Interpreters and some of the non-linguistic challenges we are faced with

I’ve just come back from two conferences dealing with two different subjects. The first was an event hosted by a private insurance company. Most of the presentations there were just the regular kind of speeches you would expect at a conference like this. There was one speaker though who at one point in his presentation suggested that his company was “lucky” (he actually used that word) because their client had died just “in time” for them not to be obliged to make any payments to the insured person’s family (they were talking about life insurances). He even smiled when he said that.

He then added a few more remarks I personally found quite irreverent but, of course, I had to translate them as they were and I also had to make sure he got “his message” across the way he intended it. This meant that I had to ensure that I sounded just as unconcerned by the usage of his words as he obviously was. I think I managed to do so, even though I somewhat struggled with myself.

During the discussion that followed the presentation of that person he was attacked by some other participants for the words he had used. I felt that I was inclined to agree with their arguments and yet I had to make sure that my own standpoint does not influence the way I interpret their comments.

Basically, I belong to the “school of interpreters” that think that an interpreter needs to stay as close to the orginal as possible, which means that I use the same tone (be it aggressive or not), the same level of (im-)politeness as the speaker. There are other interpreters who think that no matter what happens you have to make sure that you remain neutral and this may require some “softening” of the original. I totally disagree with that.

There is only one exception to this rule for me: If it is absolutely clear to me that the speaker offends somebody without intending or wishing to do so. Let’s say there is a negotiation going on and I know that my client wants to sign a contract. All of a sudden, he says something which I know his future partner will find very offensive (this mostly happens when people try to make jokes without understanding the cultural background of their interlocutor). In cases like this I will first try to talk to my client about my concerns and if he insists I’ll translate his words exactly as he said them. Of course, you can only do that during consecutive interpreting. In the case of simultaneous interpreting I don’t have that chance to talk to my client or any other speaker for that matter.

The second conference was a meeting of the European employees’ council of an international company. The management tried to explain the reasons for outsourcing, shutdowns and the major increase in the number of temporary workers. During that discussion one member of the board was actually complaining about the “drastic increase” in wages in China, arguing that (including incidental costs such as depreciation etc.) the hourly wage had now reached an “incredible” (his words) 2.5 US dollars per hour.

Again it was kind of hard for me to interpret that sentence in a way that would faithfully reflect the “indignation” of that member of the board. I do believe that I managed to make sure he got his message across though. As a matter of fact the heated discussion that ensued was kind of proof of that, I guess.

Another member of the board was praising the King of Morocco for his supposedly democratic rule calling the King a true democrat and Morocco a stable democracy with extremely favourable “working conditions” (which basically meant that the company was almost given free hand as to the implementation of its own regulations). The Spanish delegate of the employees’ council then asked the board member to please stop calling the King a democrat because doing so would be the same as saying Angela Merkel is Mother Theresa.

I must say that I really liked the Spanish guy because he was very outspoken and obviously tried to fight for the rights of the people he was representing. But again, my job is to just translate what people say, to make sure that those listening to me get the same sense of anger, indignation, joy or whatever feeling they would have gotten had they understood the original.

Having said this, however, I must admit that as a human being I certainly do side with some people while I wholeheartedly disagree with others. As long as this does not in any way affect the outcome of my interpreting work, this is also OK. Making sure that I remain professional and not allowing any of my personal feelings to get in the way of my work is one of the greatest challenges for me as an interpreter and at the same time one of the most intriguing aspects of my job.

I guess it is somewhat similar to what an actor does when he plays a certain role, just with different consequences. When I lend my voice to a speaker I need to be aware of the power of words and the fact that I’m merely a mouthpiece.

Since I work as a freelancer I have more freedom as to the conferences I choose to work at than those colleagues of mine who are employed by private companies or a public institution. There are certain people I would never work for and there have been cases in the past where I refused to interpret for people because I would never want to be associated with them or their “messages”. So far this only concerned representatives of certain “weltanschauungen” (I guess you can use that word in English as well) or political groups. I know some may argue that these people also have a right to be heard and - with some notable exceptions - I’d agree on that. But there is no law requiring me to work for them and as I see it I don’t have any moral obligation to do so either. Besides, those people always find somebody to do the job.

Some of my colleagues argue that my point of view to some extent reflects a lack of professionalism, while I consider it my right to simply refuse a job. Anyway, I just wanted to point out that as an interpreter you are not only faced with linguistic challenges (which in themselves can be quite intimidating from time to time) but also other challenges prospective interpreters might not always think of.

“There are certain people I would never work for”

I guess you’re not going to be working for ME anytime soon then! :wink:

Welcome back buddy! I was afraid that my Unverschämtheiten about Austria had driven you away for good!

(Ich verhalte mich manchmal wie ein Arsch - aber ich meine es nicht so ernst, weißt du…)

ad JayB:
“There are certain people I would never work for” - No, don’t worry there are people that are far worse than you :wink: I have worked for some Republicans before :wink:

By the way, I had planned to stay away for a longer period of time but I guess my curiosity got the better of me. I couldn’t help but chuckle when you referred to me as “our leftwing friend” in one of your posts. As I see it, labels like leftwing and rightwing very much depend on where you stand yourself. But basically you were right, I’m definitely more of a Democrat (although I might have voted for Giuliani in some cases ;-).

“Ich verhalte mich manchmal wie ein Arsch…” - I would never have phrased it like this, but you know “Einsicht ist der beste Weg zur Besserung” :wink:
No, honestly, again I don’t think you are that kind of person. I read through some of your last comments and I do think that you sometimes come across as quite harsh and we certainly have different opinions on a number of issues (I was with YeshuaC on the “hijacking of words” argument for example :wink: but as for now I am also convinced that you are an interesting guy to talk to. Maybe we would not have gotten into that awkward situation if we had actually talked to each other instead of just writing messages.

“Unverschämtheiten about Austria” - It was not what you said about Austria that drove me up the wall. But we should just let bygones be bygones.

Anyway, thanks for welcoming me back :wink:

“No, don’t worry there are people that are far worse than you :wink: I have worked for some Republicans before ;-)” - LOL!

That was a very interesting post! It was something I had never thought about with respect to interpreting. Thanks so much!

It must be a tought job to stay neutral like that. I’d find it hard not to argue with the person haha!

Does anyone shoot the messenger, so to speak?

I know it makes no sense to do so, but I can see people getting mad at you for saying something offensive even though you were just interpreting.

Basically, I belong to the “school of interpreters” that think that an interpreter needs to stay as close to the original as possible, which means that I use the same tone (be it aggressive or not), the same level of (im-)politeness as the speaker. There are other interpreters who think that no matter what happens you have to make sure that you remain neutral and this may require some “softening” of the original. I totally disagree with that.

That sounds very difficult to manage. Most translators I’ve seen have said everything in a somewhat monotone voice, whether what was said was charged or not. Then again I haven’t seen many in my life.

I also find it interesting when people say weltanschauung in English because I get the same exact meaning from it as the English “worldview”. It was in A Confederacy of Dunces too, but I’m not saying you’re an Ignatius Reilly.

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I never thought about these problems, but I’m not an Interpreter :slight_smile:

I guess I would manage it in the same way you did. I think the speaker deceives that you not translate the words only, you have to transport the message. These are amazing aspects of your job.

ad SolYViento:
“Does anyone shoot the messenger, so to speak?” - I’m afraid, yes they do, at least sometimes. There are two incidents that come to my mind. A few years ago I did a lot of interpreting for the aliens’ police department (“Fremdenpolizei”) which is something like the immigration office in the US I guess. They had arrested an African man for possession of false documents and for not having a valid permit of residence. Basically, they were charging him with having entered the country illegally.
He argued that he had fled his home because most of his family had been killed for political reasons and that he had to use a false passport otherwise it would have been easy for his political opponents to find him even in Austria.
Anyway, the investigation had lasted for four or five hours already, so we all were exhausted. Add to that the fear or despair of the African man and you can imagine what kind of psychological state he was in (the interrogation is interrupted for short breaks of 5 or 10 minutes every couple of hours or so).

I don’t know if what he said was true or not, but I had to keep asking him the same questions over and over again. The “aim” of that procedure is to see if he gives different answers to the same questions (where were you born? what is your father’s name? how many sisters and brothers do you have? how old are you? etc.). After I had asked him some of these questions for the tenth time or so, he really got upset and started shouting at me before he completely lost it and hit me with his hand.

To this day I think he did not really want to hurt me, he just was in an extreme situation and had concentrated all his anger and frustration at me. Of course, I did not press any charges against him but he was immediately taken into custody by two police officers. I don’t know how the entire story ended because I went on holiday a week or so later and another interpreter obviously took care of the case.

The second case also involved an African guy who was charged with possession and dealing of drugs. This time I was intepreting at the criminal court. The judge asked me to translate the statements of the defendant and that’s what I did. However, the defendant only gave very evasive answers. So, after I had translated these answers for the third time I could see that the judge already was very upset. In addition, the defendant would also speak when he was not spoken to. My job basically is to speak every time he speaks and that’s what I did which resulted in the judge shouting at me: If you do that one more time I’ll charge you with contempt of court! And stop giving those silly answers!

Well, at first I was kind of shocked but after a few seconds I told him that it was not me saying these things but the defendant. The judge grumbled and then simply said: Well, well, I know that, but from now on you only speak when I tell you to speak.

I must say that I don’t like working at courts even though I think that it is an important part of our work. People need to be given an opportunity to defend themselves in a language they are comfortable with. Being held in custody or being charged with a crime is bad enough an experience. Not being able to communicate properly would make things even worse irrespective of whether someone is guilty or not. By the way, we have a law in Austria ensuring that any defendant will be assigned an interpreter if he or she does not speak German. The costs are borne by the Austrian government. Sometimes it may not be the defendant’s mother tongue (there are lots of Africans who speak a language we don’t have interpreters for, so we mostly work in English, French and Portuguese in these cases) but it must be a language he or she understands well enough to follow the proceedings.

Ad aybee77, YeshuaC and Veral:
Thanks for your comments. Staying neutral is kind of difficult but paramount when you work as an interpreter. The main task is to get the message across. Of course, I often talk with my colleagues about what we had to interpret once the conference is over and that leads to some heated discussions sometimes :wink:

Wow, why the first man hit you (not that I agree with it), but I don’t understand why the judge threatened you. Surely they need to be mentally strong enough to deal with stuff like that.

My funniest experience as a court interpreter came when I had to interpret for two Germans accused of drug smuggling. Normally the interpreter stands outside the dock, apart from the accused. In this case, however, I had to stand between these two in the dock before the magistrate. The two guys played tough, but I felt terribly guilty!

This is all very fascinating. I always wanted to be able to interpret after I saw an incident as a teenager where two non English speakers were being yelled at, and not understanding why. A kind soul then interpreted what the idiot yeller was trying to tell them. It’s very important work.

@love languages, is it very hard to maintain emotional distance in that sort of situation (translating for the African man, who was distressed)?

I agree with aybee77 that this is very important work… It requires so much more than just knowing languages very well.

ad James123: As for the judge I mentioned in my previous post, I guess he was just stressed as well. Of course, he should have known that it is not me giving those evasive answers. He was one of the few judges, however, I had problems with. All the others I worked with seemed to handle their cases much more professionally. I still don’t like the atmosphere at a court though.

ad SanneT: That is an interesting experience. In Austria we do not really have that kind of dock in our courts (unless it is a big one). The defendant usually just sits at a table and I sit next to him. The judge sits in front of us, the prosecutor to our left and the defendant’s lawyer to our right. At least that has been my experience. I can readily imagine that you felt very uncomfortable between the two guys.

ad aybee77: I like my job best when I feel that I could help people communicate with each other or clear up some misunderstandings. What you did for that couple of non-English speakers was very commendable and I’m sure they greatly appreciated your help.

ad summergold: Yes, personally I find it really hard. Sometimes people turn to you begging you to tell them what to say so they would be granted asylum for example. I’ve had people asking me: “Please help me, they are going to kill me if you send me home”. Of course, it is difficult for me to judge whether what a person says is true or not. I normally only see them a couple of times. Often they are also charged with crimes such as drug dealing, robbery etc. Again, they could be totally innocent and all their stories may be true but I have to abide by certain rules.

Basically, I would even be obliged to tell the police officer or the judge that I was asked by the defendant (and/or asylum seeker) to help them. If it is a language other than English chances are that the judge won’t understand what the defendant says. I normally tell the people that I am just the interpreter and that I will do my best to make sure that everything they say will be translated correctly. They are also informed about their rights before they make any statements and I usually add that they have to be very careful about what they say. In doing so, I do not break any law, I uphold the standards of my profession but I also try to make sure that the people understand the situation they are in.

There were cases where I thought “Gosh, this guy is lying his head off”, but I still had to translate what he said and nothing else. I try to concentrate on my part of the job, but it is not always easy because even if you translate the content correctly the tone of your voice or a simple gesture or your mimics might give away what you personally think.

@ lovelanguages and others

One thing that I always wanted to know.
For example…, If you are interpreting an accused person’s statements in court, and that person says something that you did not understand (mumbling, used a bit of arabic instead of french… etc…) would you tell the listeners that you don’t understand or would it be more appropriate to ask the defendant to rephrase first…?

I apologize for this silly question, but I find interpreting fascinating and was always curious about the standards and etiquette for this type of work.

This is a great topic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

ad MisterB: That’s not a silly question at all. As an interpreter you definitely have to make sure you understand everything the accused says. If I’m asked to translate from French into German for example, it is stated in the court documents that the translation will be from French into German and vice versa. The court will draft minutes with all the statements of the defendant and I’ll have to sign these (together with the defendant). I don’t speak Arabic so I would have to mention that the defendant speaks in a language that I don’t understand and this will be noted in the minutes as well. I then would have to ask the defendant to make his statements in the language I was hired for as an interpreter. I would first tell the judge that I did not understand what the defendant said and that I asked him to speak in French. If he just mumbles, I’ll tell him right away to please speak up.

Whether I first tell the judge about this or not, very much depends on my relationship with the judge. Mostly I’ve known them for years, so I know what they want me to do. Some want you to clarify these things right away because they are only interested in the answers to their questions, while others get very upset if they realize that you sort of took things into your own hands and did not ask their permission to ask the defendant to explain their statements.

But you MUST ALWAYS make sure that you understand EVERYTHING, every little detail, the defendant says. If you don’t you’ll have to tell the judge and they will either have to hire another interpreter or you’ll have to try and sort out the problem in another way (ask again and again till you understand exactly what the defendant says).

Sometimes African defendants would use terms in their own native languages and mix them with English or French. I have to tell the judge about this as well and it will be included in the minutes. The defendant will then be asked to rephrase his statement in English or French. He always has to choose one language for his statements, he cannot use multiple languages.

It’s interesting to note that in African French, there are some forms which have a good number of words from African languages. Looking at it clearly, it’s not “multiple languages”. By the way, Australian English has many words from Australian Aboriginal languages.

But, I understand that this must make things difficult.

I suppose, if you think about it, a great many of the people who require interpreters (politicians, senior management, diplomats, the police) will be saying powerfully controversial things that are going to upset and offend someone. Teachers, librarians and care-workers, whose livings depend on getting on with people and not saying very controversial things, don’t tend to use simultaneous interpreters :wink:

I couldn’t do simultaneous interpretation because I’d spend too long thinking about what I was saying.

One thing that has always puzzled me regarding simultaneous interpretation: How do you manage to carefully listen to what someone is saying, translate that, and communicate it to someone else, all at the same time? To me it seems very hard to just listen and speak at the same time, let alone having to concentrate on interpretation.

ad kokorodoko:
To be honest, I don’t know how it works but I’m glad that it somehow does :wink:
Maybe the “secret” is that you actually don’t “translate” as such because the time span is way too short for any conscious translation process. You need to react within a fraction of a second sometimes. It is not so much about words but more about “images”. The speaker creates some sort of “linguistic environment” and you “re-create” that environment in your target language. Of course, this includes the usage of words, but the entire process is not based on a word-by-word translation. I once read in a scientific paper that simultaneous interpreters do concentrate on and work with words but that they do so at the “speed of lightning” (the researchers had used that term in their paper). I mean I listen to words, of course, but I can’t recall having ever consciously “translated” entire sentences in my mind.

I’m afraid I can’t really explain the process myself. I might have to look up a few more scientific articles on that.

I just remember that as a young interpreter I once participated in a scientific project where they observed brain activities during a normal speech process and during simultaneous interpreting. The research showed the differences in activity by means of little lights going on in a diagram. While more and more lights went on during a normal discussion, it almost looked like some fireworks when we started to interpret simultaneously.