Interpreting for Accents

NAJIT hosted its annual conference in St. Louis recently and I was lucky enough to be able to attend. One of the pre-conference sessions I attended was about interpreting accents.

As a French interpreter I frequently have to interpret francophones from Africa, and sometimes, I have a hard time understanding them since I speak French from France.

Interpreting for accents is a skill that can be developed. Essentially, we must become familiar with the sounds that are pronounced differently for the people that we are working for and how they pronounce those sounds. For instance, when a person from France speaks in English they often have a hard time pronouncing the “H” if the word starts with that letter. “Hard” will often become “Ard”. What’s funny, is that they also have a tendency to add an “H” to words that start with vowels. So “Earth” often turns into “Hearth”. Therefore, if a French person is speaking in English, I know that I can probably expect them to drop the first “H” if the word starts with one, or add an “H” if the word starts with a vowel.

I find that what helps sometimes is to close my eyes (if this is possible of course), and imagine that I am with them in their country. This shifts the listening part of my brain to do naturally adapt to them, rather than expecting that the sounds come out the way that I am used to hearing them.

Another way to improve on this skill if you know what accent you will be dealing with is to listen to the accent ahead of time and make note of that accent’s particularities and make note of these phonetic “replacements” that take place.

Here is a list of websites that you can visit to hear different accents from around the world:


“We’re not at the UN”

Recently I got a call for an interpreting job here in Atlanta from an agency I had never worked with before.

I was told that we would not have partners, but that we would have the proper equipment (booth, headset, mic). I should have already seen the red flags… I replied that the industry standard for simultaneous interpreting is to have two interpreters to relay one another every 20-30mn or so. But since I was only needed for a few hours, I figured I should be fine, so I’ll accept the job.

Well, I showed up to the event over an hour early only to see that they had none of the equipment I was expecting and that we had agreed upon over the phone. The only equipment they had was a wireless mic, no booth, and not even a headset! I would have to listen to the presenters without a headset, and then interpret simultaneously over my own voice and theirs…

Upon knowing this I should have walked out, but the idea of losing the money and potentially tarnishing my relationship with this new agency (despite their snafu) was too strong, so I stayed. I explained in a very calm, professional manner why we needed this equipment and how this was not at all an unrealistic request, only to be told by the client that “we’re not at the UN”. I have no idea how I didn’t just lose it right then and there…

Needless to say, it was very hard and I was exhausted from the stress of it all as well as the extra work my brain had to do, but at least I learned a lesson: there is a reason why industry standards exist and if the agency won’t provide the bare minimum, then we should not provide the service!

My interpretation was compromised because of the agency’s choices and I felt embarrassed at times when I couldn’t hear the speaker. The truth is that we are on the front line, not the agency, and for this reason we must stand up for what’s right in order to defend our reputation and quality of work. It is also necessary to educate the agencies and clients of the reasons why we need such equipment.

The Twenty-Minute Rule

I just finished working for the CDC where I was on assignment doing simultaneous interpreting for the Stop Transmission to Polio program. It was fascinating. I learned so much, not only about Polio but also about interpreting. During the two-week period, I met and worked with some very nice interpreters who talked to me about some of our colleagues. I found out that apparently, some interpreters have a 20 mn rule, meaning that they refuse to interpret any more or any less than 20mn.

I understand the need for us to work the same amount, but geez, I’d hate to be stopped if I feel really good about a speaker, or about a particular topic. I don’t mind working a little more if it feels good.

Also, if we know that the presentation is almost done, then why hand over the mic? Why not just finish it off, for the benefit of the listener?

And what about Q&A sessions? I think it makes sense to have one person interpret the questions and the other one interpret the answers, again for the benefit of the listener. It’s just nicer to listen to. Well, often times the questions will be shorter. Should that interpreter work more afterwards?

It’s only normal that booth partners split up the amount of time they work equitably, I am not saying the contrary, but do we really need to set a chronometer?

As interpreters we must be supportive of one another, offer to take over if the other person is struggling, offer to write down numbers, bring water, and be flexible. In my opinion looking at one’s watch in this way only sets us apart from one another, adds unnecessary stress, and demonstrates an inability, or unwillingness, to adapt to situations.

Do you agree? Disagree? What are your thoughts? Experiences?

Preparing For The Department of State Exams

A few weeks ago I decided to fill out an online application (update-this is no longer available on their website) to be a consultant interpreter and translator for the Department of State. I mailed it thinking that I would never hear back and that I had just wasted a stamp.

Well, much to my surprise, I did hear back. I got a call from an interpreter who wanted to schedule a phone screening/small interpreting test for later on in the afternoon. It was consecutive interpreting and even though I was nervous and it was hard, I somehow managed to pass which meant that I received an invitation to go take the interpreting exam in DC, at my own expense.

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Beware of Scams

Imagine my excitement when I see an email from a potential client stating that they would need me for four-five days in California! Now let me remind you that I only started interpreting this summer, and have only been hired a total of three times. So a gig that long would not only mean great money, but also an amazing learning opportunity.

My reply to the email was short and simple; thanks for your interest, here is my rate, would this be simultaneous?, are you providing a booth and necessary equipment?, will I have a partner?, what is the topic? do you have any documents I could look at? Continue reading

Translating vs. Interpreting

Yesterday, I received an email from someone looking for a “translator for a deposition in ABC town on xx/2011.” As I had not yet had my cup of coffee, it took me a minute to realize that they were in fact looking for an interpreter.

For a minute there, I honestly thought that I would have to go to ABC town to translate documents in front of someone. My caffeine-free brain wondered, “Why on earth would they need a translator on location.”

So to avoid any confusion, here’s a quick breakdown: Continue reading