To be or not to be… a conference interpreter

Letter to Count Smorltalk

Dear Count Smorltalk,

This could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Because I believe you need a friend. I believe you must be terribly lonely. In your Trolley Folly post, you painted this sad self-image of a suitcase-lugging, colleague-bugging conference interpreter who had to wrestle through the work day. What a hassle! You had to fight with bus timetables and strong-minded colleagues. The travelling was a strain on you and your travelling was a strain on the environment. You ended up in booths with unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places. You were not in charge – face it!

I live in Germany, am in my late 30s and don’t work for agencies. I am in charge. I discuss the conditions with my clients and have them pay the taxi, if I need one. I always know who I will work with. How else should we prepare the assignments together and give our best? I enjoy my interpreting jobs with my colleagues – whom I sometimes even call friends. We indulge in coffee break banter; we laugh and often wrap up the day over a glass of wine at the hotel bar. To me, interpreting is never a one-woman show. 

I do not know a lot about you. You live in the UK, are in your 50s; do you work for agencies? Now you sit at home, equally lonely, equally remotely (pun intended) connected to colleagues you might not know working for clients you still don’t talk to. Your trolley shoulder will soon be replaced by square eyes and a round back. And don’t get me started on your ears! To you, interpreting has always been a one-man show.

I know, I enjoy the luxury of living and working in a country that’s never been in a complete lockdown, so travelling to work was always possible and working from home never a necessity. We have a large network of corporate hubs and interpreter-run interpreting studios to support us, and I believe we should stand in solidarity with our tech colleagues and support them in return. But I am also aware that RSI from home often is the sole income for many colleagues abroad and I absolutely understand the predicament they (you) are in. I am truly glad you can make ends meet, but have you thought about what RSI from home means for our profession in the long run?

I hope you’ve given the technical requirements some serious thought. Surely you have analyzed the potential risks to your health. Have you discussed data security and accountability with your clients/agencies? Are you aware of the psychological (and financial) implications of turning your home into your clients’ meeting venue? Can you meet all those practical requirements so you can deliver the quality the clients deserve? And have you brushed up your quotes and crunched those numbers again so that all these extra investments and larger overheads are re-financed?

Don’t be taken in by a naïve miscalculation. When working from home you are rendering a service, i.e. interpretation, while also providing the necessary IT and workspace. That cannot come at the same price as when we were “just” interpreting. Now our clients rely on us as interpreters, technicians and venue organizers all rolled into one. That has to come with an appropriate price tag.

And what about your younger colleagues? What and how are they supposed to learn, if they are sitting at home interpreting all by themselves? Our solidarity should also extend to those trying to follow in our footsteps. 

And I cannot help but think that you have just replaced one sad part of interpreting with another sad part of interpreting: instead of working on-site at the mercy of your recruiter, you are working at home at the mercy of your recruiter. You’re further alienating yourself from your clients because now you are even invisible. You are becoming an interchangeable voice to your listeners. You have no say in anything. The interaction between you and your listeners, if there is any at all, is between two computers in a chat function. Slide down those snakes a little further1 and you will become a check mark in your recruiter’s online availability calendar; you don’t dare to get out of the house because you are afraid you could miss out on a short-term interpreting opportunity. And there is no ladder to climb back because the rungs connecting you to the clients will have been destroyed in the process. There will always be someone cheaper in a country with lower living costs. There will always be someone who reacted quicker to a push message coming from the platform of your choice. 

I truly love my job and I am willing to move with the times. But I am not willing to give up on the very essence of what it means to be a conference interpreter, which is getting out there, interacting with the audience, bridging linguistic divides without constant interruptions, meeting interesting people in exciting places and so much more.2

Truly yours,

Monika Ott

Image: Michele Bitetto / Unsplash
All posts on InterpreterSoapbox reflect the views of their authors.

  1. Editor’s footnote: See Count Smorltalk’s comment under “Trolley Folly”: “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.”
  2. Editor’s footnote: See also “Interpreter Stories: Secret Society” by Wanda Gadomska

About author View all posts

Monika Ott

Monika Ott is a freelance conference interpreter (German A, English B, Swedish B) and member of AIIC. She is based in Hamburg/Germany.
She studied in Heidelberg and Edinburgh. Before that she did an apprenticeship to become a cabinet maker.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you for this amusing but also quite serious analysis of what it means to be a conference interpreter these days. I live for the day when most if not all of us have renounced a life in “servitude” to the uncounted platforms and recruiters who in reality see us as workhorses who are but a mouseclick away and a constant source of revenue for themselves.

    Surely the reason why we all chose this profession is, as you say, because we want(ed) to “get out there, interact with the audience, bridge linguistic divides without constant interruptions, meet interesting people in exciting places”… We can and will get back to doing this if we remain mindful of who we are, what we bring to the table and what we are capable of.

    • Karin, re “servitude” to the platforms – hear hear!

      Although I should perhaps clarify that Count Smorltalk himself (whose post Monika is replying to) is not one of those in servitude; I am not aware of him even being XYZ-certified, for example. He is one of the lucky ones who enjoy excellent working conditions in RSI from home (3 per booth, recruiter paid extra for tech setup, clear rules about “inaudible”, etc.). But I don’t imagine many colleagues can say the same.
      I personally definitely look forward to being able to leave the house!

  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  • Dear Ms Ott

    You are in charge! Hats off to you for being in charge. It has been a while since I encountered anyone so in charge. You call the shots. Your will is your employer’s command.


    You conclude I must be “terribly lonely” and you tell me I am “not in charge”.


    But did you not clock the fact that my “Trolley folly” post was couched as a question: “is this the end of the road?” Did you fail to notice the inflection at the end: “I might even have started toying with the thought that perhaps, after all, …” Granted, for any amount of diffidence in the expression of an opinion in British culture, it is worth dividing by two or three for most other cultures. That said, there is a plethora of hedging terms here: “might”, “started”, “toying”, “thought”, “perhaps”, “after all”. Six qualifications to the postulation.

    Yes, I’m probably around 15 years older than you. And yes, I have worked full time in the profession for more than quarter of a century, based in three different countries. In the early years I was doing close to 200 days a year. Latterly less. That’s a lot of travel. Until February last year I was flying to work for a major employer abroad every few weeks. The other weeks, I was on the Eurostar. That is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. That is a lot of nights away. That’s any number of trolley bags I have worn out.

    I have seen the depredations that years of constant travel have on travelling freelances over a career lasting decades not years. Some of my friends have sacrificed family life to do this job. The days we have “wrapped up over a glass of wine at the hotel bar”? So many days. So many glasses of wine. So many glasses of wine one after the other I have seen disappearing down my own and my colleagues’ throats. I have been part of a large community of very close friends and colleagues putting away wine, believe me.

    To answer your question as to whether I have “thought about what RSI from home means for our profession in the long run”: yes. I have been discussing it ceaselessly with colleagues, with AIIC, with my employers. I have watched, listened, observed, changed my own mind more than once. I have written about the funny sides, the complexities, the inanities, the annoyances, the delights, and recently the threat posed by AI.

    Over the past year I have observed how Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has revealed itself. Colleagues who were die-in-a-ditch upholders of the most robust and elitist stance within the profession, after six months of worklessness lost the self-actualization, the esteem, and the love and belonging brought by work. All of these you take for granted still. Then I saw how safety was abandoned as I and others went on planes and trains to cities with crazily high incidence of Covid in order to work, and then finally after the British variant of the virus seriously slammed the doors of the UK shut in mid-December I saw how freelances’ basic psychological needs were not being met: money was running out, mortgages were not being paid.

    I wrote Trolley folly in mid-February after working in RSI for several weeks for a major employer having observed that it can at its best be really good. Having noted that we may be at a point where technology and enlightened policy may present opportunities for those currently in the profession, those wanting to enter the profession, and those ending their careers to carve out niches of work, enjoyment and fulfilment that have not previously been possible. This will require honesty and not ideology if we are to make this work for the whole profession. It will require our professional body to work out standards for technology and contracts. There is a way to go yet, but I observe that for reasons none of us wanted we are already quite a long way down that road, and so too are large parts of the public and private sectors in our countries. This is watershed moment. I have tried RSI, I have weighed it in the balance. I have looked with an honest and enquiring mind at a quarter century of interpreting, and 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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