An ordinary weekend in the life of a consultant interpreter

 | Interpreter insights

In this article first published in 2000 on the AIIC website, Danielle Grée gives us a glimpse into the minutiae of recruitment and the unexpected headaches of the consultant interpreter who is asked to set up a team of interpreters at the last minute. If you think setting up a team of proficient interpreters is as simple as a click of a button, think again!


Thursday noon: contact

An ordinary phone call on a Thursday in mid-May: I am asked to set up a team of interpreters for a conference on information technology on May 18 and 19 (two half days) in Madrid. The conference will take place in English only, and the client needs interpretation into Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese. It is pointed out to me that the quote is "urgent". So true. The month of May is “the” peak season for interpreting, and the advance notice is slim.

Caution is of the essence: I plan to have two local interpreters for Spanish (you'd have to be really unlucky not to find two Spanish interpreters in Madrid!) but tell the client that for Portuguese and Arabic, the interpreters will most likely have to be "imported" (I don't say where from, but of course I'll get the best people from as close as I can). I draw up a budget, not including airfares for now.

An hour later the client (a trusted PCO) receives the quote, which is in turn transmitted to his own client.

Thursday evening: pre-recruitment:

I get down to work and put out an SOS to my usual contacts. Ever concerned with keeping costs to a minimum (2 years at the IMF leave their mark!) I send a few e-mail messages inquiring about interpreters' availability. I begin by contacting colleagues in Madrid who are specialized in IT, then a few European secretariats and interpreters' groups that have members with Portuguese or Arabic. Next, I contact a handful of individual interpreters who appear to have the right combination, essentially in Lisbon and Paris, and finally, a few colleagues and friends who are not averse to helping (you know, the kind who don't mind making a few calls to check on colleagues' availability, who will pass on the name of a new graduate or tell you about an ex-staff interpreter who has just rejoined the freelance market).

The interpreter network has kicked in; I can go to bed with my mind at rest; tomorrow morning will decide who are to be the lucky ones chosen for a trip to Madrid...

Friday: tachycardia

The next day, I am swamped with replies to my enquiries.

  • For Spanish, it's inconclusive: one colleague - fortunately an IT whiz - is still free; all the other AIIC interpreters are busy. I find myself, at best, with half of a local booth.
  • The Secretariats tell me there is no one free with the combinations I am looking for. Eureka! I am told there is an Arabic colleague miraculously free in Geneva, whom I engage on the spot. I now have my second half booth.
  • Not only are the Arabic colleagues I have contacted all busy, but they express little hope...FAO and UNESCO are meeting that week, not to mention the Lockerbie trial. The news sinks in. On the Paris, Geneva and other fronts even the most novice interpreters are busy for one of the two days! A young graduate calls me back, and stiffly informs me that he is unfortunately not free. After an entire month of April spent at home idle, mine is the sixth offer he has received for the 19th of May. It is all I can do to convince him that he is not the victim of a sordid plot, that all interpreters are exposed to this fate.
  • For Portuguese, the picture is gloomier still! It happens to be Portugal's turn at the EU presidency, and the Portuguese Government is in a remarkable flurry of activity. Even the European Commission has two teams in Lisbon, recruited some time ago, for May 18 and 19! I am also informed that the WEU intends to meet in Lisbon and has contacted a number of interpreters (it's enough to turn you anti-militaristic again!). A sympathetic colleague tells me he himself has hired three teams for a meeting of the private market in Evora, and generously shares his list of recruits (including those who were contacted but unavailable). I've killed 24 birds with one stone. But I still don't have even half a Portuguese booth.

Saturday morning: crisis unit

Things are serious. Thrift and the IMF be damned; I grab my fax and my phone to track down the last idle souls... I cancel my tennis match.

  • For Spanish, I contact colleagues who teach in interpreting schools on the off chance that there might be a promising - and hopefully competent - young graduate in Madrid. It would be a good opportunity to get him or her started.
  • For Arabic, I ask one of the colleagues whether he might be able to be released from his contract that day (occasionally arrangements can be made with certain chief interpreters who may not need all the interpreters they have recruited on a given day). Contacts with neighbouring (almost) countries having been to no avail, I range farther afield. I send a message to Cairo to know whether anyone is still free. At the same time I check timetables and fares for flights from Egypt, and ask my local contact to be kind enough to do the same... Amadeus, Sabre and Xenia (no relation to the Internet; it's the poor thing at my travel agency who caters to my needs) are put to the task.
  • For Portuguese, as chance would have it I am well acquainted with the person who recruits for the WEU, and venture to ask her whom she has contacted. She is willing to tell me who is on her team, but points out that the meeting has unexpectedly been lengthened by a day, and asks if I can pass on the names of colleagues who might be free if I find any in my quest (how the tables are turned!). Frantically I ring up AIIC members, associate members, retirees and young graduates in Lisbon, Porto and Braga.

As usual, message reception systems are as ingenious as they are varied: of course I am treated to the cordial, phlegmatic voice of the interpreter who has given special attention to the outgoing message on his or her answering machine; but also to the strident sound of the fax which was left connected to the phone; the exasperated voice of the colleague who doesn't understand that I am trying to send a fax on her only telephone line and appears vaguely suspicious of yet another obscene phone call; the foreign cleaning lady; the monolingual mother-in-law who happens to pick up the phone... In the middle of May, colleagues to be found sitting patiently by their telephones are few and far between.... I manage nevertheless to leave a good 20 messages.

Saturday afternoon: siesta time (or so I naïvely thought)

Assuming that the Portuguese colleagues would respect this "time out" which is sacred to all Spanish natives and acclimatized incomers, I take the risk of lying down for a short nap. Alas! All are anxious to let me know that I must definitely look elsewhere. All those whom I know and hold in high regard, or whom trusted colleagues have unhesitatingly recommended, are either busy or leaving on holiday (how preposterous to take a vacation in May!). I am given the names of non-AIIC interpreters who work regularly for the European Commission. No success. They in turn tell me how to get in touch with other individuals whom I have never heard of, and whose quality they won't vouch for. Even under the circumstances I decline to offer such a technical conference to unknown interpreters who can offer no guarantees. I opt to continue looking outside Portugal. Information technology can't be improvised. I send out another SOS for Portuguese in Germany and Italy, and leave messages on the answering machines of people who have had the good taste to take a siesta.

Sunday: I had a dream

More calls. No one is free for the Madrid conference, with the exception of a young Spanish graduate whose teachers recommend her effusively. Naturally she is delighted to engage in her first foray, particularly in the company of a colleague who is apparently prepared to brief and assist her. All's well that ends well. The Spanish booth is now complete. Those extra hours of sleep lost this morning were well worth it.

Meanwhile, I receive the conference program by e-mail and am back on the phone asking the only colleague recruited well in advance (that's how it feels... Friday seems so long ago!) for her e-mail address to send her this several-page document. An alarmed, incredulous voice echoes: "e-mail???" (Remember that this article was first published in 2000). By the stunned response you'd think I'd asked if she was catching a flying saucer to Madrid. My worst fears for a conference on information technology begin to surface... I try to quell my doubts, reminding myself that some colleagues who pass out at the sight of blood perform brilliantly at medical conferences. I fax her the program and a short glossary of my own.

So here I am with a full Spanish booth, half an Arabic booth (which, truth be told, is of little use if I can't complete it) and, for Portuguese, a long list of all the Portuguese-speaking interpreters on the Iberian peninsula, which is probably worth its weight in gold, but unfortunately, they are all busy... I begin to dream about a centralized system of availability management. Just imagine a database of all professional interpreters, an on-line timetable where they would enter their availability; a little search engine enabling me to see at a glance the names of all the Portuguese or Arabic interpreters still free and yearning not to be?? I could have had my siesta and slept late this morning instead of finding myself on the brink of divorce.

Monday: Denouement

News from Cairo: a veteran colleague appears to be free, and willing to come all the way to Madrid! I ask him to hold on a few more hours for possible confirmation, the time it takes to verify the price of a ticket. The verdict is in. Amadeus, Sabre and Xenia are unanimous: USD 1,580! Yikes! Let's hope the client will accept an airfare of this magnitude... but then, there is a price to pay for lack of foresight.

Amidst all this the news has gotten around, and two excellent Portuguese-speaking interpreters from Geneva and Paris inform me they are available. Hurray! The Portuguese booth is complete.

Triumphant, I send an e-mail forthwith to the PCO to announce that I have succeeded against all odds in setting up an expensive but proficient team. I am finally in a position to calculate travel costs precisely and send in an exact quote. As I send this message and receive new mail, I notice an e-mail from the PCO in my inbox; it informs me, in a tone I find frankly cavalier, that for lack of participants their client has decided after all to cancel the Arabic and Portuguese booths... Only the Spanish booth remains…and would I please send a new quote.

Sigh. I anticipate the battle to obtain compensation for colleagues hired more than 15 minutes ago. A flash comes to mind of that young graduate who had the good sense not to get himself replaced, because after all a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. I muse regretfully about my tennis match, my nap and my lost opportunity to sleep in. I think that henceforth, on weekends the office will stay closed.


Danielle Grée was the Convener of AIIC's Private Market Sector. She is a consultant-interpreter based in Barcelona, member of Calliope-Interpreters and specializes in mega-events.


Share this article: