says, "Shucks, there's gotta be twelve: January second,

February second, March second............"

"Hold it," interrupts St. Peter, "I see where you're going with this,

and I guess I see your point, though that wasn't quite what I had in mind,

but I'll give you credit for that one too.  Let's go on with the next and

final question. Can you tell me God's first name?"

Forrest replied, "Andy."

"OK, OK," said a frustrated St. Peter, "I can understand how you came

up with your answers to my first two questions, but just how in the world

did you come up with the name of Andy as the first name of God?"

"Shucks, that was the easiest one of all," Forrest replied.

"I learned it from the song:




So, St. Peter opens the gates and says:  "RUN, FORREST, RUN!!!

Total likes: 0 0 | 0