Labour of Love


The position of chief interpreter was one of the oldest at Oriental courts. "At the Sultan's court in Constantinople the position of baştercüman (grand, chief, or court interpreter) was one of the most highly respected court and government offices".[1] Nowadays, chief interpreters do not work for royal courts but for international organisations. Still, their role is as important as ever. They are the link between the interpreter and the organisation as well as the first port of call for interpreters. During my last mission with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), I had the good fortune that Mr Ian Newton, the ILO chief interpreter, was present and he kindly made himself available for an interview. I was looking forward to this conversation as the job of a chief interpreter has long been a black box to me.

How did you progress till you became a chief interpreter?

After I had finished my studies in the UK, I was recruited by the European Commission for their interpreter internship programme (stage). This coincided with the UK, Denmark and Ireland joining the EU. I worked in Brussels for five years. As Russian was one of my languages, I had always had the plan to move to the United Nations to use it. In the early eighties, I moved to Geneva and I started freelancing for UN organisations. I spent eight years working for what later became the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I was travelling a little too much so for family reasons I decided it was time to cut back on travelling. In 1990, I took a job with the ILO as a staff interpreter. After ten years, I had an opportunity to move into the administration of the ILO's meetings and documentation. This gave me an insight into the management of conferences, as well as experience in human resource management. Ten years later, the position of chief interpreter became free. So I applied and have been in this position since 2010.

What are your main tasks as a chief interpreter?

There are a few tasks:

  1. Supply meetings with quality interpreting. In other words, I am an agent of the organisation ensuring that it has the best possible interpretation services. Supplying quality has many aspects:
  2. a) as an interpreter, I can understand what services the interpreters capacities are.
  3. b) as a manager, I can strike the best compromises between the needs of the organisation and what the interpreters can supply.

It is like a tight rope walking act. The organisation would of course try to obtain the best availability and the best flexibility from the interpreters at the most economical price. That's quite natural. Sometimes I need to explain to the interpreters that employment opportunities are limited. There are times I would like to offer more work but it is also my task to defend the financial position of the organisation.

  1. As a manager of people, make sure that interpreters who are recruited can work under the best possible conditions. I see my role as an enabler, making sure that my interpreters are able to perform properly. It is a virtuous circle; by helping the interpreters, they help you and consequently the organisation and its customers.
  2. Explain to the administration why interpreters cannot go beyond certain limits, as well as the rules that exist. I need to explain these rules in a reasonable and comprehensible manner to both sides of the equation. Sometimes I am in the heart of the tension but if I can demonstrate to the administration that they are getting as good a deal as possible and to the interpreters that they are treated as fairly as possible, trust builds up and a productive relationship is created.

You mentioned that supplying quality interpreting is the main objective. What does that mean?

For me, this means that the interpretation goes unnoticed. People put their headsets on in a meeting and do not concentrate on the fact that there is language mediation going on. The whole thing flows smoothly. The meeting takes place in different languages and interpreters do their jobs unnoticed. Isn't it wonderful that interpreters can bridge the linguistic and cultural divides? We are bombarded on a daily basis with cultural misunderstandings. Isn't it great to be able to make a Russian speaker from Siberia sound like your neighbour from two doors down the road? Isn't it great to bring about a common denominator and make people understand that we are all human beings with moments of joy and moments of pain who share a lot of fundamental values.If the interpreter can do that by overcoming the cultural divide, what greater vocation can you want?

What are the particularities of the ILO? Does it differ from other organisations in terms of what it requires from a chief interpreter?

The organisation is the largest single recruiter of freelancers in the United Nations system. There have been no permanent staff interpreters since the end of the nineties. If you take all of the four UN headquarters together in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, together they offer a volume of free-lance work that is a little larger than the ILO but compared to each individual HQ, the ILO offers more work.

The ILO is a tripartite organisation which makes it different in terms of its political structure from any specialised agency of the United Nations which, otherwise, are all intergovernmental bodies. The ILO has a tripartite constituency of governments, employers and workers. The fact that there are three negotiating partners generates a lot of interpretation work. The conditions of employment and remuneration of freelancers are governed by the Agreement between the UN and the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). AIIC gives a special concession to the ILO because of that special structure. It permits, under specific scheduling situations, the ILO to assign interpreters for periods of up to four hours, which is exceptional as usually interpreters are assigned for a maximum of three hours. This gives rise to a lot of mathematical complications. Two long assignments have the same value as three ordinary sittings. Also, if I recruit someone for six days, the interpreter owes the organisation eight sittings and there needs to be a number of rest periods. I have to be cautious that the interpreters do not exceed the workload, which will cost the organisation extra money.

In addition to the UN official languages, we have an extra official language which is German. We have to manage a larger language spread with the complication that we have to ensure there is enough relay coverage. In other words, in the English and French booths, I need to have enough interpreters who can work from either Spanish and German or Russian and German or Russian and Spanish. Interpreters with Russian and German are not very common and it is a challenge to secure their presence. This means I cannot leave the recruitment till late. In general, I start giving options a year in advance and confirm three months before the meeting. There is again a lot of trust involved. If the organisation is known for being one that offers a lot of options without confirming them, this is not conducive to a climate of trust between the chief interpreter and the interpreters. So it is important for me, when I offer an option, that I maintain the organisation's reputation of confirming a very large percentage of the options offered. From a legal point of view, we could cancel a team without financial consequences. Nevertheless, the interpreters know that ILO options mostly translate into real jobs.

Could you tell me about your most challenging meeting so far?

In many ways, they are all challenging. The ILO general conference takes place in early June every year and lasts a fortnight. At that time we have about 300 interpreters in the seven booths. There are also some staff added who work from Portuguese and Japanese. Sometimes, special arrangements have to be made for exotic languages when required. The actual unit that runs the interpretation service is made up of a chief interpreter and one and a half administrative staff. When you consider that we have a free-lance workload that is larger than any other UN agency, you realise that it is quite a burden. Good planning is key and this starts immediately after the conference finishes for the following year's session! A very large share of the recruitment takes place in the form of options in order to reserve as many people as possible for the following year. The options turn into firm offers in February of the following year and the remaining months till June witness intensive planning to make sure everything is in place before the start of the big rush. Preparing the assignments for the conference and managing 15 full teams of interpreters with a large number of different meetings taking place all requires good eyes, as all sorts of parameters demand attention. There are always personal questions that crop up when you have 300 professionals working in the same place. Inevitably there will be accidents, illnesses and sometimes even deaths in the family. I perfectly understand that as my own mother passed away during the conference several years ago. In such humanitarian situations, what else can you do but allow people to travel to be with their loved one? At the same time, you have to think also about the logistics and make sure that the interpretation service keeps running. So there needs to be enough contingency planning, as events can always take an unexpected turn.

Several organisations are moving towards paperless environments. What is the ILO doing in this respect?

One of the issues I suffered from as an interpreter in the United Nations system is the issue of the availability of texts of read speeches. When I trained as an interpreter at the European Commission, I was told that interpretation exists for improvised speeches and if somebody started reading a text then we were entitled to switch off the microphone if it was difficult. Everybody who exercises the profession nowadays knows that if interpreters turn off the microphone when a delegate starts reading a text, there will be permanent silence from the booth! The complaint I was confronted with when I took over my current post was that there were no texts of speeches coming in, and so I spent quite some time thinking about how to sort this issue. I came up with the idea of creating an email address to receive the delegates' speeches and then forward them to the interpreters. It took sometime to build trust and assure the delegates of the confidentiality of the material they would be sending in. I also explained that the messages they wanted to deliver at the meeting would come out in a more effective manner. Compliance levels have increased considerably to the extent that we now get over 90% of delegates' statements in advance. As many interpreters are used to paper documents, we also have a system that allows dual distribution of documents - in both digital and paper formats.

On the topic of technology, what is the position of ILO on remote interpreting?

The ILO holds internal teleconferencing meetings with interpretation. Interpreters are at headquarters as are a number of staff and we work with mainly our regional offices in Lima, Bangkok, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Abidjan and some other cities. I cannot say that these meetings so far have been entirely successful because of the bandwidth available. I am doing my best to make sure that the organisation is ready for the future. Technology developments are going that way and there is no point in digging in our heels and refusing to go with it. It is incumbent upon the chief interpreter to convince the administration of the needs of the staff he manages to make sure the correct investment is made. He also needs to overcome some of the reticence the interpreters might have. I am not as negative about this phenomenon. It allows for less travel for the delegates. But we are still a long way off from what we could describe as pure remote interpretation. The ILO is still an organisation that believes in people coming together. Sometimes I am asked why interpreters have to travel to meetings and my answer is let's look at it the other way around: why is it that delegates have to travel to meetings? The answer is because they need to see each other and talk face-to-face, negotiate face to face and spend time together in order to be able to come to a greater understanding. Interpreters are part of this human interaction.

[1] Salevsky, H., & Tupal, B. (2012). The Chief Interpreter and His Mosque: The Crucial Intercultural Role of Translators. The Bible Translator, 63(4), 209-218.