Off mic with Phil Smith - diary of a technologically novel assembly: lacy surrealism

Brussels is famous for lace, chocolate, a piddling boy and interpreters. We had come to celebrate the latter, but with a nod to the other three. It had been clear for months that this would be an ace Assembly, with an organising committee that read like the Who’s Who of the profession. I think the technical term within AIIC for such a line up is the big vegetables, even with no Swedes on board.  

Day 1

I arrived late to discover we’d adopted the agenda – a simple task you might suppose but in my early days as a chronicler of assemblies (my youthful looks belie my years) it took a whole day and many points of order to get it approved. I learned on my arrival that the item on statistics had been withdrawn. Did you know that 79% of all statistics proposals are withdrawn?

I don’t want you to think I was taking things easy on Day 1 whilst the cream of the profession hung on the President’s lips. I was keeping fit by walking from Terminal A to the train station at Brussels airport.

It’s a long way and you need one toilet stop and one break to take on some protein.

I arrived in time for, well I’m not sure. Agenda items are a bit arbitrary in the sense that most of our activities are interconnected, like a daisy chain. I think we had a report from CACL when I arrived. We’d had a lot of applications over the last three years, but colleagues had also left the association or passed away, so the overall numbers had remained pretty well constant. Clearly the falling birth rate is having an effect on the profession, so you all know what to do, provided it doesn’t distract you from any AIIC questionnaires.

In the light of the CACL report of lots of people applying for English As and Bs, a group of us have decided to set up the Campaign for Real English; currently we’re working on the secret handshake.

From left: Olga Cosmidou, Jan Figel, Jennifer Mackintosh and Mr Bokanowski

On Thursday evening we had a formal session to which we’d invited three guest speakers: EU Commissioner Jan Figel whose brief includes multilingualism, Mr Bokanowski who chairs the inter-institutional committee (my spell checker wants to call it the inter-intuitional committee) on translation and interpreting, and Olga Cosmidou, the chief interpreter at the European Parliament. The basic message was that the EU institutions support the idea of multilingualism, but they want to keep us on our toes. I think I understood that one of the ideas floating around is that the European Parliament sessions could be recorded on DVD in certain core languages and other versions made as required. Clearly the DVDs will become collectors’ items for the great outtakes and witty commentary accompanying the on-screen action.

Day 2

Today is the day when we vote. We no longer use coloured slips or ballot papers, but spanking new electronic voting. The system works by means of a chip card we all have and the system automatically logs your proxies. It’s brilliant and simple, but it still takes a lot of explanation.

As a service to colleagues a number of us volunteered to work from French into English; but when the voting was on we came downstairs to cast our votes. The trouble was that it was once we were back in the room heady with election fever that the returning officer chose to provide explanations in French about how the system worked. It just goes to prove that you can’t be in two places at once, but you should be.

Voting is pretty routine, but every so often a name will be displayed on the super digitalised plasma flat screen-o-tron and a kind of stage whisper goes around the room: “Who’s that?” Someone at the back of the room knows and the whispered message returns: “All round good egg.” This is democracy at work.

On Friday afternoon we had a long discussion about our values. They are quite hard to describe but you know them when you see them, or more pointedly you miss them when they’re absent. The discussion did involve some harking back to the old days when there was lots of work, international travel and it only rained at night. In the past AIIC worked under a self-denying ordinance on publicity – visibility was dishonourable and advertising morally suspect so we had to make it hard for clients to find us.  Luckily things have changed and we now have an effective and focused communications policy whereby the association provides space for me to rant regularly on the Internet. You must agree this is progress.

I think we heard briefly from the research committee whose members are all very clever and can use words like “phonemic”, "discourse" and "multidisciplinary" and know what they mean. They do a mean bibliography (vide supra, op cit)

Day 3

I think we spent quite a lot of Day 2 (pm) and Day 3 considering our work programme for the next three years. Did you see the list in the Bulletin? We’re certainly firing on all cylinders.  We did a bit more voting as well for the various bodies.

We spent some time considering the website and its central role in communications between members and to the outside world, and we are currently split into clusters and matrices. Or perhaps we cluster round the matrix – it’s important to talk the talk in this business.

Members from Turkey, including the mysterious 'man behind Phil'One of the big events of this Assembly was the admission of Turkey as a member. I thought their moment had come around mid-morning when Michel Lesseigne donned a fez – but instead it was a little dramatic interlude to wake us all up in the absence of coffee. However Turkey’s moment came later that morning when the Turkish members who’d come to Brussels were given a standing ovation. The warmth of the welcome was genuine and touching. I thought I’d better do my bit for our newest region so I gate-crashed their celebratory lunch. 

Saturday afternoon had been set aside for a debate about new technology. The important news is that by the time you get to the end of this paragraph your mobile phone will be obsolete.

We’ve all dreamt of one day staying at home – possibly in bed – and interpreting for meetings in Brussels and New York. But it won’t be quite like that. The problem for organisations is that they are running out of space (I sympathise – you should see our garage at home) but their language requirements are increasing. The idea would be that the interpreters are in another room and linked to the meeting room. I’m sure you can see as clearly as I can that such a troglodytic approach to our work will be stressful, and that we will probably only be able to handle a couple of sessions a week like that. This issue shot to the top of the agenda in the autumn when the UK government had set its heart on meeting at Hampton Court – a historic building not at all suitable to a modern hi-tech summit. The interpreters were housed in a marquee next to the venue and luckily it didn’t rain, which is just as well because remote interpreters need dry sound.

Day 4

We basically went through the resolutions like a dose of salts. We also have a new council and I would suggest that in the light of its makeup all its future meetings be held in Spanish. All the other committees and groups are in place, so AIIC is ready to pounce like a mountain lion. For the first time in recorded history we got through our agenda.

So we all go our own ways – an assembly fires me up to do a bit more for the association, but I just have a little lie down and the moment passes.


Once home I sat down with my family and parents to watch “The Whisperers” to show them the demanding work we do. A lengthy scene with M Lesseigne looking cool on a motor launch has not dispelled their idea that my job is a sinecure. The film has a clear lesson for all of you who seek the fame of the silver screen: learn German.

Phil Smith is a UK-based freelance interpreter.
Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "Off mic with Phil Smith - diary of a technologically novel assembly: lacy surrealism". January 30, 2006. Accessed July 10, 2020. <>.