Headphones and Microphones...

A Portrait of Volunteer Interpreters
16 August 2005

One of the many services offered by ICVolunteers includes the provision of volunteer interpreters. These are generally multilingual persons without diploma, student interpreters or young professionals who wish to gain more experience. As is always the case at ICVolunteers, this service is available exclusively to organizers of non-profit conferences and events, usually pursuing a social or humanitarian goal. It offers its help for simultaneous interpretation both in conference rooms with and without booths. If there are not booths, the whispering method is used. ICVolunteers aims to work in agreement with the Code of Professional Ethics of AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters). 

I: Viola Krebs, you are offering this service with the help of volunteers. Is this not unfair competition for people who make a living out of interpretation?

Viola Krebs, Director of ICVolunteers: No, I do not think so. It is important to stress that ICVolunteers exclusively works with non-profit conferences. Some social and humanitarian conferences are organized with very limited means and simply cannot afford simultaneous interpretation services, yet very much need interpreters to ensure that all the delegates can actively participate in the debates. These are the events we are helping. In this light, we are not a competition for professionals, as we offer a complementary service and not a competitive one.

For student interpreters and those wishing to gain experience in this field, our service also offers an excellent opportunity to practice. Finally, in the case of projects such as the Landmine Survivors Network, interpreters play a dual role?in looking after the victims of landmines?and in acting as a linguistic bridge. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

I: Claire, you have done voluntary work with ICVolunteers on several occasions. What motivates you?

Claire (25), professional translator and interpretation student at the Geneva School for Translation and Interpretation (ETI): Through these practical exercises, I can see what the profession I am learning is really about. I give a lot through my voluntary work, but I receive just as much. Of course, the contact with participants from all over the world, as well as with other volunteers, is also rewarding.

I: In which projects have you participated?

Claire: When I was still a student of translation, I started with proofreading and translating articles for ICV News and the Internet site. Later on, I worked as a volunteer interpreter during the preparatory meeting for the World Civil Society Forum (2001), and then this year during the Forum itself.

At the Forum, I had a conversation with a delegate from Benin who had listened to my interpretation. It was very interesting to talk about my work and find out if my rendition of the proceedings had been clear. This was my very first opportunity to talk directly with a real life "customer"... such a difference from practicing alone with the tapes of a fictitious conference! The main beneficiaries, all delegates from Benin, were able to contribute actively to the debate and exchange ideas with English and Spanish speaking delegates. This has been a tremendous source of satisfaction for me.

I: What should be considered when recruiting volunteer interpreters?

Claire: There should be enough interpreters so that they can relieve each other, normally taking turns each twenty minutes. This means that two interpreters work from and to the same language. This also applies to the whispering method in informal sessions. Furthermore, interpreters should have access to all relevant documents related to the conference well ahead of time. If we have to refer to the Internet, this can create difficulties, as there is often too much information on the conference web sites. In addition, if we have to print out everything ourselves, it is expensive for us students, as the cartridges are not free of charge. These ideal conditions can obviously not always be met in real life, even with professionals, but it is important to get as close to them as possible.

I: Mary, you possess a diploma interpretation. What motivates you to participate as a volunteer?

Mary: Even though I have diploma, I have had very little actual practice in the last few years. I feel the need to practice more so I can get back into the profession and get paid for my work

I: Isabelle, you are a certified translator. Why are you participating as a volunteer?

Isabelle (29): For me, volunteering is a less stressful way of improving my skills. If I were paid, I would feel that my work had to be impeccable. As a volunteer, I can give my best, but with the reassuring feeling that the organizers are more indulgent toward me.

I: Jean-Claude, you have survived a landmine. Why are you at the UN today?

Jean-Claude, participant at the training course for landmine victims organized by the Landmine Survivors Network: On a Sunday morning, at the end of the 70s, I went to buy some pens in my home village in Senegal. Upon leaving the store, I stepped on a landmine. I lost a leg and suffered eye injuries. After several weeks at the hospital and a slow recovery, I founded the Senegalese Landmine Victims Association, of which I am currently the president. The Association focuses primarily on education for landmine victims. At present, we have several young persons who have managed to enter high school. For us, this is a great success. My work has led me to collaborate with Handicap International, which is why I am currently attending the Landmine Survivors Network training organized in Geneva. In my country, the interests of disabled persons are unfortunately often not properly addressed. In public buildings, for example, there are no facilities for physically disabled persons. During this training, I have learned how to negotiate with my government to improve conditions for landmine survivors in particular and the disabled in general.

I: From your own point of view, what is the role of volunteer interpreters who work with you?

Jean-Claude: I don't speak English very well. As this is the dominant language at the UN, linguistic assistance is important to me. Thanks to the volunteers, I can participate actively at the meeting. The volunteers are listening to us and their support makes our work a lot easier.

This is the spirit in which ICVolunteers strives to forge contacts between volunteer interpreters and those requiring linguistic assistance so that they can persue their work towards a better world.


  • Simultaneous interpretation: Most common form of interpretation. The interpreter sits in a booth in front of a microphone. He or she wears head phones and translates verbally everything he or she hears.
  • Consecutive interpretation: Used only in smaller conferences. The interpreter listens to the proceedings during approximately six minutes. He or she takes notes and subsequently translates verbally what he  or she has heard.
  • Whispering: When only one or two people in the group require interpretation, the interpreter sits behind them and whispers into their ear what is being said as it is being said.
  • Translation vs. interpretation: Translation is written, interpretation is oral, but in every-day-language the word "translation" is often used for both, which can lead to confusions.

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