“Sometimes scapegoats get fired”
Diplomatic subtleties and unfortunate navigation accidents: interpreter Anya Malhotra and pilot boat captain Frank Hissenkaemper talk to Michael Krell about on-the-job mistakes. Our chat debate deals with innocent blunders and unforgivable faux pas in various areas of society.
Michael Krell (14:55): It’s my pleasure to officially welcome you to the debate! It’s great that you’ve found the time to take part. Why don’t you begin by briefly introducing yourselves.
Anya Malhotra (14:57):
I’m an interpreter and translator in Delhi.
Michael Krell (14:57):
How long have you been in this line of work? Do you specialize in a particular area?
Anya Malhotra (14:59):
I’ve been at it for over twenty-five years now. I work in various areas, including politics. But the Indian market is pretty small, so you can’t afford to be overly specialized..
Michael Krell (15:01):
I see. Frank, you’re a pilot boat captain in Hamburg harbor. Which means you guide big ships at all hours to places they couldn’t get to on their own, right?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:04):
Not quite. I am a captain at Hamburg Port Authority and usually operate one of the three pilot boats there. So I carry the port pilots and exchange them with Elbe river pilots during the passage. But we also have tugboats and bring equipment like dredges, for example, where they’re needed.
Michael Krell (15:05):
Sounds like it must be dangerous sometimes. The two of you are not only geographically worlds apart, but in very different lines of work, too. We’ve brought you together nonetheless because your professions have one thing in common: screwups can have serious consequences. Does this thought trouble you while you’re working, or are you generally quite relaxed on the job?
Anya Malhotra (15:07):
The mistakes you can make as an interpreter are usually not as dangerous, thank God. But naturally you get nervous before an interpreting job.
Michael Krell (15:07):
I’m thinking of simultaneous interpreting in particular. Don’t mistranslations, little bloopers, or misunderstandings happen all the time that could upend an already tense conversation?
Anya Malhotra (15:09):
Mistranslations all the time? No. Surprisingly few, as a matter of fact. Then again, as well-prepared as you may be, you can’t rule out mistakes. Funny things do happen sometimes. We talk about incidents like that amongst colleagues. It’s often because you can’t understand the speaker very well, but you have to keep going all the same! At a conference about automobiles, for instance, one of the conferees kept saying “Tragwerke” [supporting structures] with a thick Swabian accent, which made no sense at all. Turns out he meant “Truck-Werke” [truck factories].
Michael Krell (15:13):
Haha! Yes, I’d imagine dialects are very hard to translate. How do you react in situations like that?
Anya Malhotra (15:16):
You can’t ask questions during simultaneous interpretation. Usually, you try to gain time and hope you can guess the meaning from the context. Otherwise, depending on the situation, you have to make a split second decision on whether to leave it out or translate it literally.
Michael Krell (15:17):
That sounds difficult! Frank, as a skipper you must have to go about your job with self-assurance. But are there moments at work that strike you as perilous, and do you prepare for such contingencies?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:19):
Yes, you should know exactly what to do in such a situation. I always try to run through everything that could happen on missions that are liable to prove hairy. Wind and currents and so on. When you’re dealing with very heavy machines, a small slipup is enough to cause problems.
Michael Krell (15:21):
I can imagine. Does the whole responsibility rest on your shoulders? Isn’t that a lot of pressure?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:22):
You coordinate with other traffic, so that’s rarely a problem. You have to rely on your coworkers – when it comes to overhead clearance heights, for example. I’ve been at it for a long time now, so I’ve come to feel less pressure and anxiety about making a mistake. But wind and bad weather are always a challenge.
Anya Malhotra (15:23):
Frank, how many others are on the boat with you?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:23):
There may be five of us aboard...
Michael Krell (15:25):
Which means you divide up the work, and everyone watches out, even if the responsibility lies with you? Anya, it’s different in your case, isn’t it? You’re always on your own.
Anya Malhotra (15:27): Frank, what you say about preparing is important for me, too. That you run through a job beforehand. The same goes for interpreting.
@Michael, it depends. In consecutive interpreting, you often work alone. But in simultaneous translation, you’ve always got a team of at least two interpreters.
Michael Krell (15:27):
I didn’t know that! How do you coordinate the work?
Anya Malhotra (15:30):
In simultaneous translation, each interpreter works for 20–30 minutes, then the other one takes over. Otherwise it’d be impossible. Your concentration lets up.
Michael Krell (15:31):
@Frank, you can’t allow that to happen. You can’t just head back to port. On the other hand, you don’t have to keep up such a high level of sustained concentration, but the consequences of making a mistake are more serious. Have you ever had a crane tip over and fall off the boat or something like that?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:34):
I’ve had to write up a number of damage reports. It’s no fun, of course, but so far I’ve never had an injured crew member. That’s the main thing. But severe accidents with serious or fatal injuries do occur in this line of work.
Michael Krell (15:35):
That’s awful. Do you discuss ways of avoiding accidents?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:38):
Accidents are investigated, of course. On big container ships, for example, you now have to have several pilots on board. We’re always doing safety training courses and improving our protective equipment. It’s awful when you see trouble brewing and can’t do anything about it or none of the safety measures will do the trick.
Michael Krell (15:39):That makes sense.
@Anya, people probably don’t die in your line of work. And yet, the consequences can be grave if sensitive information is misunderstood. Do you, too, prepare for a situation in which everything goes wrong?
Anya Malhotra (15:41):
I once read about a case in which a patient received the wrong treatment because the Spanish word intoxicado (poisoned) was mistranslated as intoxicated: he was paralyzed afterwards. So getting it right can be critical for interpreters working in areas like health care.
Michael Krell (15:44):
How awful. An insensitive translation could also trigger a diplomatic crisis, for example. Do you correct that sort of thing right away?
Anya Malhotra (15:46):
On the contrary, I think they sometimes put the blame for diplomatic faux pas on interpreters. But it goes without saying that mistranslations can give rise to misunderstandings.
Michael Krell (15:47):That’s a convenient expedient for diplomats but not very fair.
I have one last question for both of you. We’ve talked a great deal about incompetence during our series on mistakes. But in your two professions, I just can’t imagine an incompetent person doing your jobs. Does that ever happen all the same?
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:50):
Take motorists, for example: some simply drive well and some never learn. In my line, the talented ones handle the trickier jobs and those who just can’t hack it stop piloting at some point.
Anya Malhotra (15:52):
Mistakes happen for various reasons. Incompetence is one of them. The way it’s handled and the consequences for the person concerned vary, but most employers don’t pull any punches when it comes to screwups. Sometimes scapegoats get fired instead, unfortunately. But I’d like to add that everyone can make a mistake at one point or another. What really matters is how you deal with it.
Frank Hissenkaemper (15:54):
You said it, Anya.
Michael Krell (15:56):Well, I hope it doesn’t happen to either of you!
Which brings us to the end of this confab. Thanks so much for taking part. It was very interesting!