Some thoughts on the importance of trust in conference interpreting | by Karin Walker and Anja Rütten

Some thoughts on the importance of trust in conference interpreting | by Karin Walker and Anja Rütten

The first time I (Anja) worked with somebody I only knew virtually, without any personal connections or references, was back in 2001, still in times of the Deutsche Mark: I worked on a Spanish translation project together with a complete stranger, a colleague I made contact with via an electronic mail list for translators. We have been working together occasionally ever since, I totally trust her, and I have never ever even talked to her on the phone. The last time this happened to me was in 2021, during Covid, when I was assigned to a remote interpreting team of two by a new client. The colleague from Argentina was a complete stranger to me, we didn’t even have mutual acquaintances among colleagues. We met on Zoom the day before the actual meeting and bonded immediately, and our cooperation in the virtual booth was a smooth as it could be – as it was with the client and the people we interpreted in the meeting, by the way.

I’m afraid that I (Karin) have never felt very comfortable in advance of working with colleagues I know nothing about. I’ve been very lucky in that 9 times out of 10, whenever I did work with someone new (be that interpreting or translation), at least we had a mutual colleague or three and so I had an idea of what they, and their work ethic, were like. They had a reputation to precede them, if you will, and that helped. I admit that knowing nothing about a colleague and then “having to” work together still makes me anxious, especially when interpreting. In the booth you don’t have time to discuss decisions or backtrack on chosen strategies. The chemistry needs to be there pretty much right off the bat or else your concentration might be compromised, and that means not delivering 100%. That’s always been the case for in-person meetings, and it’s exacerbated when boothmates are not in the same place. What helps me to manage this anxiety is to be able to trust that my intended boothmate has had similar training to me, a similar work ethic, a similar understanding of the role of the interpreter (yes, opinions do vary!). That being said, once things get going, I typically find that we get into the swing of things quite quickly. It’s thankfully rare that an assignment with a previously unknown colleague really does go pear-shaped.

Especially with the surge of remote simultaneous interpreting due to the pandemic, the question of collaborating without meeting in person has been widely discussed in the world of conference interpreting. On one hand, we all seem to agree that personal interaction cannot be replaced by virtual interaction. On the other hand, it seems to be possible to make communication work without meeting and even without ever having met in person before. And although I have not really figured out why collaboration sometimes works fine even remotely while it sometimes doesn’t even when you are sitting next to each other (and vice versa, of course), trust seems to be one crucial element. Trust has many definitions, one “classical” by Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, and Camerer being that it is “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”

Vulnerability! I (Karin) find that to be an interesting aspect. Interpreters are people, and people make mistakes. We are not infallible. In the heat of the moment, we may mispronounce. We may choose a nuance that is not quite right. Our always-on plausibility monitor may fail. And I dare any interpreter to deny they’ve ever thought “Well, she should have known that!” when we hear our boothmate make a less than perfect choice. We all have these moments of vulnerability, and when you don’t trust your colleague to be understanding, that can produce anxiety. And that’s really no use when your mic is live. Anja, you mention this yourself further down.

While interpreting, just like, for example, legal or tax consultancy, has always been considered a trust-based service, this particular aspect is more relevant than ever. Come to think of it, trust is all around in interpreting:

Trust between speakers/listeners and interpreters

Those who want to talk to each other without knowing their interlocutors’ language(s) trust that what they say and hear is interpreted truthfully. They need to be sure that there’s no taking sides, no glossing over, no leaving out or adding elements unnecessarily. Or that if things are added, that it’s done for a reason (e.g., to explain an acronym the listener would otherwise not understand). They need to be sure that if there is something the interpreter does not hear or understand, they won’t just invent something. The communicating parties accept limiting their control of the situation/communication and have positive expectations as to the skill and integrity of their interpreters.

Trust between clients and organising/consultant interpreters

Clients must be able to trust consultant interpreters that they will only recruit interpreters who possess the required skills, linguistic and technical knowledge and are bound by professional secrecy. It is in the nature of things that clients normally cannot judge these things, especially language competence, and so they trustfully confer this business upon a consultant interpreter.

️️ Trust among interpreters

When sharing a booth, we are very close, and not just spatially. We work in teams of two or more in simultaneous interpreting for a reason. We support each other by writing down numbers, looking up unusual names or terms, pouring water, bringing coffee, or liaising with the technician, client, or team leader. And we are often forced to rely blindly on each other, trusting that our boothmates will always support us in a way they would like to be supported themselves.

I (Anja) usually also feel rather close with my boothmates mentally. I trust them to guess which term, French numbers, or acronym I am or will be struggling with. It goes without saying that any mishaps or near-mishaps will not be gossiped about. Interestingly, this level of trust exists both in virtual as in face-to-face meetings.

I (Karin) also have huge appreciation for collaborative situations where you don’t feel the need to discuss every little detail beyond who goes first and what length of turn we should do. Once a colleague heard me hesitating to find the right verb, decided I was struggling, and spoke into my live mic. This was years ago but I still remember how annoyed I felt at this breach of booth behaviour. It felt unprofessional and embarrassing. The training I had at interpreting school and later on the job taught me that that is a total no-go. Being able to trust that these things just won’t happen is a small but wonderful thing.

Also before we actually get together (virtually or not) in the booth, when collaboratively preparing for an assignment, in my (Anja’s) experience, trust can be a real efficiency booster. All we need to do is rely on our teammates to research terminology thoroughly, or even accept that they give us a sound overview or summary of texts we had no time to read. And of course, in return, we need to do our bit of the preparation work in a way that others can rely on it. This helps us to be better prepared with less effort, but it only works if we trust each other, i.e., if we risk not having the right terminology available in the moment of need, while believing that our boothmates will have prepared as professionally as we have.

This professional stance within the team also forms the basis for our clients to trust in that they will receive the best possible service. If we communicate openly about how we work and collaborate, it will be easier for our clients to understand how they can best contribute to optimum working conditions and provide us with the information we need – trusting, of course, that it will be treated confidentially, and that the interpreters in return will act in the best interest of their client.   

I (Karin) wanted to mention trust between consultants and interpreting teams as well. I love that my professional circle consists almost exclusively of consultant colleagues who I can implicitly trust to have negotiated the best possible fees on our behalf. Yes, the fees may be slightly lower than we think we might have been able to obtain; no, not all of the prep material may be there in advance; and yes, some team members may have to work an hour more than others. However, this trust means I can accept there are probably good reasons why things are the way they are. Vice versa, as a consultant I appreciate that I can trust the team to prepare thoroughly, to not expect to be spoon-fed everything, and turn up on time, well-presented. Working “in the moment” as we do, our machine needs to be well-oiled, and the lubricant is trust.

Further reading

Trust and risk-taking in virtual and face-to-face teams – new study

Trust in teams: A taxonomy of perceived trustworthiness factors and risk-taking behaviors in face-to-face and virtual teams

Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, and Camerer (1998, p. 395) In: Vertrauen: Standpunkte zum sozialen, wirtschaftlichen und politischen Handeln. (2013). Deutschland: Waxmann Verlag GmbH.

About the authors

Karin Walker is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A) and English (A) based in Bonn. She was president of the German association of conference interpreters (2018-2020).

Anja Rütten is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A), Spanish (B), English (C), and French (C) based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has specialised in knowledge management since the mid-1990s.

Both are full members of AIIC, accredited freelance interpreters with the EU institutions and the European Patent Office, and have vast experience as university lecturers.


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