AIIC Staff Interpreters meet at UN Headquarters in NY

The current situation in the US and quality interpretation were in the spotlight at the SIC/CdP's 2016 meeting.

Main building, UNHQ, 405 East 42nd street

The AIIC Staff Interpreters’ Committee (SIC/CdP) met at the United Nations HQ in New York from Friday 12th to 14th August 2016 for its yearly statutory meeting. Incoming Chair, Christina Edwards (UNON) presided and wielded the gavel with poise, both physically and metaphorically.

Words of welcome were given to incoming members of the committee: to Ludovic Martin (UNOV), who has replaced Marie Diur following her promotion to UNOV Head of Service, to Christelle Petite, from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, after Rachel Cuzin’s step down from membership, and to Petra Van Eynde-Neutens (EP) who has taken over from Denitza Bogomilova Atanassova. 

Former Chair David Sawyer (US State Department) was sadly unable to attend and, unfortunately, the UNHQ Head of Service, Hossam Fahr, indisposed with a very painful back, couldn’t provide the scheduled overview of the interpretation unit; the baton was kindly taken up by Aitor Arauz Chapman, UNHQ Spanish booth staff interpreter, who welcomed the SIC/CdP on behalf of the AIIC USA region.

The USA region


Aitor continued with a presentation of the USA region, from a staff interpreter’s perspective. The region boasts one hundred and eighty-four members, of whom forty are staffers. The region is vast, varied and diffuse. In New York City, Washington and on the East Coast staffers and agreement-sector freelancers are heavily in the majority, while the west coast, with its high-tech industry and eyes turned resolutely to the Pacific, garners private market freelancers with an Asian language focus. The plains of the southern states, the deserts and flatlands of the mid-west translate into areas where AIIC signatures are few and far between for colleagues hoping, one day, to see AIIC appear on their horizon. 

Recent initiatives

AIIC USA is proud of its internal solidarity and in July initiated a mentoring program in which staffers are actively invited to play a role. During AIIC pre-candidacy, colleagues can apply for a mentor and the regional bureau will then allocate one from a list (yet to be drawn up). Mentoring in New York is de facto moot due to its staffer predominance, but in Washington the University of Maryland’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation course (GSIT) offers scope for graduate mentoring from staffers and freelancers.

Other recent initiatives include addressing the status of interpreters in conflict zones, supported by AIIC former President, Linda Fitchett. AIIC has also tightened its links with other interpreter associations in the US. With them it has been a cosignatory to an open letter to the US Congress over cut backs in relocating interpreters from Afghanistan known to have worked, or to be still working with, US troops in that country.   

What is “quality” interpretation?

The keynote speech was given by researcher Dr Miguel Angel Jiménez Crespo from Rutgers University, New Jersey. Although training remains predominantly the focus of interpretation research, Dr Crespo alerted us to the three thousands hits on “quality” he encountered when sounding out AIIC’s website. Indeed, quality is a notion which constantly recurs and is irksome to define.

Historically – and in the words of Daniel Gile – conference interpreters have been “practisearchers”, practitioners who evolved into researchers; unlike other fields, where researchers are generally aloof from the wear and care of the profession. But when we fret over quality, what exactly are we homing in on?Quality, we are told, is in the eye of the beholder: Dr Crespo addressed perceptions of quality, where intonation and inflexion connoted a high-flier performance, while the tedious tones of a highly accurate interpreter would lay him low in the eyes of his audience.

Quality falling on deaf ears

There is a dichotomy, then, between producers and users, says Dr Crespo. When considering the service they render, interpreters tend to push to the periphery what is arguably central, visible and understandable for the user regarding a process he is paying for but cannot understand: the interpreter is well dressed, he is punctual, he is polite, his voice is pleasant, he knows his place. The keynote drew on the analogy of a concert violinist performance: the majority of listeners will probably not know every note, nor their correct sequence on the musical score (which is Greek, anyway, to most people), will not understand the physical nor intellectual mechanics behind the process, and so their perception of quality will only flow from the quality of their experience rather than the objective accuracy of the rendition. So this begs the question (quite a few, in fact): what and who is quality for?

Purposive vs. absolute

Quality, Dr Crespo offered, is not necessarily absolute. It exists to serve the user’s needs, both stated and implied: I may need a quick and dirty understanding of a document, I need the general gist, so I’ll run it through Google Translate or bring someone in and get a loosely done sight translation. But what if I’m wrong? What if I don’t understand my needs? This needs-based approach will only work if I appreciate and accept the scale of the translation loss. But how can I? If I could gauge the information loss, I’d be able to measure quality. Isn’t equating a need to a level of quality a circular argument?  

Quality and price

So how about pegging the sliding scale of quality to price? Dr Crespo presented us with a thought experiment: imagine a service broken down into its constituent parts. A list of features, basically, with each individual feature carrying a price. The client would therefore be able to pick and choose, take one thing, leave another. He could tick boxes which would finally tot up to the price he would pay. This approach would also bring with it a handy knock-on effect: it would nip in the bud the purposive debate since the customer would see, line by line, and choose, tick after tick, what he needed. But not so fast. What price could you put on “pleasant voice”? How could you price the various shades of “accurate”?  “Accurate” with numbers and not with place names? “Accurate” up to ten minutes?  Up to an hour, non stop? What if I think I only need one interpreter for a two hour session? The corollary of this modular pricing approach may well be a price stratification of the interpretation market. It would bring out of hiding and institutionalise what has been hitherto considered grey market prices. The pejorative “grey” would disappear and would simply become a fully-fledged market in its own right. But doesn’t AIIC speak for all interpreters? Doesn’t the Association seek to protect the profession as a whole, not only the interests of colleagues commanding a high price for their wares?  

Joint responsability: users and producers

If only interpreters come close to understanding interpretation quality then, just like doctors, we should practice according to our own high standards, irrespective of subjective and contingent perceptions of quality. Indeed, it can sometimes happen in our organisations that a booth, although active on the mic, may not in fact be listened to by anyone in the room. Quality is consequently maintained by practitioner and booth-mates alone; I imagine medical practitioners don’t do a good job only when another doctor is watching...

But the onus of quality is not, it is argued, solely on the shoulders of the practitioner. Speakers and conference organisers alike also impact on quality for reasons that are obvious to all. We interpreters can therefore rejoice: when after “pleaseant voice” a customer ticks “accurate” on their order sheet, there’ll be compensatory goodies for us if documents are not provided, if the speaker’s voice rings fast and unpleasant in the headset of the practicioner…?

Members in attendance

Christina Edwards (UNON – Chair), Andrew Constable (ICC – Vice-Chair), Christopher Davies (STL –  Secretary), Marina Marton (IMF – Group Coordinator), Polycarp Ambe-Niba (ECCC), Julia Antony (UNOG), Katalin Fedineczne Vittay (EU Commission), Francisco Garcia Hurtado (UNHQ), Brigitte Kraushaar (OECD), Dominique Marechal (ECJ), Ludovic Martin (UNOV), Christelle Petite (SPC), Petra Van Eynde-Neutens (EP) and Luke Tilden (CoE); Sergio Alvarez Rubio (SMP Observer).

Written reports submitted by NATO, UNHQ, UNON, UNOV, CJUE, ICAO, EP, FAO, UNOG, EU Commission, CoE, SPC, Nato Defense College, IMF, ICC, STL, Italian MoD, ECCC.

SIC/CdP members in attendance.  (Back row, left to right): Katalin Fedineczne Vittay, Christelle Petite, Dominique Marechal, Luke Tilden, Andrew Constable, Ludovic Martin, Francisco Garcia Hurtado, Sergio Alvarez Rubio (SMP Observer), Brigitte Kraushaar; (front row, left to right): Petra Van Eynde-Neutens, Marina Marton, Christina Edwards, Julia Antony, Christopher Davies, Polycarp Ambe-Niba.

This report was written by Christopher Davies, Secretary of the Staff Interpreters Committee.

Note: The PDF version of this report can be downloaded below.

Recommended citation format:
Staff Interpreters. "AIIC Staff Interpreters meet at UN Headquarters in NY". February 27, 2017. Accessed July 12, 2020. <>.

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