Obscenity while Interpreting a Live Broadcast.

March 12, 2012 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During the past few weeks we have watched many movie award shows and political debates on American TV. Last week I shared my thoughts on interpreting a live political event on TV.  Today I want to talk about another very important element of live media interpretation: The live broadcast “5-second delay” factor that we have in the United States because of the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction incident during a Super Bowl half time show several years ago.

As I watched the Golden Globes from my home, and I saw Meryl Streep  fumble around looking for her eyeglasses to read her acceptance speech after being voted best female actor, I noticed,  like all of you, that she said something that we did not hear but “saw” regarding her frustration about forgetting her glasses.  Although I was watching the broadcast in English, I immediately thought of my colleagues who at that precise time were interpreting the broadcast of the ceremony to the non-English speaking world.

There is a principle in conference interpreting about avoiding the interpretation of all that is irrelevant and all that makes the speaker look bad and does not contribute anything to the listener.   Of course, there are two possible scenarios where the interpreter may need to make a judgment call:  On the first one, the interpreter has a live speech, as many of our colleagues from other countries did during the Streep incident, and a second reality, the one that faced those who were interpreting from the American signal that had the 5-second delay.  The question is: As the working interpreter in this situation, would you skip the “expletives” and just interpret the rest of what Ms. Streep said when she accepted her award?  I would skip it regardless of the way I am getting the feed of the speech. If it is live without any delay I would just interpret everything else, and if I had to deal with the delay, as we often do when we work in the States, I would pace myself so that the listener would not  even realize that there was a 5-second delay on the original broadcast.  Of course, there are those who say that you should interpret everything, and at least use “softer” expressions to convey the flavor of what is happening.  Please tell us what you would do as the broadcast interpreter of one of these events.

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§ 7 Responses to Obscenity while Interpreting a Live Broadcast.

  • Tolken says:

    Same thing goes for any situation where a speaker says (or express frustration over) something that s/he does not directly intend for the interlocutors. Do you interpret or not? Only difference: in most situations you have between one or maybe 100 at most listeners whereas broadcast interpreters can have millions. Sorry, I don’t have a straight answer to this. If I search my memory I also think I’ve acted differently in different situations.

  • Maarten Debie says:

    As with about anything else in translation and interpreting industry, it depends on context and other factors. Here in Belgium, nothing is being censored. You can swear freely on radio or tv. However, if a participant of a game show, for example, blurts something out when he trips ans falls, this is generally accepted. If a news anchor would do this live during the news, it would be a totally different story.
    So in this case: given the general context and audience of the Golden Globes and the fact that she may not have meant for everyone to hear it, I wouldn’t translate it either.

  • Lyda M. Baro says:

    Depending on the pace and or the complexity of the comments made prior to the “expletives” I would probably skip them. However, if the expletives were accompanied by gestures or funny facial expressions that would make it obvious to the listener that the interpretation fell short, I would definitely include them. Especially if there is an audience reaction that further emphasizes the omission.

  • Micky Friedman says:

    I agree with Lyda here. I would not translate what is “not relevant” to the context, but you have to be careful when judging “relevance” because you must not omit to translate anything that may be taken up and commented by a subsequent speaker.

  • Amel says:

    I am a court and conference interpreter in Spain. Although I have never been in a situation like that in conference interpreting, it is not the case in courts. In fact, several times, accused people use swearwords in their native language but I just never interpret this part. Instead, I use other expressions in order to make their words sound softer. I would even feel very embarassed if I had to swear interpreting…I think it would make the interpreter lose credibility and respect.

  • Lionel says:

    Interesting fact about conference interpreting that allows for the interpreter to make a judgemetn call on what is relevant or not. In the strict world of court interpreting, not interpreting expletives is just not the norm. Personally, I enjoy interpreting the occasional outbursts of flowery language. However, since I practice in English and Spanish, the real challenge is getting the intended semantic meaning accross when the expletives are uttered. This is specially challenging when the source is in Spanish, where the severity of some curse words depends on the national origin of the speaker.

  • I also translate in court in Spain and I totally disagree with Amel, what makes one lose credibility is NOT translating exactly what the witnesses or the accused say. If you do not want to translate the words, you should at least tell the court that they are being used, as they give a different emphasis to any statement made. And I thought Merryl’s slip of the tongue, or spontaneous outburst, or whatever, was not very offensive, although I confess I was quite surprised.

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