The glass panel syndrome

If you have seen photos of major international meeting places, such as the United Nations or the European Union, you must have noticed people sitting behind glass panels somewhere at the back of the room or on one side. It’s the interpreters, doing simultaneous interpreting.

Those of us (including me) who work for less glamorous meetings don’t have the luxury of generously-lit spacious fixed booths, part of the time we have to satisfy ourselves with smaller, darker quarters, mobile booths set up in a corner of a room. There is an ISO standard for interpretation booths, of course, but although the suppliers are doing their best, sometimes, well… yes, it’s not possible, so it’s a bit cramped.

The booths, as we call them, are our working quarters. In some conference halls, they are so well-hidden or high-up in the auditorium that it takes some effort on the part of the speakers to reach us, to bring a copy of their presentation or simply to come and say ‘hello’ and maybe reassure themselves that we are real people. We appreciate it when they do that, because we too need reassurance that we exist.

Cabine d’interprète 2
The soundproof glass panels are essential to simultaneous interpretation, but they can be very human-proof, too. Delegates don’t always notice us. Those who listen to us all the time are aware that we exist, but since they don’t necessarily see us, they don’t have an opportunity to acknowledge us.

Which reminds me of this anecdote. Last year, I worked for several days for a group in a semi-mobile booth. People would walk past our glass panel many times each day, but there was little interaction. After 3 days, there was a field visit, and we did consecutive interpreting. So there was, after all, a real person behind the glass panel! The day after, the delegates were all greeting me, chatting to me, in the most cheerful manner.

Doesn’t that say something about the power of human interaction?

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