The Coveted Back Effect

The Coveted Back Effect

Over the years, I have noticed there is a very curious phenomenon that happens in every meeting or event where good interpreting is provided. I call it The Back Effect.

It goes like this:

  1. Delegates or attendees enter the room and are given headphones and receivers.
  2. There is concern in their faces and, sometimes, even annoyance.
  3. They (slightly) reluctantly sit down, usually on the edge of their seats, showing tension in their shoulders.
  4. They put their headsets on and select their preferred language channel.
  5. The event or meeting begins.
  6. The interpretation begins.
  7. They listen.
  8. Slowly but surely, they start leaning back until they are resting comfortably against the back of their chairs and their shoulders relax.
  9. The interpretation works! They’re in.

I guess it is only natural to be primarily focused on ourselves, on what we want and what we need. But I think we sometimes lose sight of what it is like for those who listen to us and depend on us both to understand what is going on around them and to make key decisions influenced by our performance.

I think we also often forget how much our audiences have been burnt in the past by poorly trained and/or unprepared interpreters that – simply – failed them.

We tend to get angry whenever our ability and the value of our work are questioned, and yet we rarely put ourselves in our audience’s shoes and look at the situation from their perspective.

They come to an event, which they probably paid a small fortune to attend, or have a meeting that is their only chance to build a rapport with a potential partner or close a game-changing deal, and suddenly they are handed a headset and told they will depend on a stranger for the rest of the day.

Yes, I know we all do the same many times in our daily lives, like when we get on a plane and trust a pilot we have never met before to fly us safely to our destination. The difference is that we know beyond any doubt that the pilot has undergone extensive training. We also know there are plenty of safety mechanisms in place to correct our course if needed. This also applies to the surgeon operating on us or the dentist applying the drill to our teeth.

So, why the distrust? Why the tension and annoyance when interpreters are brought in to assist? And what can we do to make The Back Effect the default and not the exception?

Often the answer to this question involves a version of ‘educating the client’: explaining to them what we do, telling them how it works and what we need in order to do our job more comfortably, advising them on how to separate the good interpreters from the bad, and more.

But I always think there are two sides to every story. So, how about the opposite? How about educating ourselves about our clients, understanding their concerns, their frustrations, their needs, and their goals better? How about sitting on that chair and putting on those headsets ourselves at least once?

Quality of interpretation aside, I think this is the bit that is missing when there is no Back Effect: when the service provision is more a monologue than a dialogue.

Interpreters rarely get standing ovations. Better said, interpreters never get standing ovations. At best, we get a thank you at the end of the meeting or event.

This Back Effect is as good as it gets for us. In a way, it is our standing ovation. The feedback that keeps us going. The thumbs-up we strive for. The silent appreciation that makes it all worth it. Maybe it should be our North Star, too.

Article originally published in the September 2023 edition of the ITI London Regional Group Newsletter under A View from the Booth.

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