Trolley Folly

Count Smorltalk asks the question: is this the end of the road?

When I was little, nobody had had the genius idea of adding wheels to suitcases. I reckon that the late dawning realisation that you could add wheels to bags is a prime example of linguistic determinism: we called it luggage because we lugged it. End of. 

I was lucky to graduate into the world of the professional business traveller in an age when you no longer tipped a porter to stow your cabin trunk. No, I have always been my own bag carrier, a menial job made easier in the age of the trolley bag.

A bag-carrying trolley-dolly. This has often been my self-perception as a peripatetic freelance interpreter over nearly three decades. Too often it has felt like the job was all about getting me to and from the conference city, checking into and out of hotels, ironing crumpled shirts at midnight, mastering bus timetables for early starts, accessing conference premises, orienteering my way to the booth, calculating the shortest route to the toilets, changing currency to be able to buy coffee, logging into systems on tiny portable computer screens, losing the battle over the booth lighting, losing the game of booth chicken, slowly losing the will to do it

The trolley bag will forever stick in my mind as a metaphor of freelance-dom. Always half-packed/half-unpacked, only ever closed and put away at Christmas.

And then suddenly, on Valentine’s Day 2020, my life as a trolley-dolly came to an abrupt halt. Coronavirus struck, international travel stopped, and my trolley bag went into the cupboard.

But wait. There is hope in these bleak times. In the same way that adding wheels to bags was genius, adding internet to interpreters was also genius, right?

Not everyone thinks so. Many interpreters still cleave to the notion that a travelling freelance interpreter is better served by an intimate knowledge of a suitcase than of an RSI headset. Far better for the profession, they say, that Smorltalk should pay physiotherapists to cure trolley-shoulder than that he should run the risk of bad sound on a dodgy RSI platform. Far better for all of us, they say, that Smorltalk should do his 10,000 steps a day between hotel and conference centre than he should run the risk of sitting too long online at home. Far better, they say, for the solidarity of all interpreters that he should avoid the mistake of thinking remote simultaneous interpreting from home was the genius cure for the problem that a huge chunk of the job was nothing to do with interpreting and was everything to do with logistics and travel.

True, my step count is down on last year.

But wait, my step count is down but since the New Year my pound count is up. Pounds Stirling count, that is. Yes, I’m back in the money. I may not have set foot outside my home since Christmas but I’m paying the bills again. RSI has started paying my bills. Lolly without the trolley! How jolly!

No trolley? Utter folly! Haven’t you just replaced that great chunk of the job that isn’t interpreting with a different great chunk that isn’t interpreting, Smorltalk? You wally.

I’ll grant you that my former specialism in minimum transit times between London stations has been replaced by a specialism in the return time in milliseconds for a ping. True enough, my expertise in hotel and flight booking websites has been redeployed in on-screen digital document software. And where I used to have to battle a Samsonite over cobblestones, I now have to juggle deskspace with a Blue Yeti. 

But what’s a better use of my brain cells? Working out the logistics of getting physical me to the booth? Or working out how to get mental me to the booth? 

So RSI from home is paying my bills in 2021. And you know what? Once I had had the thought that I might never have to share a booth with random other people, with random other people’s catarrh, and random other people’s strong opinions on the right level for the booth lighting, I started to detect an easing of tension in my trolley shoulder. I might even have started toying with the thought that perhaps, after all, it might be better for me, it might be better for the profession generally, and it would definitely be better for the planet if this trolley folly stopped. 

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Count Smorltalk

is an English booth interpreter. He wishes to remain anonymous.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • A welcome lighthearted look at our new immobile professional life. Thank you. And a healthy positive, inquisitive outlook on the near future whilst acknowledging dipomatically (of course) all was not always love, respect and cooperation in the booth.
    I am not sure that all interpreting can be done remotely and apart from ophthamologists who are already seeing the damage done to our eyes by spending so much time staring at screens and monitors, we know little about the long term-effect of life according to the RSI Gospel (and other monitored activities).
    It may sound odd, but I miss the travel, both the planning and the physical exercice. My earliest travel memories go back to when I was 18 months old: my first long sea trip. I think I must have moved home at least 54 times in my life. And when I became a portable interpreter, I made a point of always arriving a bit earlier at my destination, or leaving it a bit later and having enough time to explore if not the country, then at least the city I was “visiting”.
    Although… come to think of it, French railways’ seasonal strikes were definitely a pain.
    Oh, and a trolley with four wheels, which you can push in front of you, is a pretty effective remedy for the trolley arm.

  • “Healthy, positive and inquisitive”. Thanks!
    The upsides of RSI from home sometimes get lost in the debate so “Trolley folly” was intended as a leavening. Our eyes and ears are possibly at greater risk in the “immobile” life and we’ll miss the best bits of the travel. But as we slide down those particular snakes, I’m betting we’ll come across some ladders we never even imagined.

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