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 Home > Event-related

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People’s Health Assembly 3: Babels Interpreters’ Report

(Date: 14 September 2012)

People’s Health Assembly 3 – Babels Interpreters’ Report


The PHA initially agreed to fly in about 15 interpreters, which increased to around 20. The event was to provide transport, food, accommodation, and a small per diem of around 10 USD to cover additional expenses.

Volunteers were to find the cheapest flights themselves, and the booking itself was to be made by a travel agency. In the event, a travel agent in Cairo was used, and there was some delay in buying the tickets, although all were bought in the end. It may be worth using more than one travel agent for other events.

Judith Hitchman and Gregoire Seither were also involved in planning before the event, although they did not attend.


There was to be a morning plenary followed by 5+ separate sub-assemblies in different halls. There were also to be a large number of workshops in the afternoon, which Babels hoped to be able to cover by training local volunteers.

Selection was made based on the following criteria:

  • Professional or very experienced interpreters with lots of volunteer experience (due to the expensive ticket)
  • EN<>ES and/or EN<>FR
  • Also local language(s) <> EN
  • Attempting to improve the geographical balance (not just Europeans, but also volunteers from Africa, the Americas and Asia where possible.

Some preference was also given to interpreters that at least one of the coordinators knew and had seen working, to minimise risks in view of the high transport expenses.

Bi-active booths were used to cut down on the number of interpreters needed, with EN as the pivot language. In the event, there was just coverage of EN, ES, FR and Xhosa. A professional volunteer from Johannesburg, Sihle Faku, provided extensive coverage, particularly of the plenaries, unfortunately often working on her own, as we could not find effective backup for her.

In the event, 20 volunteers were brought in from abroad, of which 3 came from Africa, 1 from Asia (a Swiss-Colombian living and working in India) and 16 came from Europe. It would have been preferable to include more Africans particularly, but this was not ultimately possible as a result of various factors, including expensive air tickets, lack of regional contacts, and difficulty in recruiting for volunteer assignments. Also, there were several other events going on in Africa at the time, including a preparatory meeting for the 2013 World Social Forum, which claimed a lot of potential African volunteers.

One volunteer from Cote d’Ivoire who was selected had to be replaced in the end, because the deadline completion of his visa application was too tight.

Intended training

The intention was initially for two Babels volunteers to come a week early to train local volunteers, to cover the workshops in the afternoon. Alice Johnson has a lot of experience in this area, and she was going to manage this. Unfortunately, events in Egypt, where she lives, meant that she was forced to pull out. Joel Lopez-Ferreiro and Joseph Burbidge were scheduled to come a week early to cover this training.

A poster was designed, and emails were sent to most South African universities teaching French and/or Spanish, and institutions with courses in interpreting. Despite concerns about being overwhelmed with applicants, as was the case for the WSF in Dakar 2011, unfortunately only 2 locals volunteered, one of whom could not later be contacted, so the training was cancelled.

Possibly more interest could be generated for future volunteer calls by advertising earlier, and ensuring that calls are circulated during university term time.

As Joseph and Joel were already there, they used the time for preparation for the event, organising translation of documents, booth planning, and Joseph also interpreted for the International People’s Health University (IPHU) course 2012 and coordinated interpretation for the South African National Health Assembly, both of which took place in the same UWC venue on the days preceding the PHA3.


A mixture of FM booths and spiders was used for interpreting. The nomad booths had been suggested, but the event organisers ultimately opted for cheaper FM transmitters, although some interpreters were concerned that these could lead to technical problems.

The point was made by Judith that it was important to have several really good sound technicians to support the interpreters by knowing the equipment, setting it up and being present in each room to troubleshoot. She also observed that volunteers should be available to handle the spiders and make sure they were handed back in good order.

Gregoire Seither sent along spiders for use at the assembly.

All participants were instructed to bring FM radios, however it seems that the vast majority of the participants did not bring one for whatever reason. Therefore, there was a need for a large number of extra portable radios. These were sourced at some difficulty locally, and were then distributed to participants.

Although participants were reminded at registration that they would need an FM radio many thought they would be able to get by without one. This meant that during one plenary when one of the speakers gave an entire presentation in a language other than English, almost all of the members of the audience suddenly realised the need for an FM Radio. A chaotic situation then ensued with hundreds of members of the audience approaching the radio distribution desk at once, all urgently requesting radios in order to follow the plenary. A number of interpreters aided by event volunteers managed to deal with the situation.

In similar events in the future, measures should be taken to ensure that all event participants are fully aware of the fact that presentations and speeches will be given in a number of different languages. Also, radios should be distributed at the entrance to each and every member of the audience in order to avoid a sudden rush when a different language is used.

Some spiders had poor sound initially, but this turned out to be due to cheap batteries. When higher quality batteries were used, these problems went away.

Reception for the radio equipment was good in some rooms (fortunately including the room used for plenaries), but very erratic in others. There was often considerable noise and interference, and the systems would start and stop working, sometimes apparently because the lights were turned on or off. At some sessions the interpreters were left listening directly to the floor, and the conditions were very draining if not impossible.

Interference between transmitters on the same frequency meant the EN transmitter normally had to be shared between two booths, which was not ideal.

Michael Terry did excellent work as the sound technician, thanks to which the system was just about workable. He was on call for troubleshooting, and interpreters could contact him by mobile phone when there were difficulties. Without his work, the system would have largely fallen flat.

Michael also brought along some good quality Sony FM receivers with 6 preset channels, which he lent to the interpreters, also making the interpreting easier.

Most of the interpreters were very experienced, and ploughed through under sometimes difficult technical conditions, but less experienced volunteers were not always able to work or were not able to work in their weaker combinations.

It is worth emphasising to the event organisers that if large sums are spent on flying in interpreters who can do a good job, it is worth spending money on a technical setup that will allow the interpreters to work correctly.


Accommodation was provided in a student residence on campus, with shared shower and kitchen facilities, and decent security. Interpreters were housed in the same building. It was sometimes a little cold in the rooms, but volunteers were instructed to bring an extra blanket.

The food was generally good, and the main serving staff were particularly welcoming. Vegetarians and vegans were also catered for.

The equipment was sometimes difficult to work with (see section on Equipment), but there was good technical support. Interpreters were instructed to stop work if conditions became impossible and/or they found they were becoming exhausted.

The organisers were stretched due to the large volume of work they had to handle, but the vast majority was very friendly and supportive.

Unfortunately, there was repeated hostility in one case in response to questions about logistics, even when the matters in question had not yet been handled. This made the work of coordinating the interpreters difficult, if not impossible, and added unnecessarily to the stress level. In the interests of the success of the event, the Babels coordinators ignored these difficulties and tried to find alternative contacts to work around it, although this was not always possible.

On the positive side, some apologies were made, and the mood lifted after it became clear that the event was working well, but this kind of friction needs to be avoided at future events.

All expenses were covered, although Babels had not mentioned the question of insurance. Often this has not been covered at other events, but some interpreters commented that travelling outside the EU, health insurance is a necessary expense, and as such it should be covered. This was put to Amit, and he agreed to cover this expense as well. Babels should raise this earlier at future events outside the EU.

A comment was made on stage in the closing plenary along the lines of “don’t pay expensive agencies when Babels will do it for 10 dollars a day”. The intentions behind the comment were good, but this kind of remark gives the wrong impression of what volunteer interpreters do. It was rather demoralising for the interpreters in the booths, although they took it in good humour. Maybe the idea behind Babels should be underscored further before an event in future, perhaps with an announcement at the opening explaining the interpreters’ role.

There was also some lack of understanding of the interpreters’ role when some were asked to pay registration fees. After having explained that interpreters do not pay to register for the conference, word spread around and one interpreter was approached by another participant later on, asking why he didn’t want to pay like everyone else.


The team held up very well under the difficult conditions, as all the interpreters were tried and tested.

The biggest challenge was, perhaps, the sub-plenaries, which were all to be covered for FR and ES in 6-8 rooms simultaneously. Volunteers were sought from among the participants to do some interpreting, but many did not attend the sessions scheduled, and of those that did, most could not handle the difficult technical conditions or were hit by ‘stage-fright’ when attempting simultaneous interpretation for the first time.

Fortunately, some of the sub-plenaries did not require one or both of the languages, so this extra capacity could be reallocated to a different session. Interpreters sometimes also covered 2 booths between 3 interpreters in adjacent rooms. It was very useful to have one interpreter to coordinate this, and go round the rooms keeping an eye on who is free and who is overloaded. It was also very useful that the interpreters had local SIM cards (covered by the per diem), so it was possible to send extra interpreters over directly.

This shows that even when an event is very short on interpreters, the gaps can be filled if people are allocated correctly. Also, it could be useful to be clear to participants from the outset that the interpreters will wait for a few minutes but afterwards leave the meeting to see if they are needed elsewhere.

Personal contact with many of the participants really helped things to run smoothly. Speaking to many about their language needs for their meetings and identifying who was in charge of the meetings made it possible to work out when and where interpreters were needed. This could be encouraged in future in order to determine where interpreters are needed.

All the members of the team were supportive to each other, looking round for colleagues working alone and helping out during their free slots, so the coverage was virtually seamless.

Although only EN, ES and FR were cited as official languages, Babels anticipated the need for PT, and had selected enough interpreters to cover the events where Portuguese was spoken. Antonio Filimone was brought in to replace Sebastien Guehi following his visa problems, and he had just completed a masters in interpreting for FR <> PT. Fernando Teixeira, professional from Cape Town, also had PT <> FR, but it was not a combination he used often.

For one presentation at the NHA, it was necessary for an interpreter to interpret directly over the main address system while listening to the Portuguese presenter over headphones. This covered the gap, but is clearly not ideal, and fortunately this method could be avoided during the main event.


Generally the event worked well in interpreting terms although unfortunately there were not sufficient volunteers to train local interpreters as planned.

The number of volunteers called was just sufficient for the language needs of the event, and with careful reallocation of interpreters in real time, it was possible to give full coverage. Those selected were generally known to the Babels coordinators and accustomed to this type of working environment, so they handled the challenges effectively.

The equipment often caused difficulties, but with a highly dedicated sound technician it was just about workable. Apart from this the conditions were good, and the interpreters were not too overloaded.

Babels was pleased to see how well the People’s Health Assembly went, and to be able to support the event.


  • Need to improve network of interpreters outside Europe
  • Travel insurance should be covered for trips outside EU (we can find the cheapest deal, and we should mention it to event organisers in advance)
  • The selection and call should be made well ahead to give lead time for visas
  • Start recruiting local volunteers well ahead (and during term time!)
  • Make a more explicit announcement at the start about the role of Babels and speak with presenters in advance about how to describe interpreter volunteer work (for volunteer morale and relations with local pros)
  • Different interpreting equipment would have worked better
  • Buying local SIM cards was very useful
  • Useful to give explicit explanation of why Babels likes to double-check all details to ensure interpreters have good conditions, to head off possible hostile reaction from organisers
  • Always have good batteries for Spiders
  • Designating one interpreter to check the meeting rooms and reallocate interpreters to where they were most needed was essential to the success of an event with a low interpreter to session ratio.
  • More extensive use of a well-placed interpreter’s notice board would have helped internal communication.
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