Documentary evidence

Text anxiety vs. concentration in the interpreting booth. And the winner is...

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Our subject for today’s homily is documents. Well, probably more of a rant than a homily but I wanted to put you into a receptive and spiritual frame of mind.

We need to prepare for meetings so have to read up on the general background and study the presentations to be given or, more accurately, read at dizzying speed. A wise colleague once said that going to work without previously studying the documents was akin to asking a surgeon to operate without first looking at the x-rays.

However a couple of things happened recently that gave me pause. I was working at one of those international organizations of the type we all recognize, you know, marble entrance halls and croissants for breakfast. The meeting was underway and my colleague was working from a speech and doing well. Someone arrived with the written speech and the colleague then tried to shift from interpreting to sight translation and was completely thrown off course.

Story II: a colleague had to do a speech and we had been told that there would be no written script – yet throughout the speech the interpreter could not stop shuffling through the papers on the desk, feverishly searching for a document that was not there, that we knew was not there and was not going to be provided. And of course looking for the document was a distraction from simply listening and interpreting so performance suffered.

Which of us has not done one or both of the above?

Clearly we need documents, but are we no longer able to function without them? We are interpreters, so by definition we work from spoken language. I readily admit that the nature of meetings has changed over the past twenty years and we hear far more set-piece speeches than we used to, people at meetings are now much more likely to work to a script. But nevertheless, could we not at times simply rely on what is supposedly our core skill?

I am not saying we should start flying by the seat of our pants, and I fully recognize the challenge of an unremitting series of breakneck speeches in imperfect English. I just wonder at times whether we need to be so emotionally invested in obtaining documents that they become a distraction. After all, we are interpreters.

Now you can go and fetch your documents. Get mine too.

Recommended citation format:
Philip H. D. SMITH. "Documentary evidence". June 30, 2014. Accessed June 4, 2020. <>.

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Interesting article. However: I think the assumption being made in this article is that documents that are provided will be read from and interpreters will do a sight translation off the page. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. I would estimate that 98% of the time there are no scripts/speakers’ notes that I could work from (provided I wanted to in the first place). My understanding of documentation provided for a meeting is that of background information (documents being referred to during the meeting but typically not quoted from, information that has been provided to participants for preparation purposes in advance, and last but not least, the programme - and very occasionally, yes, speakers’ notes). Documents that come in once I arrive in the booth are indeed of limited value, unless I can do a lightning search on an electronic version if the speaker does happen to quote from them. However, to me the real value of documents lies in giving me a general and then specific idea of what’s going to be discussed, plus functioning as a source of valuable terminology. How on earth can we do our job without that, I wonder? I think we should never give up asking for documents in advance. My most stressful assignments have been the ones where the client has refused to provide any more than a vague idea of what will be on the agenda, citing confidentiality (thankfully, this rarely happens). So in that sense, I think your "wise colleague“ is absolutely right.

That said, I do agree with you that working from a written speech definitely has its pitfalls. There’s a lot that can go wrong when working in that mode (it’s a subject that very often comes up in training), and reconciling what you hear with what you read is only part of the problem. My feeling is that there is a cognitive disconnect between how we process written words when reading and spoken words when hearing and if you’re not mighty skilled in making that switch in the booth, your output will certainly suffer.

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