Monthly Archives: February 2012

Interpreting – what exactly is it and how is it done? Part 2

Things can go wrong…

If the speaker is not used to speaking at a multi-language conference, it may be a problem – for the interpreter and the audience. Puns, colloquial terms and idioms may well be understood and appreciated by a national audience – but leave an international one baffled. “Hit someone for six”, “he had a good innings” and other cricketing terms make no sense whatever to someone from a country where they don’t play cricket, – and are virtually impossible for any interpreter to interpret.

Sayings – well, they may be OK, but not always. At one conference many years ago a managing director of a large British company explained how they had purchased an expensive piece of machinery which – when they received it – turned out to be unfit for the job because there had been a misunderstanding with the specifications.

“It turned out we had bought a pig in a poke”, he said. In Norwegian we have the direct and exact equivalent – “Katten i sekken” – “Cat in a bag”, and I was rather pleased with myself that I got this straight away, so whilst the speaker kept talking about the pig, I was happily talking about the cat. Until he ended by saying that since it would be much too complicated and costly to rebuild it or return it – “we decided to slaughter the pig and eat it”. Which left me with nothing to say, really.

I mentioned concentration. This can be very taxing, and for that reason there are always (at least) two interpreters for each language, i.e. in each booth. Normal practice is to work for half an hour – and then your colleague takes over and you have a rest. Often still listening in so that you can take over if your colleague suddenly gets the “iron curtain” – it happens –, a coughing attack or whatever. After half an hour’s intense concentration it is easy even for the most experienced interpreter to begin to miss a word here and there.

Another “Yes” applies to speakers who insist on speaking in a language which is not their mother tongue at meetings where they do have interpreters in that language. One single example will make it crystal clear what I mean: at what was then described as a “Top level” meeting in London about alternative power many years ago, one delegate from a European, non-English speaking country, insisted on speaking in English. No doubt he could read and write English very well – the trouble was he couldn’t pronounce it. I am sure he used all the correct words in the correct order, but the whole rhythm of his “English” had very little to do with English – the result was that every interpreter was frantically turning the knobs on their control panel in a faint hope that one of their colleagues might possibly understand what the man was saying. But there was dead silence all round – apart from a few muttered and not very complimentary comments about the speaker. The audience did not fare better – one of the English speaking delegates was understanding and kind enough to look up at my colleague and me, shrugged his shoulders and smiled. As it was, the speaker spoke for a good 15 minutes – and not a word of his no doubt carefully prepared, edited, and polished speech was understood by a single delegate. Had he not ignored the Golden Rule: “Always give the interpreters a copy of your speech!”, his time and words would not have been a total waste.

It is always a great help for any interpreter to have a copy of written speeches, in particular if it contains a lot of abbreviations and figures. A sentence like: “This year the ABC is up with a turnover of 2,366,766.90 against 2,057,832.80 last year, whilst the CPCWR managed a mere 1,433.777.80 compared to 2,549,973.80 last year” is easy for the interpreter to convey if he or she has it in black and white – nearly impossible to get right if it said in a fast and furious tempo by someone who is presenting all this for the umpteenth time.

There are, of course, good and bad interpreters, as there are good and bad speakers. But anyone participating in a meeting, having a written a speech, can make sure the audience is getting the message by giving the interpreter a copy of the talk and having a word with the interpreter before the meeting, if possible, to sort out any queries regarding abbreviations, names, “in-house terminology” – familiar to and in daily use by everyone working within the same company or office – completely gobbledegook to everyone else. By giving the interpreter the manuscript beforehand, you give him or her a chance to find out what these terms really mean, thereby interpreting correctly what the speaker says.

Guest blogger: Tore Fauske

Interpreting – what exactly is it and how is it done? Part 1

The first time I came across the job description ”Conference Interpreter” was as a young man when I worked in a travel agency in London in the late ’50s. Travel then was more complicated than it is today, with currency restrictions, detailed forms to be filled in, visa requirements in respect of many countries, etc. etc. And before I could hand over any tickets, I had to check all details against the relevant forms to make sure all was correct. That’s when I came across “Conference Interpreter” on the “What is your occupation?”-line.

“That sounds interesting”, I said to the gentleman who had come in to collect his tickets, for all I had no idea what he really did.  It just looked, well, intriguing. He said it was – which left me just as wise, so I dared to ask him what, exactly, conference interpreting was.

And he did tell me.  How he travelled all over Europe, sometimes to other parts of the world as well, interpreting at meetings of every kind – but it was his descirption of how he listnened to one language – and spoke into a microphone in front of him in another language, that made my mouth drop open.  I uttered something like “Good grief, you must be very, very clever and intelligent”, – he lauged and said “Not really – remember that everbody is damned good at something – and pretty hopeless at something else.  Ask me to hammer a nail – straight – into a wall…!” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

Little did I know then that abut ten years later I would be using the same job description.

Guest blogger: Tore Fauske