More Than Just a Voice

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This & That ― Vignettes of a Professional Journey
a column by Ines Bojlesen

A cozy New Year’s evening at home was interrupted by a phone call. “Please help, this is an emergency!” Suddenly my living room became an extension of a dispatch room. The interpreting agency connected me with the U.S. Coast Guard in Norfolk, Virginia, which had received a distress signal via satellite from a boat sailing along the northern coast of São Paulo. They mentioned the term EPIRB, and, as I repeated it aloud, my husband quickly wrote on a piece of paper, “Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon—serious emergency, boat in real trouble, capsized, or sinking.”

I spent the next hour interpreting for the Coast Guard in Virgina and for the staff of the marina where the boat had departed. The staff had seen the boat leave but were unable to establish radio contact. The Coast Guard made several attempts to reach the Brazilian Navy, but at 2 a.m., no offices answered the calls. I was surprised when, later in the morning, the agency called me again with the Coast Guard on the line, having asked for me. The officer wanted to let me know they had contacted the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia and, after repeated attempts, had finally succeeded in alerting the Brazilian Navy. They also told me the boat and crew had arrived safely in Rio, after a near-death experience during a storm that hit them.

Another time, the phone rang at four in the morning. Automatically I put my glasses on, grabbed my notebook and answered the call. An emergency room needed my help interpreting for a Brazilian man who was being treated. The doctors asked a couple of hurried questions, answered by a very weak voice, when suddenly I heard a gasp and silence. After a while, a nurse told me the call was over. Less than an hour later, the phone rang again; this time I had to interpret for the doctor as he explained to the man’s wife and children that their loved one had not survived a heart attack. Needless to say, I could not go back to sleep when the call was over. I kept thinking of the feeble person I had helped, feeling comforted a bit to know that at least he had been able to communicate and hear his own language before passing away.

Oh, I’ve had happy interpreting calls as well: hearing mothers deliver their babies and the infants’ first cries, having to wipe away my tears of joy as the nurse wiped away the mothers’. I’ve also interpreted for 911 calls of people being rescued from a burning car. And there were the “geek” calls, computer jargon galore, making me wonder if they needed me at all!

For seven years, telephone interpreting was part of my daily life. It was practically a 24/7 commitment. I needed to work in a sound-proof environment, use top-quality equipment, be ready to answer the phone at the first ring, always interpret in the first person, and be prepared for any and all subject areas. Calls could take less than one minute or a couple of hours.

Telephone interpreting is a highly demanding job. Even if you work on a log in/log out basis, an agency in desperate need will call you regardless of the time at night or of the day of the week. You could be in the middle of your Thanksgiving dinner and receive a frantic call, since no one else was available.

You need to use the best telephone equipment available on the market. I had a wireless headset with noise cancellation and a mute button. I surrounded my workstation with dictionaries, laminated sheets of the human body drawings, and whatever helpful material I could reach at a stretch. My husband and son knew they had to fall silent if I received a call while they were in the room. They would quietly leave, taking our parrot with them.

I find that telephone interpreting is a largely unrecognized segment of the interpreting profession. More than in any other circumstance of the interpreting profession, telephone interpreters are perceived as only a voice, a number. They are constantly monitored for quality, exposed to extremely stressful situations without prior notice, and need to perform to perfection. Compensation is not commensurate with the level of expertise, flexibility and dedication required.

I salute the small army of women and men who take on this challenge. Your voices broadcasted across states and countries to help people, companies and governments carry on with their lives and business. I hope you feel as needed as I did during those seven years. Your work matters; you make a difference. When you hang up, the person saved from a burning car will always remember your soothing voice helping with communications. The mother delivering the baby will be thankful that you were there with her, among doctors and nurses who did not speak her language.

Telephone interpreters are indeed more than just a voice.

One Comment

  1. Great post. It gave me a new appreciation about the difference telephone interpreters can make, and the kind of pressure they face.

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