A key to successful communication at events: In conversation with Maciej Gwóźdź

You are an interpreter at events— how did you make your way to this profession?

I have always had a faculty for languages. After finishing high school, I enrolled for a B.A. course in English Studies at Adam Mickiewiciz University Faculty of English in Poznan, Poland. After graduation, as I was thinking about a career path for myself, I heard of a postgraduate interpretation course at the School of Translation, Interpretation and Languages, and decided to give it a chance. For some reason it felt like the right career path for me. It turned out to be one of the most valuable learning experiences of my time, as I spent two years developing the craft under the supervision of experienced and talented interpreters.

And once you were done with the degree, how did you move to interpreting for events?

It’s one of the usual paths after this. It can start with translation agencies approaching interpreters on behalf of companies and events. Some of my first few opportunities consisted in consecutive interpreting of business meetings. Slowly, over time, I ventured out and finally started my own business.

How long have you been doing this?

I have been an interpreter since 2014. In 2017, I established my own company.

When you are working at an event, what is it like?

Basically every event reminds us that we are invisible to the audience. We can see the front of the stage from the interpretation booth, but we are usually placed some distance behind the audience. We never play the first fiddle, because it’s the speakers’ role to shine. We act as some sort of a filter— I don’t mean to ascribe a pejorative meaning to it. It’s what we have to do. As we listen to speakers perform on stage, we simultaneously convey the message in the target language in the most accurate way.

I get that. And how do you prepare for an event? What is the work like?

Our work starts way before the event itself. It’s very important for interpreters to be in close contact with the company from at least one or two weeks before the event. I like working across different fields and that means I have to prepare extensively before an event. My business partner and I, we compile glossaries, conduct research and read extensively before each event.

Your work process sounds exciting, challenging and very thorough!

Yes. It often is.

I remember a medical conference that took a month to prepare for, day in, day out. To be good at interpreting, you need to understand the subject of a conference. Otherwise, it will be word-for-word interpretation which might not convey the accurate final message to the audience and listeners, giving away your lack of preparation or knowledge in the field.

That’s true.

Sometimes you need to understand the process. If a surgeon is explaining a surgical procedure to the audience, I have to understand the process. Otherwise, I will not be able to satisfactorily explain to the audience what is happening. My vocabulary will be limited by my understanding. Once I understand something, it naturally becomes easier to interpret.

Yes. So after the preparation, what happens on the day of the event?

We arrive about 30 minutes before the event starts. We like doing a sound check and making sure that everything works the way it should. So, arriving early is never a bad idea. One of my mentors used to say that of all the participants, the interpreter can never be late.

Yes! Without the interpreter, a bi- or multilingual event wouldn’t be able to start. And after the sound check, do you start off immediately?

Shaking a few hands is a great way to introduce yourself, get to know the speakers and ask for a few words of explanation, if there are some things we did not have enough time to learn or did not manage to fully understand. We usually exchange a few pleasantries with the host and event organizer. It’s generally a positive interaction. If there’s camaraderie between all the parties involved, the event can go smoothly.

Up until I heard about your work recently, I never knew or thought of events being interpreted. Why do you think there’s this unawareness among people about the kind of work you do?

Yes, many people don’t know about this. Even among people who attend events, there are many who could assume that it’s done automatically. They use an earpiece to listen to interpretation and they rarely see us. Not long ago I had an opportunity to interpret simultaneously at an art festival. As the hosts were inaugurating the event, one of them said that in case you need to use them, there are automatic interpreters that you can use, meaning the tour guide system that we worked with at the time.

I immediately corrected their mistake, speaking out that nothing was being done automatically when it comes to interpretation. It’s crucial for people to recognize our effort and understand the significance of the human factor.

So, the fact that people are used to many things getting done automatically nowadays might be the reason why they assume interpretation at events is automated. On the other hand, it’s rare for hosts to mention our involvement in an event. In our experience, Maciej is probably the only one who does this.

How do you feel working in the industry and with the relationships you have built with your clients?

I’m happy that many of our clients recognise the importance of the work we do. It contributes to a sense of establishing a meaningful relationship. I have seen that the longer I work with a particular client, the better the relationship gets and they treat me as part of the team. It is also a very pleasant experience when the clients praise us for our work. You have to imagine— someone is speaking for 3 to 5 minutes at a stretch and almost immediately the interpreter is delivering that verbatim or almost-verbatim.

Yes, it’s stunning to imagine how rapidly you have to grasp and translate. Moving back a little, you mentioned that you like working across different areas. Do you have a specialization or preferred area?

It’s normal to specialize over time. But I do everything if I feel like I can do it. As long as there is enough time to study, I accept any assignment that feels like it would be a good fit. I have worked at events organized by entities operating in various industries, e.g. medical, automotive, chemical, and sustainable development. Personally for me, automotive is great. I’m a big fan of cars, so that’s always interesting.

What makes you do such a broad spectrum of events?

All the interesting and new things I can learn. There are endless opportunities of development and for me, learning a new process is a fascinating thing. Recently i have had an opportunity of interpreting during an audit of a chemical plant – it was inspected by the insurer who wanted to know that the plant was safe to operate before they renewed their insurance policy. Preparing for that job was equivalent to studying about the chemical substances processed and produced by the plant, including the key chemical reactions and infrastructure.

What happens if you don’t understand something you are studying? Especially when it’s not your field of specialization, let’s say.

I ask.

Usually people are tolerant and they provide us with explanations, if they have time. Sometimes even on the day of the event, some experts have spoken to us to explain things. Listening to experts speak about their field of expertise is a great way to learn. We aren’t the experts but we need to understand in the broadest sense possible what they do. Thankfully, many clients assist us in our work by providing this kind of assistance.

If you had to share a message to those who are reading this or others in the event industry, what would you want to share?

Although we play second fiddle to those on stage and attending the event, it’s important to know that hosting a bi- or multilingual event without a team of qualified interpreters is not possible. I understand that at a conference, for example, the speakers and audience are the most prominent figures. But we are the ones who allow them to communicate with each other. Which is why they need to realize that we all have to cooperate with each other to have a successful event.

All in all, I care about successful communication and we can only make that happen if prospective and existing clients understand the nature of our work.

[This interview was conducted and edited by Aayati Sengupta]


Now I will write something about myself. I like to be with people – but I don’t like it when the atmosphere is tense. That’s why I’ve learned to shorten the distance and make it bearable. Sometimes it’s even friendly. So much so that I host the largest conferences and panel discussions in Poland, and increasingly abroad.

My specialities are technology, environment and business. I am also a legal advisor (but that’s a longer story for another time). I have created dozens of radio and TV programmes, including a talk-show in English. I studied at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. And I love the United States. 

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