Maha El- Metwally


You’re a conference interpreter. What does that entail?

Conference interpreters make sure that everybody understands what everybody else is saying. To minimise delays, conference interpreters interpret ‘simultaneously’: they instantly interpret what they hear the speaker say. This means that conference interpreters listen and talk at the same time – and that requires special powers!

What do you do on a “typical work day”?

No two days are the same, but there are commonalities. Most conferences start with quite a bit of research and glossary preparation. Then you travel to the conference city – typically the day before the work starts. Upon arrival, I take my time to plan the route to the conference venue, read any documents that were sent to me last minute and prepare what I’m going to wear.

I make sure to arrive at the venue at least half an hour before the meeting starts. There may be time-consuming security checks, and I need time to get to know the technicians, greet my colleagues and agree on the work order, test the equipment, organise the booth (it’s a small space, and I need to have instant access to my glossaries and papers). Then, it’s a matter of waiting for the first session to start.

From that moment onwards, work is cyclical: I do very intense work for 20-30 minutes, followed by a recovery period in which my colleagues (there are generally three of us) take over, followed by another 20-30 minutes of intense work, and so further. Interpreters treasure their breaks, but do not always have them. Sometimes, speakers speak so fast, or are so hard to follow, that you need to work together: one interpreter talks while the other interpreters provide a flow of key words and other memory aids. At the end of such days, there’s nothing left of you. Especially if the work continues over lunch, when interpretation tends to take the form of consecutive interpreting or ‘simultaneous whispering’ in the ears of those who need your help. After such a meal you can see where the interpreter was sitting: it’s the place with the food almost untouched.

Why set up your own company, Cultural Bridges rather than work directly for an organisation?

I do both: I operate as Cultural Bridges for some clients and work as an individual interpreter for other clients like the EU and the UN. But the company is mostly for something different: I provide cross-cultural training to companies that want to work in the Arab world, but don’t quite know how to conduct business in my neck of the woods.

How did you get to your current job?

For almost ten years, I worked for a number of international organisations in several countries. Then, in 2007, I took a week off for some introspection - and concluded that I wanted to be independent; that I enjoyed using my language skills; and that I liked international get-togethers. This logically led to conference interpreting.   

You have a BA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo (Egypt) and an MA in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam in (The Netherlands). How have they been helpful in your career?

During my BA, the liberal arts system allowed me to study a variety of subjects next to my major. I did biology, algebra, scientific thinking and sociology, to name but a few. This, in addition to my active student life, got me interested in international relations, which is why I did my MA in this field. This is again a varied field, with international political economy and international law as some of the subjects taught. The variety of the subjects I studied expanded my horizons and gave me some grounding in a wide range of fields, both are very useful attributes for a conference interpreter.

You also did courses in conference interpreting. What has this brought you?

Conference interpreting is probably not something that you could ever learn if you do not have a few natural attributes – such as the ability to multitask. You know: speaking in language A while listening in language B, while searching in your papers and keeping track of your equipment’s buttons. But if you do have these natural attributes, courses are great. There are so many little tricks of the trade, and I couldn’t have discovered them all by myself. Having said that, some of the best colleagues I have worked with did not have a qualification in conference interpreting.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is twofold: the satisfactions I get from helping people overcome the language barrier and witnessing history in the making. The least rewarding is having to spend hours and hours at airports. 

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?

Practice, practice, practice!

What do you look for in young translators/interpreters?

Enthusiasm, dedication, confidence, quick thinking, stress resistance. And a lot of general knowledge! Some speakers talk in metaphors, or frequently refer to anything from military history to Downton Abbey – and without a great deal of general knowledge you will not be able to do such speakers justice.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

Of course in my field, the linguistic skills are in first place. But for the rest, it is more about personal traits than skills. You can’t be star-struck. You must remain focused. You must maintain confidentiality. Depending on the moment, you must be able to turn invisible, or to draw the entire audience’s attention to you.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

When you travel with some sort of Parliamentary or trade delegation, which is what conference interpreters often do, bring food. You might not get any for many long hours. And bring a book, for in case the counterparts turn out to speak English, and you end up in the adjacent room for hours on end.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

On a few occasions, I have flown halfway across the world to interpret at conferences where nobody needed interpretation in any of my languages. I interpreted everything from beginning to end, as this is what I had been contracted to do, but I knew for a fact that nobody was listening. Not the most fulfilling of assignments.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

Finding an entry. That took months. However perseverance eventually pays. It is useful to attend events organised by membership organisations in your field and network with colleagues.

What achievements are you most proud of?

This line of work is nearly always tough, and sometimes it is borderline impossible. These latter days, where you interpret for fast-speaking people with heavy accents, in booths that overheat or during noisy dinners, with world leaders who say things that may change global political dynamics… if you face these challenges and remain focused and quick, you are exhausted at the end, but you feel very good indeed.

Or try interpreting during the Prime Minister’s question time in Parliament. If you cope, you feel amazing, albeit out of breath!

What is the most exciting project you have interpreted for?

Assignments are exciting for very different reasons. It is exciting to interpret at G8 meetings, for example, simply because of the concentration of power. But it was at least equally exciting to interpret for villagers, during the South-Sudanese referendum on independence, or for Asmaa Mahfouz, that brave young Egyptian woman whose grassroots approach to advocacy managed to get millions of people to go on the streets to force Mubarak to step down.

Do you have a role model, and if so who and why?

I don’t have one role model. There are many people I came across who had an influence on my life. I owe a lot to my late mother, who discovered my talent for languages at a very early age. She taught me 40 English words when I was only one! Thanks to her decision to send me to a bilingual school, I learnt two of my working languages.

Maha El-Metwally - Conference Interpreter member of AIIC, ITI and CIoL

17 years' experience

CV in brief: 

Studied: Conference interpreting at the Heriot Watt University and London Metropolitan University; MA in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam; BA in English & Comparative Literature (major), Economics (minor) at the American University in Cairo

Previously worked at: United Nations ESCWAIFRC

Find her online

Twitter: @MahaElMetwally

Maha interpreting consecutively during a press conference with former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, former Libyan PM Ali Zeidan and US Secretary of State John Kerry

Maha interpreting consecutively during a press conference with former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, former Libyan PM Ali Zeidan and US Secretary of State John Kerry