A Week in the Life of a Conference Interpreter

or The Most Exciting Profession in the World

Perceptions of Conference Interpreting

Just ask your average Joe of Joanna in the street what they think the world of a conference interpreter would be like and what would their answer be? Probably “oh yes, very glamorous. You will get to stay in all the best hotels in the world, because obviously that is where all the big conferences will be held. You will probably get flown out first class and picked up at the airport when you need to travel abroad. And as for the hours, they probably do a couple of hours in the morning, have a nice lunch with wine and all the trimmings, back for another couple of hours and knock off at four to go and have a look around the town.” Is that the reality? Not even close.

Why it has to be Conference Interpreting for me

It is probably fair to say that I never wanted to be anything else but an interpreter. This stemmed from the days when I used to “interpret” for my German and English grandparents who could not speak each other’s language. My English mother had moved to Germany to marry my German father and the mini-interpreter was born two years later. My early work as an interpreter was necessitated by the fact that at that time my father had very little English and my mother almost no German. I thought it was simply wonderful to be able to make people understand each other even then in my still very childlike and untrained way. It is only now when I look back I realise how blessed I was to be able to interpret for two men who had been sworn enemies during the war, and who were now connected via me as their beloved granddaughter.

Many years later after undergoing undergraduate interpreter training at a Munich Interpreting School followed by an Interpreting MA in the UK, I started the early part of my career as a conference, business and legal interpreter.

The Reality

So back to our man and woman in the street. Do they have a good idea of the life of a conference interpreter? Well yes and no. Occasionally we do stop in the best hotels, and occasionally we do get to travel in limousines with the top level delegates. And it is fantastic to walk across the courtyard of the best hotel in Sheffield as marksmen on the roofs follow your every step and helicopters circle overhead as you enter the hotel for your G8 summit.   But at the opposite end of the spectrum we can find ourselves billeted in a run-down travel lodge on the outskirts of Scunthorpe (no offence intended for any Scunthorponians reading this) from where we are then bussed down to an oil refinery for a conference taking place in what can only be described as a virtually open workshop with the wind whistling round our knees. And what about those fantastic hours we appear to have? The reality is far from 9 to 5. If I have a conference staring on Monday, I may have to travel on the Sunday to get there on time. Depending on the type of conference, if it is a subject with which I am not familiar I may have to spend a day or more preparing my vocab for the conference. Believe me, on a subject such “The role of the chaplaincy in the prison service” where all the delegates are top level prison officers and leaders from all the main religions from around the world, preparation is not easy. This is not helped by the fact that for a lot of conferences the agenda is often very late in getting to the interpreters. Occasionally it does not arrive until the evening before which means the interpreters arriving at the hotel on Sunday evening, grabbing a bite to eat, and then meeting in the room of their booth partner to work on the vocab appearing on the agenda.

So why do we do it?

Well, for me the answer is easy. Not one day is ever the same. Even when I am interpreting for the same client, it is different every time. If a 9 to 5 job is not for you then interpreting is the perfect profession. I am by nature a very inquisitive person. (Friends and family would say downright nosy!) This job is perfect for me as one day I could be interpreting for the Haflinger Society and learning all about these fantastic horses and the next day I could be in a different country learning all about various types of wound dressings and diseases of the skin. The topics of the conferences are always fascinating to me. Even with those clients for whom I have worked for a long time, even if the conference seems on the face of it quite boring, for example, the announcement of the yearly accounts, the conferences often turn out to be interesting. There may have been a change of personnel since last year and it is fascinating to see the jostling for positions and the office politics at work. I do get to meet some of the delegates in a social context if I have to interpret for them at dinners or outings after the conference and more often than not it is a pleasant experience as they are usually very experienced in their field and have lots of interesting stories to recount.

Glamour and Reality Meet

It is true to say that as a high level conference interpreter you can expect to see a lot of the world, and if you have a penchant for airport lounges and windowless conference centre architecture this really is the job for you as you will have a lot of time to study it. You will go to glamorous places but probably not have a lot of time to see the sights. The trick is to see as much as you can when you can. I had a conference in Montreal for one day, but still managed to pack in two half days sightseeing either side of the conference. If the travelling does not get you down, it is possible to see a lot of places most people only dream of visiting. From European Works Councils held at impressive football stadia to conferences in hotels at the top of mountains only accessible by cable car, the venues can be spectacular.

Meeting famous and interesting people is also a major perk of the job. I have interpreted at conferences for football managers some of whom have lived up to their prickly reputations, others who have turned out to be most charming and professional. I have interpreted for politicians and TV personalities. To meet famous people who have been your heroes in childhood can be quite daunting.

Juggling the Logistics

The logistics of the job is probably its major drawback. The jobs are so varied that travel can be two miles down the road in an industrial estate in Manchester for a Management Meeting for a chemicals company one day, and to Auckland, New Zealand for an Apprentices Trade Olympics the next. And just like London buses all the jobs do seem come along at once. It has not been unknown for me to have three suitcases lined up at home with a list on top of the essentials to transfer from one to the next as I pop home for a few hours in between assignments to catch a few hours rest and pick up the next suitcase with clean clothes and the agenda for the next conference. 

Social Perks of the Job

On the plus side during my training to become a conference interpreter, I met many friends from across the world who often went home to their respective countries or set up home somewhere in the world. Much as social media/professional networks help us keep in touch, one of the perks of the job is that we can meet if our jobs take us to the same venue, or when passing through each other’s local airport. I have enjoyed many a coffee at Frankfurt airport or the café of the European Patent Office.

But I love it!

So the downsides to the job are often the upsides at the same time: the tedious travelling that ensures you get to see the world, the juggling of family life and assignments running through your weekends and being able to get your family to join you after assignments, and the never ending challenge of learning new vocab and refreshing vocab from previous conferences which feeds my nosy nature of wanting to learn more all the time. But nothing the buzz I feel when a new assignment comes in for another exciting and interesting job, and sense of pride I feel after completing a difficult and demanding conference. I would not swap my career as a conference interpreter for anything.

Kirsty Heimerl-Moggan
UK-based German - English Conference, Business & Legal Interpreter

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