Experience, culture and personal skills are the right ingredients for the interpreter that everybody wants
The essential qualities of the professional consecutive interpreter
The consecutive interpreter and the simultaneous/conference interpreter share some essential requirements of the interpretation job, including the need to fully understand the language and the subject matter, to listen carefully to words and meanings, resisting well to cerebral stress and deploy rapidly and optimally every bit of their intellectual abilities.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
The two roles, however, differ in at least two aspects: the contemporaneity of oral translation, which is characteristic of simultaneous and conference interpreting, the direct personal interaction, which is missing in the simultaneous and conference interpretation but, perhaps, at an unconscious level, and the duration of the service. The consecutive interpreter, in fact, is sometimes requested to work for several consecutive hours, often many more when including dinners at the end of the day during which he cannot even eat because is requested to work during such intervals too, and these situations are also very tiring physically.
In truth, it should also be considered the fact that every single interpretation task is unique because the fields and the parties involved are always different—as are the ways clients consider the interpreter's role. Some have a clear idea of what to expect / demand the interpreter. Others don't, especially at their first experience with an interpreter.
But, what are the requirements that, in fact, make the consecutive interpreter a good one?
What to ask the professional consecutive interpreter
Many people might be able to transform themselves instantly into interpreters, but relatively few of them could do it as a profession because in addition to the absence of a certain innate talent they lack some of the essential skills/attitudes. Here they are:
- Thoroughness of general behavior: the interpreter must be and always behave in a professional manner, not only as far as knowledge of languages and the object of the service itself are concerned, but also in looking and form. During the service he/she represents the company and any issue consequent to the interpreter's behavior could damage its reputation though impeccable his linguistic abilities are.
- Possess an extensive vocabulary in both languages and, above all, such knowledge should be readily available. On the other hand, when doing almost real-time translation there is no much time to try to recollect words and the client usually gets irritated in front of hesitations. Some are surprised when at the beginning of the service the interpreter places an electronic dictionary and/or a pre-packaged notebook on the table, but this is an unjustified reaction in our opinion because it is normal, of course within certain limits, to have memory failures regarding particularly difficult or completely new terms, especially when the parties do not share a common jargon. Obviously he must be allowed to take all the notes he wishes, and on this very point he should insist and prove that such need is not meant to cover a professional gap.
- Possess also a varied and extensive general culture and inter-sectoral language skills (business, legal, technical etc.) Let's imagine, for instance, a case of an interpreting service for two companies that discuss the distribution of technology products: in addition to knowing a specific terminology (say an agricultural machine), the interpreter must in fact be equally competent in any contractual term (rights/obligations, payments, penalties, storage, etc.) and probably of local market specific characteristics with any possible legal implications. Then, at lunch or dinner, interpreters should also know how to follow the discussion on other levels (personal, political etc.) but still functional to the establishment of the desired relationship of trust between the two parties. All this even without the opportunity to participate themselves in the meal because the two sides talk incessantly, making the last hours of the day particularly exhausting from the physical point of view.
- Be able to understand the client's requirements—that is what exactly he wants to achieve with the interpreter's help. This is not always clear, particularly during business discussions or when the client has little to no experience working with interpreters. A preliminary meeting (even a virtual one) to highlight all potential obstacles that might hinder the success of the service is in the interest of all parties, and therefore the interpreter should seek it when necessary. It is surprising to see how many clients believe that the interpreter can translate everything just because "this is his work and he knows languages"!
- Be able to read the actual situation to determine whether the role of the interpreter should be confined strictly to an exact translation of the message or if instead it would be wise to augment that message or optimize it. This is a very delicate point, and opinions vary. Most clients prefer that the role of the interpreter should be confined strictly to an exact translation of the message and don't like being "outdone". Yet others sometimes want just an interpreter providing support during the most crucial phases of the interpreting service, particularly when the client feels that the interpreter is an experienced one. In such cases, the interpreter should act and feel like a member of the team (principal company), and to this end should try to secure a preliminary meeting with it.
- Have good interpersonal skills such as a natural ability to do something useful when the other party isn't collaborating, without of course ever wavering from the utmost professionalism, even if the situation turns unpleasant. The interpreter's job itself is very tiring and stressful and in an entire career meets people belonging to totally different cultures and/or social classes. It is not rare for interpreters to feel a sudden urge to jump ship in the middle of a session because of the extreme behavior or discourteous attitude of one of the parties, with only their sense of professionalism preventing them from actually doing so. In other words, they should be able to hide that they are influenced by the client's behavior or personality.
- Be able to keep one's cool even when the situation becomes heated (this is a rather personal endowment) and know if and when one can attempt to restore harmony with the help of a smile or a gag to overcome the impasse, if the client is not able to achieve this alone.
- Never express their opinion in favor of either party, with the exception of specific cases where the client expressly ask him to do otherwise. Otherwise he might risk losing their trust because it can be assumed that their message is instrumentally misrepresented in favor of the other.
Not only interpreters boasting these skills and personal attitudes will be trusted by both parties, but they will also be considered a key element, if not indispensable, for their success, and thanks to this they will be respected even more.
The Italian-Japanese consecutive interpreter
When one of the parties is a Japanese company, other aspects, sometimes very delicate cultural ones, could add to the situation which should be addressed very carefully and professionally.
The Japanese, in fact, even when they are used to dealing with Western companies, while acting in the utmost good faith sometimes use approaches that may sound somewhat enigmatic for the other party, which if not properly intermediated can compromise the harmony of the relationship.
While for a Japanese mother tongue consecutive interpreter these are known and he will be able to convey them in the right way (as long as he also knows very well the other party's culture), for the Italian mother tongue interpreter such a scenario could become an additional difficulty and sometimes not entirely manageable, which might create in the Japanese side an embarrassing reaction or even no confidence in the interpreter himself.
This is the reason why Japanese companies sometimes prefer to appoint a Japanese mother tongue interpreter, of course on the assumption that he knows sufficiently well the behavioral characteristics of westerners, who are normally more transparent and direct. It goes without saying that the Japanese interpreter has worked in Italy for a reasonable number of years.
Our corporate experience in several different positions was a great primer for us, and more than twenty years of professional interpreting experience here in Japan has given us the confidence needed to make the most of suboptimal scenarios. Our Japanese-Italian consecutive interpreting service has evolved into what we consider to be a critical tool for building successful relationships especially for small and medium-sized western companies that look to the Japanese market with interest but with some apprehension due precisely to sometimes extreme cultural differences and to a still quite strong language barrier.