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I love to write about interpreting, intercultural communication, Latin America & the UK.

Do Interpreters Have to Be Pretty?

New Bond Street London

I remember years ago, fresh from uni, being sitting in my former professor, then employer, now mentor’s office when she received a request from a client of hers. It was a multinational oil company with offices in Buenos Aires looking for a team of interpreters for their end of the year party.

They were asking for the interpreters to be pretty.

Excuse me?!

I also remember thinking I would rather have an interpreter who had brains instead of just looks.

So, what do clients actually mean when they ask for the interpreter to be pretty?

I guess it depends on the client – there are all sorts under the sun – but, in my experience, when a client asks for the interpreter to be pretty, they are asking for the interpreter to be ‘presentable’.

Such was the case of my mentor’s client. The guest of honour at the party was a Chinese man, the Chair of the main stockholder, who was visiting Argentina for the occasion and was to give a speech on stage.

‘On stage’ was the operative word.

When we work in conferences, we – the interpreters – sort of have a parallel existence to the main event. We work our magic from inside a sound-proof booth and mostly interact with our fellow interpreters. There are venues where there is even a separate entrance for us.

Quite the opposite, in corporate and diplomatic settings we are ‘out there, in the open’, standing next to our clients, visible… exposed.

I have written before that interpreters make our clients look good (read here) and I would argue that how we present ourselves is the perfect cherry on top of an outstanding interpreting performance, especially so in corporate and diplomatic settings.

So, when a client asks for the interpreter to be pretty, in my mind it translates as the client asking for the interpreter to look pretty; that is, to have showered (do not laugh, I have seen many an interpreter with questionable personal hygiene) and to look clean, polished, and properly dressed for the occasion.

I have asked a fashion designer friend of mine to write a guest post about professional image, which will be published later on this week.

But, again in my opinion and again in corporate and diplomatic settings, looking clean, polished, and properly dressed for the occasion consists of the following:

  • Shower, brush your teeth, watch what you eat during the day (e.g., stay away from garlic, spring onions, and such), and avoid wearing overpowering perfumes. Chances are you will be whispering into your client’s ear and he/she does not have to put with your culinary and personal choices.
  • Prefer understated clothes to bright-coloured ones. You will be standing or sitting next to your client for a great deal of time and, although we, interpreters, are vital to whatever is going on, we are not the protagonists. So, better leave your red dress or your funky tie at home and wear them in your free, personal time.
  • Keep accessories to the minimum but, most importantly, avoid jingle jangle jewellery such as bracelets and bangles. Microphones can be very sensitive and pick up the softest of noises.
  • Think of your own comfort and wear ‘sensible’ shoes. You will spend a great deal of your time either standing or walking. I do not about you but when my feet are sore it shows in my face and, most importantly, it affects my cognitive function. Plus, you should be able to keep up with your delegation so, unless you have mastered the art of walking, running, and standing for hours in stilettos, I suggest you leave them at home together with your red dress.
  • Dress for the agenda. There will be times when you will be sitting in meetings in fancy corporate offices all day long. There will be times when you will be accompanying your client to a formal gala. And there will be times when you will be touring a factory or a farm or a mine. So, pick your clothes to fit the setting lest risk looking like Paris Hilton milking a cow on TV. It does not hurt to check the weather, either.

In the UK, your clothes and any primping treatments, such as going to the hair salon or having your nails done, are not tax deductible, even if one could argue that they are business-related.

However, looking ‘presentable’, ‘polished’, ‘elegant’ or, yes, ‘pretty’ is another way to mind the little things, to reassure your client that you have his/her back, that you are part of the team all before you utter your first word. It is another subtle way to build trust.

That end of the year party was my first high-profile corporate interpreting job. I bought my first black, formal suit and had my hair done at the salon for that job. I am not sure the client even noticed, but the lead interpreter did and later on recommended me for other jobs.

“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” ~Coco Chanel

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