Interpreting the Political Conventions.

September 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This is political convention time in the U.S. where every four years our two political parties come together to nominate their candidate to the presidency of the United States.  As I watched the Republican convention on TV last week and I get ready to watch the Democrats this week, my first thought goes to my friends and colleagues who are doing the interpretation this year. Because of the global importance of the American president, these gatherings get coverage, and therefore interpretation, all over the world. Some interpreters work from their home countries via electronic feed and others physically attend the meetings.

In the past I have interpreted for conventions and other political events such as debates, but when I think of my political interpretation work, the one assignment that first comes to mind is my interpretation of President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago in Denver Colorado.

In January 2008 I received a phone call asking me if I would be interested in working as a broadcast interpreter during the Democratic convention in Colorado.  After checking my schedule and agreeing to a fee, I started an assignment that would give me a small role in our country’s history.  The first steps were tedious and frustrating as I had to go through an exhaustive security background check because of the event and the people I was going to have access to during the convention.  I even remember one occasion when I was working in Hawaii and I received a phone call from the network asking me if I could attend a security meeting the following day. After I explained that I was physically unable to make it in such short notice, they arranged for me to participate via teleconference from my hotel room in Honolulu. That was when it first hit me that it was going to be a huge event.  Of course, after we learned that Barack Obama had officially won the primary election, and once we were briefed on the specifics of some of the events by the Democratic National Committee, we knew that this convention was going to be unique because the acceptance speech was going to take place at an outdoor facility; and this was no regular outdoor facility, it was Invesco Field at Mile High, the stadium where the Denver Broncos play football.  I immediately thought of the implications this would have for me as an interpreter who now had to interpret a speech given outdoors before a crowd of 80 thousand screaming supporters, as it was broadcasted live to millions of people in the United States. Not to mention the millions who would hear my rendition after the fact as they watched or listened to a newscast on thousands of local stations around the world.  All I could think of was what a great opportunity it was for me as an interpreter and as an American, and on top of it I was been handsomely paid for my services. I understood the enormity and relevance of this job, and I understood its importance, regardless of my political inclinations or those of the people who had hired me. Those of you who know me also know that I take on interpretation assignments because of their uniqueness and because of what they pay.  I have never applied my own political views or opinions to my interpretation work, in fact, most of you do not even know my political persuasion because that is irrelevant for the work I do. This is one of the reasons why I have repeatedly worked with both political parties. They all know I will do a good and impartial job.

After many, many, many virtual and physical meetings with the network, the Democratic National Committee, the convention committee, the technical support people, security gurus, and many others, it was finally show time. The convention started on a Monday but my assignment was to interpret for candidate Obama who was going to give his speech on Thursday.  For this reason, I had time to honor another previous commitment to work somewhere else that Monday. This meant that by the time I arrived in Denver the convention was on its second day.  As soon as I arrived in downtown Denver I was ushered to the Pepsi Center for a meeting. The Pepsi Center is an arena where the first three days of the convention took place.  I will never forget the first time I entered the arena where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play professional sports. The security was incredible, and once I made it through all the questioning, frisking, and walking through metal detectors, I finally arrived to the top floor where everybody was running around wearing as many credential tags around their necks as I was. All of a sudden I recognized many faces I knew from TV, there was Sam Donaldson, Brian Williams, and Sean Hannity.

After this very long meeting, I went back to my place and debated what to do next. I had two options: I could study more glossaries and practice more Obama speeches or I could kick back and relax. I thought of the many hours I had already spent watching and practicing interpreting Obama’s campaign speeches, his debates with Hillary Clinton, and all the newspaper articles and political briefs I had read for the past several months. I also reflected on my many years of following politics and world affairs on the news and in person; I thought of all the other politicians I had previously interpreted for: George W. Bush, John Kerry, John McCain, Bob Dole, Richard Gephardt, Bill Richardson, Jesse Jackson, and many more, and I came to the realization that I was well prepared, that I had been preparing for this moment all my professional life, and I concluded that this assignment was just like all others. After these private reflections I decided to do the latter: Take a break and relax. That evening I went back to the Pepsi Center to visit the booth, talk to the other interpreters that were working the rest of the convention, and to get more acquainted with the technical people who would work the booth with me on Thursday night.

This was fun. I met some great interpreters from all over, watched part of the session and got familiar with the equipment we were going to use at the stadium for the acceptance speech.  I even got to meet Senator Ted Kennedy who came to the booth to say hi to our next-door neighbor TV anchorman Jim Lehrer. Wednesday went by very fast. I spent most of the day fielding phone calls from many of my friends and colleagues who wanted to wish me luck (and some of them wanted to know how I got the gig. You know how this is)

Finally on Thursday morning I went to a last meeting at the Pepsi Center where the crew was already tearing apart the stage.  During this morning meeting Senator Obama stopped by to say hi to everybody at the meeting (all 300 of us) After the meeting, as we were breaking for lunch before getting on the buses that were going to take us to Invesco Field, my producer approached me and asked me if I could amend my contract and interpret for one more politician besides the acceptance speech. They wanted me to interpret for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who was famous for discarding written speeches and going with whatever came to his mind. After some fee negotiating and other conditions to guarantee I was fresh for the main speech I accepted, so now I had two assignments instead of one.

Getting through security at the stadium was an excruciating experience, but definitely nothing compared to the hours the delegates and attendees had to endure on their feet waiting to clear security. My credentials made me look like I was wearing a cowbell but they helped this time.  Once at the booth it became very clear how difficult it was going to be to listen and to interpret. Are you familiar with the stadium-type of sound system? That is what we had, well almost what we had.  I went into the booth and sat down, stared at the console before me, looked at the TV monitor on my desk, and I said to myself: This is between you and this microphone. Nobody else counts. Forget about all those listening out there. Next I worked with my tech guy on the signs I like to use from the booth. Once he memorized them I moved on to other things. As the network people brought me water and asked what I wanted for dinner (and I declined as I did not want to risk having any problems during my rendition) I inquired about Obama’s speech. My producer said that we did not have it yet but it would be coming very soon.  Time went by and it was time to interpret for Governor Richardson. As expected, he followed the text of his speech for the first two lines and then he improvised. I honestly had no problem because I had worked with him in the past and I had lived in his State, so many of his references were familiar to me.  Once he finished I asked for Obama’s speech once again. The answer was the same; it will be here very soon.

Well, the speech was not there yet when they announced Senator Obama and he went on stage. As he was on stage walking from one end of that Greek structure they built on the football field saying “thank you” many times, I finally hear that my printer in the booth is going. The speech started to come in. I furiously grabbed the pages as they were coming out. It was too long. Way too-many pages. At that point I made an executive decision. Just see how many pages to get an idea of how long the speech is going to be, then, put it aside and just concentrate and interpret as he is delivering the speech. That is what I did. If you have interpreted for President Obama you know that it is very difficult to interpret his speeches (even when it may not seem like it is)

My strategy worked very well. I just stayed with the speaker and interpreted the entire thing. Sometimes closing my eyes, sometimes looking at the monitor, occasionally looking at my sound engineer to make some adjustments. To be honest with you, I never looked at the stage downstairs while I was working.  Finally after this was all over I left the stadium very happy and satisfied with my work. That night, as I was packing to go to Cancun the following morning on a well-deserved vacation, I thought of how lucky I was to be hired to interpret that particular event. The first time that an African-American had accepted a big party nomination for president of the United States. I did not know whether he was going to win or lose the November election, but it did not matter, circumstances had allowed me to be a part of history.  Regardless of my politics, regardless of whom I voted for, in some part of the Spanish-speaking world my voice will be linked to this major event forever.  I would love to read some of your stories about how you have prepared for, and rendered, some difficult or relevant interpretation during your career.

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§ 2 Responses to Interpreting the Political Conventions.

  • Politics is not my forte. I actually have a psychological block when it comes to politics and the Portuguese language. I grew up under a military dictatorship whose tentacles reached into my household through my father, a Navy man who would not allow any conversation about politics in our home.

    But I had the pleasure of interpreting President Clinton speaking to the faculty and students of a university at a conference a few years ago. He knows how to pace himself. It was a great experience. And he did it in less than 40 minutes :o)

  • What a cool story, Tony! Just out of curiosity, why is Obama so hard to interpret for? I mean, not that *any* interpreting is easy, but why is he difficult?

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