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 Home > Event-related > European SF > ESF 2008 Malmö

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Post-ESF report: Booth planning and selection of languages

Report on booth planning, ESF2008, Malmö, Sweden
(Date: 3 November 2008)


This report explains how linguistic needs were determined, and how the booth planning process was carried out. It explains what worked and what didn’t, and offers a number of tips on what to avoid in the future.

TO DISCUSS THIS ISSUE, use the forum: click here!

Report prepared by Irma, Giulia, Pietro and Yan.

A. What was planned before the ESF

The original plan was to have Julie, Barunka, Yan and another 1-3 volunteers in Malmö organize the booth planning 3-4 days before the Forum. Julie and Yan had experience with booth planning at the London and Athens ESFs, and at the Porto Alegre WSF. Volunteers would receive a complete schedule for the duration of the ESF.

At some point, there was talk of reviving the BaBOO system used for the London ESF and the Porto Alegre WSF, but it required too much work and special equipment. The system would have made it easier to print schedules with a lot of information for each interpreter. Instead of having a simple number in a box, interpreters could have received the title, room, hour, and abstract of the seminar, as well as other types of information.

With the accommodation crisis (see report on Accommodation) and the problems with last-minute selection (see report on Selection), everyone was busy doing other tasks. Given that the most sensitive booths were lacking confirmed interpreters, and given the critical state of affairs regarding accommodation, we preferred to wait before starting planning. It is useless to start booth planning when you do not have a 90% complete list of interpreters for ’key’ booths (the EN and FR booth, for instance). You can always start the work early, but if you do not know who is in the ’problem’ booths, you will necessarily have to do the same work all over again, wasting time. Extraordinary problems required extraordinary measures, and planning was done only from one day to the next.

Given the problems with the equipment, plans to have ’flying interpreters’ were abandoned (’flying interpreters’ are interpreters who only have 1 slot confirmed, and remain ’on call’ for another slot for last minute and emergency situations, such as when one scheduled interpreter is missing, or an activity needs to have an interpreter for an unscheduled language). Likewise, plans were abandoned to have some volunteers with mobile phones go from one venue to the next to check if things were OK, or if anything was needed, as the NOC did not provide for the phones they had promised.

B. Assessing linguistic needs before the ESF

There were two stages to determine which languages would be needed for each seminar: (1) the first was the analysis of the languages indicated on the provisional program; (2) the second was to contact the seminar organizers by email to confirm their linguistic needs. Based on (1) and (2), and based on the number of booths available in the rooms allocated to each activity, Babels selected the ’booths’ in stage (3).

(1) ESF provisional program

Based on the provisional program, Germán and Julie assessed the language needs, language by language. Seminar organizers were requested to list for each proposed activity:

a-languages used by the speakers;

b-languages needed for the audience.

See online form: Esf08FormSeminars and Esf08FormParticipants on the wiki.

The point was to know which active and passive languages were needed. There was no precise limit to the number of languages that one could list.

The analysis of the program yielded fairly accurate results on the number of interpreters needed for each language, despite several last minute changes. See Esf08ProgrammeSelection on the wiki.

If there were interpreters who found that they worked too much, or too little, this can be attributed firstly to the problem of the booths not working (which meant many activities reverted to English-only discussions) and thus the interpreters became "superfluous" in the opinion of English-speaking audiences, secondly to some confusion in the selection process (which meant that there were too many people for certain booths, see report on Selection) and thirdly because for some booths there were too few interpreters available at all (see report on selection). In any case, in every Forum interpreters complain either that they work too much or that they work too little, or that the timetable does not suit them and they could not attend the sessions they wanted to go to, etc. So, these complaints should be taken seriously, but only to a certain extent. In Athens, interpreters could swap seminars, or the people who had too many could give a seminar to someone with the same language combination, because all the info was on the same wall. And, they complained about this anyhow...

(2) Contacting seminar organizers

Julie contacted all the seminar organizers asking them to provide detailed information:
- names of the speakers;
- languages spoken by speakers;
- abstracts, keywords, speeches.
See Esf08SeminarsCoordinatorsEmail and Esf08SeminarsCoordinatorsForm on the wiki.

Based on the replies, languages were marked as ’Confirmed’ on the provisional program. Approximately 25-35% of the seminar organizers replied to Babels’ message. Some submitted a lot of information, others had almost nothing to add.

Speeches/information received by Babels were subsequently uploaded to googledocs by Camila, then printed and given to interpreters scheduled for the seminars in question. Malmö ESF was the first time ’seminar information’ was handed out in such an organized manner. Disappointingly, the information received was still small in number (a dozen seminars per day), and many interpreters never came to fetch the documents that had been printed.

(3) Selecting ’booths’ for each activity

Based on replies, we subsequently selected ’booths’ (the active languages) for each seminar. Not all people who originally were going to do the planning were available, as the others were still dealing with Accomodation and other logistics that should have been taken care of by the NOC. We followed basic rules:
- Babels would respect the wishes of those who confirmed their linguistic needs. For those who did not confirm anything, Babels would make an educated guess on their needs, and occasionally ’eliminate’ one or several booths. The point was to avoid repeating the mistake made in Athens, when ’empty’ booths were automatically allocated non-requested languages.
- whenever an activity was scheduled in a room with an insufficient number of booths, the seminar organizers would be asked to choose which languages would be active, and which passive, depending on the speakers’ ability to understand/speak the active languages.
- whenever an activity had indicated no language need, nothing was planned. This decision was based on the motto: ’If you don’t help us by telling us what you need, we can’t help you.’

Many interpreters have remarked that they were not needed. This may have been due to the fact (i) that speakers never showed up, (ii) that the target audience never showed up, (iii) that speakers would speak something else since the booths were not working. But it was not due to the fact that Babels ’invented’ that the language was needed. Babels programmed languages based on the most up-to-date information available. Unhappily, this information was often incomplete, or no longer up-to-date.

C. What was finally done during the ESF

On Tuesday, Yan asked Irma and Pietro to help do the booth planning for Thursday, as Julie and Barunka were still busy with other issues. Irma and Pietro, in turn, recruited the help of other members, notably Giulia. On Wednesday, the booth planning group prepared the schedules for Thursday. On Thursday, the group prepared schedules for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Work was carried out all day, non-stop, and the schedules handed out in evening meetings at Amiralen, in a very chaotic fashion.

We will distinguish the (1) rules used in the booth planning; (2) the method used to implement those rules; and (3) specific problems encountered in Malmö.

(1) Rules

The plan was to follow the following rules:

  1. one experienced interpreter (experienced, professional) with one less experienced (first timer, occasional).
  2. as many active and passive languages as possible, to avoid relay as much as possible. When relay was inevitable, a strong booth for the relay.
  3. two shifts per day maximum per interpreter.
  4. cover the linguistic needs as indicated in the program.

Goals were well-balanced booths, both in terms of experienced but also in terms of languages. Interpreters working together ought to have complementary language combinations. Booths ought to be able – in many cases – to interpret from A into B and vice versa. Interpreting to/from B and C languages was not a valid option unless people clearly stated they could do it.

We wanted to develop a good and quick booth planning system: we did it to a certain extent, but the methodology still needs to be improved.

(2) Method

As for the actual plan, we thought we could use the Athens system, i.e. a kind of giant table with interpreters’ names on the left and time slots at the top of the table. Having a paper for each seminar was very handy. It would have been even better having also a general list of seminars to look at so that you can see at first glance how many booths of the same language per slot etc. In the end we didn’t choose to print such a table because of lack of time.

As for copying booth planning on the interpreters’ personal schedules, it could be done by using the numbered-list-of-seminars system. We may staple the two sheets of papers together and if we finish booth planning before the starting of the ESF, we might even been able to hand out the personal planning for the whole ESF on the inauguration day!

On the occasion on the First Mediterranean Social Forum (MSF), we even managed to send interpreters the short description of the seminars in which they would work a few days before they would actually get to Barcelona. Silvia Prati did the whole planning for that Forum and Giulia Castorani and Irma sent the e-mails from Barcelona. Booth planning was not perfect, however, and we had to work on it before the Forum after Silvia arrived in Barcelona, and kept changing and amending it during the MSF.

For Malmö, one coordinator suggested that we split the booth planning and let the coordinators of each booth do it for their booth, thinking it was easier to manage 40 people rather than 400, also knowing better the situation, matching people in booths, etc., but other coordinators argued that we needed to be aware of who is being put in the other booths, to match levels, languages, etc. However, it would be very useful to ask language coordinators to double-check. Sometimes, we discover that someone who claims to be experienced is actually either better or worse, and can or cannot work into their B language.

The final method adopted to plan the booths: (1) we had a list of seminars, one page per seminar, with the active + passive languages. (2) We had a list of interpreters that had been confirmed by the travel group, ordered by A1 language.

(1) List of seminars with linguistic needs: it was based on the work described above. Last-minute information was recorded whenever last-minute changes reached Babels.

(2) List of interpreters: we printed the list of all interpreters confirmed – stage 3 and stage 4 – from the database, and divided them according to their A language (i.e. according to the booth they belonged). Next to the name of each interpreter – their A, B and C languages as well as the interpretation level, their arrival/departure date and date of birth were also indicated - time slots for the four days were added: first column was Thursday - morning, afternoon and evening - and so were Friday, Saturday and Sunday (morning only). In this way, it was easy to check whether people were working 1, 2 or 3 slots in a row (and try to avoid this) or none (and try to avoid this...).

The problem is we had at first one copy of this list, then two, then three copies. The point was to be able to split the work per slot: one team prepared the morning slot, while another prepared the afternoon slot, etc. But this resulted in a huge mess, since we needed (and managed, on Thursday and partly on Friday) to keep at least one copy fully up-to-date to check how many people were working, where they were supposed to work, and if they worked 3 slots, or not at all. At some point we stopped updating the copies, so three copies were being used, information was not communicated properly (lack of time and confusion) and several people were then scheduled for two seminars at the same time. At this point we had to go through the list of people to find someone else, etc.

The system can work, but needs to be centralized, so that there is always one authoritative copy of the list of interpreters with their schedule.

Furthermore, one should not multiply teams, as we were forced to do in Malmö. Teams of two people for each day should be enough. And then, we must browse the whole booth list before choosing people, otherwise some people work too much and others work too little or do not work at all.

(3) Specific problems in Malmö

In no particular order:

- With no booths working, relay was impossible. This made it also impossible for some interpreters to do anything at all, since they needed relay for the languages that were most commonly used.
- The copies of the list of interpreters started loosing sheets of paper (staples were not of good quality), so we had one or two pages missing from one booth or the other, consequence: we “forgot” people.... We must avoid this.
- Some people showed up but they were not registered in stages 3 and 4. They were not in the list, so they did not get any work (or little). Should we create a temporary list which is filled up during the forum and keep it in mind for substitutions? Flying interpreters? We need to be careful with this; all the interpreters that were actually selected need to be in the initial list and on the database, otherwise we lose track of people, then more people than expected (and selected) might want to claim reimbursement, as was the case of one or two people in Malmö. All the information should be on the database, so it is easy and quick to check if they were really selected (and will get reimbursement etc.) or if they just misunderstood.
- Since we lacked people for the EN booth and the SW booth for instance (almost all SW interpreters were first experienced), we were often forced to have booths with two experienced (EN booth), or two first experience (SW booth).
- We must double-check schedules to make sure people are not scheduled for two seminars in the same time slot. This was not done systematically, and some people had impossible schedules.
- We were not able to always cover all the languages of seminars. In many cases, we selected two interpreters having only one language in common, risk is that one of the two works all the time and the other one does not, unless he/she uses the relay. This leads to another problem: relay is not always usable.... so, three people in a booth? Or do we keep hoping relay is good? (With seminars with many languages, a single booth cannot actually cover all the languages, and sometimes relay will be needed. We must then try in those cases to make the relay booth ’stronger’).
- We should have clear lists to people by booth they were selected for; some people with IT in A and EN in B, for example, were selected for the English booth, and so should work that booth throughout the forum, otherwise the selection numbers get lost in the mist... also in case a person get chosen for a booth which isn’t his/her A language, specify with that person that they will be working into the B language. In this case, one coordinator has argued that it’s fair to have them do C into B language, and use them also in seminars where their A language isn’t present, since it was their decision to come as part of a different booth.

As a result, we still haven’t been able to make a proper evaluation of our volunteers’ skills, even after the Forum.

Booth Team preparation (Ali Ottoman TR/KR)

Booth team lists were delivered quite late, some interpreters finding themselves unable to wait for them since they had to leave early in order to reach their distant residence.

They were also not always adequate in terms of distribution of competence or balance between professionals, experienced and beginners, especially at the beginning, with some booths turning out to be inoperative because their interpreters were too inexperienced and could not do the job. After the first few days, one of the Tr/Kr coordinators joined the volunteers to help establish more balanced booth teams. This gave some results, and interpretation performance was improved.

Still, we felt the need to be able to communicate with cell phones or some other means, and a shared list of our phone numbers coupled with a local cell phone card would have been a great help. The last problem we had with booth planning was that we didn’t know who was leaving at what time on the last day of the Forum, so that the team planning became a complex equation.

D. Advice for future forums

- Explain very clearly to seminar organizers that Babels requires precise information regarding linguistic needs, in order to know how many interpreters are needed, and where.
- Start thinking of booth planning: how to do it, systems, etc. earlier than we did. We may start working on the seminars we know won’t be changed and filling booths with people already confirmed.
We could even consider giving seminar organizers a clear deadline to ask for interpreting, after that deadline we can consider or try but we don’t promise interpreting; it might help speeding the process and give us more information sooner.
- Have the interpreters’ schedule ready before the beginning of the forum.
- Give interpreters information on the seminar, including the names and languages of the other interpreters, so as to plan relay accordingly.
- Always double-check interpreters’ schedules.
- Think of having always (or almost always) two people having at least two common working languages in the same booth.
- Buy a good stapler and staple sheets properly. This sounds stupid, but we lost sheets of paper.
- Reserve a number of flying interpreters to cover last-minute needs.

E. Currently in process

- Blacklisting interpreters who abandoned ship or otherwise betrayed their fellow interpreters. Example: they never showed up; they behaved very rudely; they were really bad despite claiming a certain level of ’experience’. These volunteers should never be selected again.
- Creating computer-based solutions to deal with some aspects of booth planning. Babels-Tech is currently reviving the BaBOO booth planning system used in London and Porto Alegre.
- Thinking of a way to check the information on the Babels database, to avoid surprises.

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