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Voluntary Work: Elements for Constructive Debate

Posted: Mon Jul 11, 2005 3:34 pm
by Peter Naumann
Due to technical problems, Walter Keiser has asked me to publish here his contribution to the discussion that had already been published on June 20, 2005 in the AIIC Forum

Peter Naumann

Walter KEISER (
Date: 20 Jun 2005 12:11
Subject: Voluntary Work. Elements for constructive debate


When I suggested to Peter Naumann to get his article on BABELS published in COMMUNICATE I did so hoping that this would lead to a positive debate among conference interpreters, both AIIC and non-AIIC, on the delicate and difficult subject of voluntary interpreting. Unfortunately this is not what happened. The "debate" immediately turned into personal attacks instead of substantive discussion, and aggressive criticism of AIIC, as if Peter Naumann’s article had been AIIC-piloted. In one word, a totally unproductive response. Fortunately, of late, some positive, experience-based contributions have yielded elements for a constructive debate.

Just one word about AIIC. Ever since it’s foundation, November 1953, it has been AIIC’s policy to encourage voluntary work by its members. Article 13 of the first issue of the Professional Code stipulates: "Les membres de l’Association peuvent fournir leurs services gratuitement, à condition d’assumer eux-mêmes leurs frais de voyage et de séjour éventuels (sauf dérogation exceptionnelle que le Conseil aurait consentie)".

In this contribution I am not going to talk about AIIC’s practise or policy. I am not either dealing with borderline cases, such as a mixed system of paid teams for main meetings and volunteers for secondary or satellite meetings, or cases where certain cost items such as accommodation, meals, and travel arrangements might legitimately be negotiated as being at the expense of the organisers. I also omit in this article the thorny question of how to define organisations or events "deserving" voluntary interpretation. Of course, all these elements should be part of the debate. To day I am writing as a professional conference interpreter having worked for free for a number of meetings. I am also drawing on my experience as a consultant interpreter having organised and managed teams of voluntary interpreters.

Yet, before going into this, I must take issue with a statement of principle, shall I call it credo, repeatedly brandished on the BABELS front. It stipulates that in order to faithfully and excellently interpret a political, socially engaged debate the interpreter must be deeply convinced by, and committed to, the Cause. This is totally wrong. Any conference interpreter worthy of this name is perfectly able to faithfully render any type of speech, political, economic, social, religious, even if he/she does not share the credo of the speaker. It is precisely his/her job to convincingly speak as a political pasionaria, a sober scientist, a tough trade unionist, a bible-quoting evangelist, a person deeply in grief, etc. Not to master this oratory skill is dangerous. I have seen, very rarely it is true, interpreters who were so deeply engulfed in their political credo, or marked by a terrible personal experience during a war, that in certain circumstances their feelings permeated their work, leading them to "loaded" or biased renderings. Consequence: Frequently, their interpretation caused diplomatic incidents. At worst they were fired on the spot, at best they were transferred into the Translation Service where their output could be checked before publication.

Here now my rules of conduct when organising teams for voluntary work (I simplify):

Seen from the viewpoint of the consultant (recruiting) interpreter, this implies:
a) For the interpreter:
1. Together with the offer, supply of precise information about the meeting and the working conditions (languages required, number of interpreters per booth, work-load). Information about accommodation and meals, travel arrangements, insurance, etc. Qualification of the offer (firm, option, deadlines).
2. As soon as possible, information about the composition of the team(s), booth mates, etc.
3. An individual contract clearly stating the terms of recruitment.
4. Before the meeting, information about, if possible dispatching of, reference documentation, terminology, detailed session programmes, etc. Before and during the meeting, provision of texts of the oral presentations, legends of slides, PowerPoint transparents
b) General:
1. Recruitment: If you can get voluntary interpreters familiar with the subject matter of the meeting all the better, but real professionals will be able very quickly to prepare any meeting. Beginners should be tested before being put on a team. By "beginners" I mean interpreters who have had advanced interpretation training, including simultaneous interpretation, but who still lack professional experience. NEVER MAN A BOOTH WITH BEGINNERS ONLY, AVOID IF AT ALL POSSIBLE LEAVING BEGINNERS ALONE IN A BOOTH. For large meetings, testing sessions should be organised before the event. Sometimes I got voluntary help from the faculty of recognized interpreters’ schools experienced in testing, sometimes assistance by consultant interpreters used to spot talents.
2. Technical conditions: THERE IS NO REASON TO PUT UP WITH SUB-STANDARD SIMULTANEOUS INTERPRETATION EQUIPMENT AND/OR UNQUALIFIED TECHNICAL STAFF. I always insist on being put into touch, prior to the meeting, with the person(s) in charge of the equipment. I submit my requirements on the basis of the same "Checklist on essential items on booths and equipment for simultaneous interpretation" I use for non-voluntary events. Sometimes I even succeeded in getting for the organisers excellent equipment supplied free of charge by equipment firms. NEVER FORGET: THE BEST INTERPRETERS IN THE WORLD WILL BE UNABLE TO SECURE QUALITY WORK IF THE EQUIPMENT IS NOT GOOD.

It is my experience that professional interpreters, AIIC or non-AIIC, will gladly accept voluntary work, provided they get the assurance that the working conditions offered to them will permit optimal quality work.
I hope that from now on the debate will be about substance, not persons or passions.

Walter (Wadi) Keiser, Geneva
20 June 2005

Posted: Thu Aug 04, 2005 1:09 pm
by ljesover
This is a very good post at least for me. But I'll reiterate the same concerns as for Peter's previous criticisms: The lack of knowledge of the reality of a Social Forum now. I mean now, because since the first one there has been an evolution. Some of it thanks to Babels. I'll make the same invitation: Please participate to the organizing and please take in account:

1- 150 conferences a day with translation an not one or 10, with at least 450 to 500 speakers a day. (around 50 rooms with translation simultaneously) For the number of speakers a day calculate also the level of last minute changes and cancellations-replacements (around a third minimum)

2- Number of languages in input and output. We are now talking abount 4 to 5 but closer to 15 languages we a variation in each room and therefore very difficult combinations.

3- Speakers are more and more not university professors or international experts, people use (and train) to speak in front of an international public. Speeaches are not prepared as "papers" but mostly has hand-written notes even when there is an heavy campaign held by the SF Org. Committee less than 1% only of the speeches shows up before as papers. If you take the ESF3 experience where a description of a few lines only, some keywords were asked: You can raise it to 20% max (only!!) before the Forum: I tried to edited them for the translators and it resulted in a book of 300 pages for not even a quarter of the conferences... and it was only a few lines, keywords for the different conference speeches.

4- Increase of the audience and its diversity: 10 000 for WSF1 + 40 000 for WSF2 (all in the PUC, a private unviersity) / 60 000 in WSF3 (in different POA location) / 100 000 in WSF4 in India, 130 000 in WSF5 (ESF evolution is more or less the same with differences)

4- Lack of means, even more than during the first WSFs Peter is referring to which were largely financed by the Rio Grane do Sul State (finishing just before WSF3 which had heavy consequences on the website and registration) and the city of POA (finishing just before WSF5 with heavy consequences on the material aspects). For instance the WSF4 budget was a quarter (if not less) of the WSF3 budget. The WSF5 ended up with $1.5 millions USD deficit. This is having more than heavy consequences on the technical side of things not mentioning other aspects of the organizing.

5- Extreme variety of the thematics and the type of speeches (technical, political, testimonies and so on) within the same conference now self-organized by several organizations in different countries/continents with no previous experience of working together (not even mentioning some time the lack of common woprking languages before the Forum between them!!), different from WSF1, 2 and 3 where WSF conferences existed (the ones with translation) crafted by a central group of persons.

And so on... This is not the fruit of some type of gigantism, but the consequence of real new needs. To say the least a Social Forum is not an international colloquium or a symposium, it is a new emerging form.