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

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