Monday, August 20, 2007

How To Be An Interpreter

Several weeks ago, I stumbled across a masterpiece called, "How To Be An Interpreter." I am pleased to report that the author of this brilliant work, a fellow interpreter and blogger who goes by the name of Chameleon for purposes of confidentiality, has given me permission to share her wonderful essay here. In the interests of space, I am sharing the condensed version. The full version is available at her website, here.

Not only that, but she has kindly granted permission to publish an abbreviated version of this in the From Our Lips to Your Ears book.

This essay contains an entertaining mixture of humor, sarcasm and insight. Since the readers of this blog come from all "walks of life" in the interpreting field, I want to remind readers that the rules of engagement for interpreting depend greatly on the type of interpreting one is providing. It is obvious from the context provided that this piece refers to conference interpreting (simultaneous mode).

So, without further ado, please enjoy this essay, which, I believe not only accurately reflects many of the subtleties and difficulties of an interpreter's daily life, but truly enables non-interpreters to gain a gritty and honest, yet educated glimpse of what this work frequently entails.

How To Be An Interpreter

Develop a magpie instinct, picking up pieces of knowledge no matter how obscure, from Middle High German proverbs to solar panel technology, from condom thicknesses to mother boards.

Have a few stock quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare at your fingertips, as clients are fond of displaying their erudition (King Lear, Act One, Scene Four’s “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” an excellent solution for the perennial brain bender “the good is the enemy of the best”) and a few innocuous “filler” phrases when you need to play for time, taking that split second to dredge up the choice piece of vocabulary from the depths of your memory (a favourite of some being “We ignore this at our peril”). Avoid Spoonerism-prone expressions, such as “shed light on”. Once the penny has dropped, you will experience a pre-emptive shudder of mental mortification every time you contemplate using it.

Be prepared for the frustration of outsiders (especially those who should know better as they depend on your services on a daily basis) assuming that anyone with the most superficial of nodding acquaintances with languages being capable of doing your job. You may have a doctorate in nuclear physics (one of my colleagues does), but you are still pigeonholed as a linguist and looked down on accordingly. Of course, they are secretly jealous that they have been excluded from such a “cushy number”. Whereas in truth even the perfectly bilingual are less likely to possess the rarefied aptitude than those brought up without such an advantage. This attitude is exacerbated by the fatuous claims printed as a marketing ploy on learning discs (“Learn Hausa in a week!”) so popular at the moment as holidaymakers contemplate alternative sunny climes.

Worse, you are a parasite, an expensive frippery, a drain on taxpayers’ money, a glorified secretary, a menial to be shunted off to a cheap hotel miles away from the venue whilst those on an equal (or greatly inferior) footing in the official hierarchy are allocated doubles in situ (the cost of hiring fleets of coaches to ferry you back and forth is somehow mysteriously omitted from the calculation, what counts is the genuflection towards economising).

Always respect the Magnus Magnusson principle (“I’ve started so I’ll finish”). If you embark on a sentence you are committed to finishing it or else you will undermine the confidence of your listeners. This is why it is never a good idea to echo the speaker when she or he says “We have a saying in Estonian that goes something like this and I’m not sure about the English equivalent…” (the advice in paragraph one notwithstanding). Waiting for a few seconds will allow you to determine whether a similar phrase does indeed exist in the target language and save you much grief. However, your voice must not waver in the meantime. Waiting just long enough without creating the impression you have lost the plot is a skill that can only be acquired with practice. Hesitation is not automatically equated with incompetence, but the line between keeping and losing your audience’s faith is fine indeed.

Judicious editing is one of the most important aptitudes at your disposal and should be nurtured accordingly. Interpretation is not a mere slavish rendition of every word, but a distillation of the message, a processed essence purified of all extraneous verbiage, a concentrate of the speaker’s intentions. Ideally every utterance should be faithfully rendered (and the true interpreter will capture the speaker’s style and delivery as well as content), but this is not always possible. In that sense, interpretation is a highly pragmatic art.

No matter how repugnant the views articulated might be to you personally, your presence is required as a conduit, a filter of concepts, a role, which does not entitle you to distort or maliciously interfere with the original message. The phrase “says the speaker” is handy in two instances: firstly as an exclamation mark to dissociate yourself with the content when the speaker has made a glaring error of substance (so that listeners are alerted to the fact that a lack of comprehension on your part is not to blame) and secondly to distance yourself from the most repellent of statements (although the latter should be used sparingly and many would argue that it is never acceptable to deploy it to voice a distaste, which is incompatible with our professional ethos).

You communicate the thoughts and thought processes of others: you are only a participant in proceedings by default or proxy, an impartial witness, an arbiter of content at a linguistic level, but not a judge. If all else fails and you really have not understood either because the acoustics were poor (the sound cuts out with monotonous regularity or the expatiating customer has an irritating habit of turning round to joke with his friend in the row behind and the mike does not pick up the words clearly) or the point genuinely went over your head, there are two fallback tactics, leaving the offending word or phrase out altogether (which can prove fatal or impossible if everything hinged on that one component – all too often the case) or bluffing with a meaningless substitute (the indispensable padding phrase again). Clarification can always be requested by the delegates themselves. They have the advantage of being in a position to ask. You don’t.

The true last resort is tactical mumbling. Speaking indistinctly won’t endear you to colleagues depending on your for relay, but mumbling the names (the problem usually arises because the individual giving the floor mangles the pronunciation so badly that only the most mentally agile, seasoned interpreter who can reel off the list of members of the body in question has a remote hope of deciphering them) or making a valiant attempt to mimic accurately the sound emanating from the chairperson’s lips at least opens the possibility that someone out there might be able to put two and two together.

Always modulate. There is nothing more dreary than hearing a bored voice drone on through the headphones. Even if the topic is accrual-based accounting systems remember it is your duty to make it sound interesting. It will warm the cockles of some little stuffed shirt’s heart. You are the speaker for the duration. If she is angry, you must convey that rage. If she speaks with passion, you must reflect that enthusiasm. Your voice is your precious instrument, your greatest asset. Flaunt it.

Resign yourself to never being able to read a newspaper again (not even in your mother tongue) without underlining interesting or unfamiliar words. Tabloids are every bit as useful as broadsheets in this respect, as you can stripmine them of vocabulary items in a different register. The printed columns are a tool, not only in terms of gathering information, but also in terms of providing you with the basic raw materials of your craft.

Do not be alarmed at the shift in perceptions that comes from being exposed to an uninterrupted stream of sound day in day out. A person’s attractiveness will be conditional on the quality of their voice. Nothing will put you off a person more than a shrill, hash or in any way grating vocalisation. Your tolerance for extraneous noise will gradually diminish the longer you are bombarded with other people’s utterances. This is an occupational disease and will sneak up on you unnoticed. It may even extend to music.

Finally, one ineluctable paradox is built into the very nature of our art. We have to process complex information instantaneously. We must have honed analytical skills. We must have a flair for communicating across cultural barriers. In order to perform our job well we must possess an innate creativity that must always be harnessed in the service of those who by definition cannot appreciate our flashes of brilliance. We might pull off a linguistic salto mortale every second sentence without the reward of applause. We might unravel the most tortuous logic with perfect clarity yet our efforts go unnoticed. The brutal truth is that if they could appreciate us they wouldn’t need us. We only ever impinge on their consciousness if something goes wrong.

If you are expecting gratitude or admiration in exchange for your intellectual fireworks, for the sheer amount of mental and emotional energy expended you will be sorely disappointed. The primary compensations are to be found in being present whilst history is made (or at least having a ringside seat whilst the swarms of journalists hang around the bar for the merest scrap of what you have heard in detail, and the more modest consolation of being able to walk away at the end of the session and leave the day’s work behind you.

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