Penny wise, pound foolish

Some weeks ago I was asked to interpret at an international conference on early school leaving. The conference was attended by people from several European countries, including Spain. I would be whispering interpreting from English to Spanish.

As usual, I arrived a bit early to check the equipment, find a good spot to sit and meet my colleague. I had asked for the name of the other interpreter beforehand, but the agency told me it was someone hired by the organizer himself, so they didn’t know. But they assured me it was a conference interpreter. You can imagine my surprise when my colleague arrived, introduced himself and said: “er… so how does this work? I’ve never done any simultaneous interpreting before. Would you mind doing the first bit, so I can see how it works?”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but remained professional and told him that I would start, but that he would have to take over after about 30 minutes, as is customary among conference interpreters. When I was done with the first half hour and passed him the microphone, I immediately noticed he had no idea what he was doing and could not keep up. At all…

While he tried to make the best of it, I emailed the agency to tell them this was not going to work. The Spanish guests looked at me with question marks in their eyes, but I had no intention to interpret alone the entire day and the next. After fifteen minutes, the other interpreter (who spoke Spanish quite well, but was far from trained as a conference interpreter) came to me and practically begged me to take over. I did, because I felt bad for the guests, and managed to interpret until the coffee break. During the break he came over to me and said that he should have never taken the job. The organizer had called him because “those conference interpreters are ridiculously expensive!” (which might be due to the agency, as my rates are hardly ridiculously high) ;-). A few minutes later, I received a call from the agency that the client had requested to please arrange for another conference interpreter ASAP… Fortunately, lunch had been planned early and the agency managed to find someone. Lesson learned by the client: pay peanuts, get monkeys!


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