THE INTERPRETING WARS (or 7 ‘wartime’ survival tips for the booth)

Ok, the title may be a bit on the provocative side, but let’s face it: interpreting is tough. And as in wartime, being prepared is everything.

After the long-talked issue of Westminster University interpreting course being closed (see something more here and here) and as I went to a conference just very recently, I thought it may be of interest to share my experience on interpreting with you.


(That’s me, in the red circle and above, in the foregound, with colleague Claudia Salamone).

Here’s my 7-tip survival guide to conference interpreting.


First and foremost, regardless you are being hired by a direct client or a translation agency/LSP, you should ask the person in charge to provide you with as much information as possible – beforehand, that is. For conference interpreting, in particular, you are aiming at :

number of participants;
how many of those would be actively needing your interpreting;
how many of those would be speaking or may be expected to do so;
programme: make sure you get it, with all the latest updates;
the SLIDES. Certainly the hardest part, but you definitely need those or any reference material on previous events, on the speakers, on the participant associations , on the topic. Ideally, slides/presentations would be available a couple of weeks – if not more – in advance and you should be given them asap to allow for a suitable research and preparation.

In any case (or in the meantime) I always try to find out as much as I can about the speakers e.g. association they work/worked for, whether they have already given a speech on a similar topic, even looking up YouTube for videos may help (esp. if the speakers are kind of VIPs in their industry/sector). The latter may turn out very handy to work out *where* they are from. Indeed, a name alone can be mischievous sometimes. I once met a Tom Green who, honestly, with such a general name, could come from any of the ex-Commonwealth countries on earth and surprise you with an unknown (at least to your ears) accent.
Note: in the end, guess what? He was Scottish O_o

If you work in pairs with the same colleague most of the time, it may be useful to discuss the schedule with her/him beforehand and decide – not arbitrarily, but rather as a guideline – ‘who does what‘. This is my code for: ‘I’d rather interpret the German speaker because I am comfortable with that kind of inflection’ or ‘I’d be happy to deal with all speakers from the US as I’ve lived there and I can handle the accent’ and so on. Especially if you are not an English mother tongue speaker, accents can be both your croce e delizia ie. a curse and a delight. Regardless how good your knowledge and understanding of the source language may be, it’s likely that a given accent gives you a hard time.

2. EXPLORE THE BATTLE FIELD (and send a mole if you can)

Of course most of the time you cannot really expect to know much more than an address of the venue you are going to work at. But a bit of research can help, especially if nobody told you any detail. Chances are a colleague has worked there already (your mole). But if you’re out of luck, check the hotel/conference venue’s website for info on how big the room is, what’s the capacity, whether the booths are there or not. This very last detail may seem obvious (how are they not going to be there!) BUT it is crucial. First of all, built-in booths are much sturdier and usually more comfortable than booths installed for the occasion; of course, the first are likely to be older, but at least you are sure you have room for work.
Why? Well, at the last event I worked at, the booth… was simply NOT there!

In short: there had been a teeny tiny misunderstanding between the organiser (my client) and the hotel conference manager. One had not been clear on the need for booths (to be installed by an external provider) while the other could not be ‘bothered’ to double-check, so when I got there at 9am (the event due to start at 9.30am) the only available space was a ‘closet-like’ room, basically a small warehouse for cables and the audio systems for the hall. It was indeed a ‘room with a view’ as it technically had a window, but… I’ll let you figure out my reaction. When you go in, make sure you see the speakers’ desk well (NOT like below)


and locate the presentation screen / panel, because you may want to watch the speech on there (especially if the speaker changes them on the go).


Provided that the booth is there (with all headphones and cables, phew!), I would never face the enemy without the following kit with me in the booth:

your colleague – always helps! 🙂

the above-mentioned slides – duly printed AND available on e-format;

a note pad – or two;

a few pens – I usually go for at least 3, the perfect number. I’d suggest to avoid feather and roll-ball pens, as they can easily smudge. Literally all over you. And you do not want your hands to be all dirty and stained in case you have to meet somebody and shake hands…

a netbook – I’ve used notebooks so far simply because they are small (usually 10” or 11”) and perfectly fit the ridiculously tiny table in the booth


Tablets are also handy, of course. My iPad works very well for this purpose but bear in mind it does not have a USB port to import data. I’m told that other models (such as the Iconia Tablet by Acer) do, but I am a Mac fanatic so I won’t go into that territory and will let you choose savvily…

an empty memory stick (or at least with half the space available) at the ready. In my experience, there is always someone naughty enough to have finished his/her slides in the hotel the night before. So, as soon as you identify them, go and get their presentation – to use it on the netbook.

Of course, a netbook is great, especially with all the dictionaries you can use. But sometimes, dictionaries do not help or are not updated. You need your weapons but also bullets. That’s why you need to ask the host/the hotel/the technician etc. for the Wi-Fi code and password. Google is always a great ally in battles like these…
P.S.: good conference venues do have Wi-Fi. Bad ones have it AND they want you to pay for it. Nevertheless, it should be free for attendees, so why shouldn’t you be counted as one? Try to bypass the problem and ask your client. How to get out of this conudrum? Just bring your own Wi-Fi dongle (I have a PAYG Mi-Fi from 3) but beware: sometimes there’s no coverage in the booth…

the technician: there must be one around somewhere. Find him/her and make sure s/he is aware of *you* in the booth. If the mike does not work or the speaker’s volume is too low, that’s the person you need to talk to – and quickly!


I’m sure the wise Romans went to war with jars of oil, wine and other nice soon-to-be-known&loved-worldwide specialties. Well, I would steer clear from alcohol (even if the buffet lunch may have some nice one, depending on the country you are in) but every good conference/hotel manager should make sure the booth is regularly getting a top-up of water bottles (see pics, bottom of the post). Usually conference staff would remove the empties over breaks but as sometimes the venue is not that organised, it cannot hurt to bring a small bottle with you, just in case.
If you tend to get hungry (I do!), chocolate is great to help you go the extra mile and get energy-high. For a coffee fanatic like me though, here’s the real Holy Graal: Pocket Coffee.


Avoid crunchy food as it can be heard in the mike and really disturb your colleague (and the audience!). If you really are ‘nut for nuts’ or fancy crackers and the likes, pop out of the booth and eat them away from the crowds.


I usually prefer to be slightly over- than under-dressed. If you are concerned, it’s always best to ask your source if there’s a dress code. To stay on the safe side, I’d go for an understated, yet smart-casual look. So, no jeans or trainers for men and no flashy jewellery and red lipsticks for women. Caesar would have said in medio stat virtus (Latin for: virtue stands in the middle), after all! Jewellery can also be fairly uncomfortable as it may get easily stuck in the headphones and again, make funny noises and twinkling. Not professional.
Another tip is: try to dress like an ‘onion‘ = wear layers to make sure you can cover up when cold, take clothes off when hot. And trust me, those cubicles can get up to truly boiling points!
I still would wear low-to-medium heels but that’s entirely up to how comfortable you feel in them, so flats are totally OK too. (P.S.:I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while and I will keep you updated…)

6. BITS AND PIECES (or Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say)

I would always carry a large (but stylish!) bag and pack:

handkerchiefs – the cold is always ready to catch you unprepared;

hand sanitizer – you never know, really! I once managed to spill the liquid coffee of the above-mentioned Holy Graal all over the booth;

pair of tights – laddered tights are beyond horrible and make you feel uncomfortable every step you take. Been there, done that;

lots of business cards – you never know who you may bump into;

mobile phone charger – for that important business call you will have to turn down otherwise;

adapter – especially if your laptop – like mine – has a different plug to the country you are working in;

cash, not only cards – if the venue is in the middle of nowhere and you are hungry (once the host did *not* provide lunch for the interpreters…) or if you need to grab a taxi, there’s not time to look for an ATM.

A little note on make-up (for the ladies, of course! But boys, feel free to try some if you wish!): I would bring a small sample of perfume and pressed powder to touch up. May be trivial for some, but it may help feel better and refreshed!


You can plan the attack, send a probe to the field and study the enemy for a long time, but you always should expect the unexpected. Always! The last event (see above) I worked at had to be interpreted in whispered mode until 11am, because the booth was just not ready yet. Again, a broken headphone, a crashing pen drive, a corrupted PowerPoint file, even a lecturer who all of a sudden changes the language of his speech (because decided that his/her English is not good enough and prefers to carry on, say, in French…).

Well, having said this: I ❤ conference interpreting and I cannot have enough of it, ever!
Even though this guide is by no means comprehensive (let me know if you have more tips to add), I hope you now are feeling even more prepared and eager to go into the booth. And remember, when in Rome… drink espresso.

P.S.: below a little gallery of real booth pictures of some of my recent assignments. Low quality for obvious reasons, but I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.


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