18 Dec 2023
by Katrina Ellis

The interpreting front

Katrina Ellis won ITI’s award for ‘Best performance on an assignment – interpreting’ in 2023. She tells us about her remarkable 70-day journey

In the world of interpreting, some assignments are truly extraordinary. They go beyond just doing your job and become stories of strength, commitment and the amazing power of language. I went on one of these special journeys during a tough time when Russia invaded my home country, Ukraine. I had to provide real-time live interpreting on air from Ukrainian and Russian into English for one of the world’s biggest TV news broadcasters.

A duty to connect the world

It all began on 24 February 2022, a day etched into history. As Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine shook the world, I was crying all day while requests for interpreting services were coming in constantly to my email inbox and phone. Given the sudden demand for interpreting from Ukrainian, and the very limited number of qualified Ukrainian interpreters in the UK, I was not surprised that every known TV broadcaster wanted to secure my services as a Ukrainian conference interpreter and feed their audience the latest news fresh from the horse’s mouth.

Emotionally, I was in pieces because my home country was under attack, and my family’s safety was on my mind. But I had a duty and a responsibility to let the world hear these voices. Even though my heart was heavy, I gathered myself. After all, I was professionally trained to handle this – providing interpreting services when they’re needed the most. And in the middle of this flood of requests, one really stood out. The client agreed to my terms and booked me to work in their London studio the next day.

An assignment unlike any other

This assignment was unlike any I had ever done before. I was working for a global news broadcaster. It meant a new client; a high-tech studio in central London; a team of dedicated, top-class world newsmakers; hardly any briefing in advance; and a war situation that kept evolving. I had to quickly get used to the new equipment and systems, and interpret speeches live on air.

I must have impressed them from the beginning, as towards the end of the first day they asked me if I could do the whole week, and at the end of the first week I was asked to do another week, and that is how it carried on for 10 weeks. It turned into a remarkable 70-day journey, without a single day off, and each day was filled with its own set of challenges and victories. I covered the nine-hour afternoon and evening shift in the TV studio – every day. And in addition I also had a number of morning assignments which had been booked before February.

My main task was clear: I was to provide accurate interpreting into English of any speeches in Ukrainian or Russian turning up on the screen in my tiny high-tech studio, whoever was speaking. This might be President Zelensky, President Putin, or any other high-profile spokesperson from Ukraine or Russia. Most of these speeches were delivered live, with no time for preparation – including President Zelensky’s first address to the UK Parliament. It was rather stressful to realise that the whole world was listening to my voice – testing my confidence, stamina and technical skills – but professional training and years of practice carried me through.


Emotionally, I was in pieces because my home country was under attack, and my family’s safety was on my mind. But I had a duty to let the world hear these voices

Katrina Ellis

Sure, there were some moments when I felt overwhelmed and tired, but I found strength in knowing that I was living through the war doing what I love and am good at – while my fellow Ukrainians were going through the horrors of occupation, battles, daily shelling, bombing and losses.

Research became a big part of my daily routine, so that I could provide more accurate interpreting. After the first few days I started to get a better understanding of how President Zelensky expressed himself and of how he would typically structure his daily updates on the war. My research was also helping me to simultaneously interpret his live addresses to different nations, delivered with hardly any advance warning and without a written version available – and what was more, he was drawing historic parallels relevant to each specific occasion. I had to research each nation and its history thoroughly and effectively. Knowing the topic in depth and in detail meant that I could anticipate what would be said and deliver smooth simultaneous interpretation of very important historic speeches.

I worked closely with journalists, helping them to understand the reports from the war zone. It was very interesting and rewarding to be part of a big team and to work together with the reporters and newsmakers on the materials for broadcast. I went beyond interpreting alone, by getting involved in assessing, selecting, transcribing and translating important media pieces. At times I also interpreted into English from my C languages (Polish and Latvian), which was an additional bonus for the client.

A test of impartiality, at a terrible time

Interpreting for both sides of the conflict was a unique challenge testing my impartiality. My heart ached for Ukraine, and it was emotionally tough to convey the suffering and horrors Ukrainians were enduring. Sometimes I worked with the journalists on their materials filmed in Mariupol, first transcribing and translating speech and then doing voiceover for some interviewees. I also interpreted daily updates and statements made by the Russian officials reporting on their advances into Ukrainian territory. Even when the words were hard to handle, I had to be impartial and remain committed to interpreting both sides accurately.

It was an assignment which demanded unwavering reliability, resilience and adaptability. The materials I came across were often shocking and deeply traumatic. They showed the level of violence and suffering many Ukrainians were going through, especially in the territories recovered after the retreat of the Russian army from the region around Kyiv – revealing to the world the atrocities committed on the M06 Chop Highway around my native town of Zhytomyr and towards Kyiv, as well as in Bucha, Izium and other places. At times, it was emotionally overwhelming, but knowing that we were raising awareness kept me going.

As well as getting to know the journalists, I also met a few new colleagues and renewed old friendships with others. There was a sense of camaraderie and mutual support with colleagues in the other language booths as well as with my booth colleagues when we were taking over from one another in that dynamic and demanding environment.

Overcoming challenges of a different type

Unexpected challenges were not limited to just interpreting or the technical aspects of translation. We were required to provide a negative Covid test before attending the studio, so daily testing was routine for me at the time. One Saturday in April, I tested positive. I immediately informed the client, and we discussed the way forward. Since my symptoms were mild, we decided that I would keep working remotely from my well-equipped home studio until I recovered and tested negative.

In times of crisis, interpreters have a crucial role in making sure the world understands what’s happening

Katrina Ellis

My commitment didn’t waver. The setting, however, was completely different and it could vary from day to day, depending on the engineers and technicians. Typically, I was getting video on my home computer monitors, with the incoming audio feeding through my headset connected to the computer, but my voice was transmitted through a mobile telephone line through a separate microphone. Sometimes, the source audio was also fed to me through the telephone.

Fortunately, I had already used various settings for online remote interpreting during lockdowns and therefore had acquired the necessary skills and knowledge as well as a range of high-tech equipment in my home studio. However, I still missed face-to-face communication with all my colleagues and the excellent technical support provided on-site at the London studio. I was very keen to go back there and carry on as before as soon as I tested negative for Covid again.

A testament to the strength of the human spirit

This 70-day assignment wasn’t just a test of my professional skills, but also a testament to the strength of the human spirit. The routine was unrelenting, but it was a privilege to be part of the team, using my skills to support Ukraine during this critical time in our history.

Looking back, I do not think there was anything I could have done differently. One might imagine that long hours of work every day without a day off would be very hard, and it is. It stretches your perception of your own capacity and normal workload and pushes your boundaries as one would expect during any crisis. On the other hand, as a conference interpreter, I am used to short-term, short-notice assignments in different places both in the UK and abroad, with varying working hours and settings. No two assignments are the same. Each normally involves a lot of research and preparation, no matter how short the actual event might be, and there are differing requirements regarding dress code and so on. From this point of view, the 70-day assignment with this particular client was a steady, predictable arrangement: unchanging working hours; one venue to go to; identical working routine; easy logistics, with one hour of Transport for London (TfL) public transport to get to the office, then a taxi home after midnight; and a comfortable casual dress code. At times it felt like a luxury that I have never experienced in my role as an interpreter before. (And I had a huge amount of support and care from my husband during the assignment. I was completely spared any domestic chores and enjoyed fresh daily supplies of everything necessary to keep me going.)

To conclude, my humble work as a Ukrainian interpreter during those 70 days in London was intense but not anywhere near as challenging as the work of Ukrainian interpreters within Ukraine. In times of crisis, interpreters have a crucial role in making sure the world understands what’s happening, when even the language is not shared. The trust placed in us is a serious responsibility, and I’m really proud to have risen to the occasion during those tumultuous 70 days. The power of language, and our ability to connect and convey the message intact, shines brightly in times of need. As an interpreter, I can make the difference. I stand ready, unwavering and resilient for the next assignment and the one after that, knowing that my voice has the power to unite and illuminate even in the darkest of times.