When the speaker delivers rude remarks during an official event.

December 16, 2013 § 21 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know how difficult it is to interpret for a speaker during a government event, a corporate function or a diplomatic dinner.  Interpreters have to deal with situations like the speaker’s accent, idiomatic expressions, regional or political jokes, sports metaphors, and others that come with the territory.  All difficult but for the most part predictable once we know who we will be interpreting for.

The case I am about to tell you refers to a different situation that arose during an official dinner between top legislators from two countries.  I was retained to interpret for a conference between legislators from two countries and the agenda included a formal dinner on the night of the first day of activities.  The delegations had elected officials from all political parties represented in that legislative body.  One of the countries had representatives from two political parties. The other delegation had individuals representing different political tendencies and ideological persuasion. I teamed-up to work the event with an excellent and experienced colleague.

During dinner, each one of us sat down at opposite sides of this gigantic table, right behind the two main dignitaries, and interpreted the neighboring conversations by whispering what others said.  Then it was time for the speeches. For those who have not interpreted for these events, I have to tell you that these speeches are usually very friendly and cordial. People thank their host, say something good about the place where they are, and perhaps extend an invitation to their country as a way to reciprocate.  This is exactly what was happening during this dinner. The two most senior officials from the host country thanked their guests for attending the event and wished them success during the rest of the conference.  Next, the guest country speakers addressed the gathering in order of representation in their legislature. At the end, a legislator from what I was told was the most radical party to the left of the spectrum got up and began his remarks. Since I still have my notes I will quote him:

He said in Spanish: “Thank you for the invitation. The food was good; however, I want to tell you that you don’t scare me. I didn’t come over here to be brain-washed, and I want you to know that I am not afraid of you, or your huge country, or your billions of dollars.  You don’t scare me guys. If you think you are going to tell me what to do, then you are wasting your time. Look at me; I am not shaking in my boots. Nobody frightens me.   (“Gracias por la invitación. La comida estuvo buena y todo, pero quiero decirles que no me asustan. No vine a que me lavaran el cerebro y quiero que sepan que no les tengo miedo ni a ustedes, ni a su paisote, ni a sus trillones de dólares. No me asustan señores. Si creen que me van a decir lo que tengo que hacer están perdiendo su tiempo. Véanme, no estoy temblando del miedo. A mí no me amedrenta nadie”.) He finished and sat down.

I raised my eyes from my notepad and looked directly at my colleague who was sitting at the opposite end of the table.  For a fraction of a second I pondered how to render the speech. I went through all the mental exercises and considerations we usually go through during an interpretation.  Should I omit anything? Should I soften the tone? What if all hell breaks loose?  Then It came to me: First: One half of those in attendance (the Spanish speakers) already know what was said. Second: Because of the relevance of the issues to be discussed, this conference will go on regardless. Third: The politician who just spoke represents a very small faction in his legislature. Fourth: All my research for this assignment described this legislator as controversial, irreverent, and loud.  I also remembered that, according to what I had read, he often said something and then voted in a more main-stream fashion. After this analysis that lasted a blink of an eye, I thought of professional wrestling: How these huge individuals scream at each other and then nothing ever happens. I immediately thought, this man is the professional wrestler of his country’s legislative politics. As I looked at my wide-eyed colleague, we were able to communicate through facial expressions and we seemed to be in agreement. I would interpret every single word and utterance; and so I did.

Obviously, the dining room turned very tense. The host officials were not expecting anything like this. The rest of the visiting delegation looked very embarrassed by their colleague’s conduct. Fortunately, dessert arrived and everyone’s attention turned to chocolate and ice cream.

Later that night I ran into this same legislator in the men’s restroom. He recognized me, and with a huge grin told me: “I did great didn’t I?” I did not answer.

A few days later a member of the host delegation approached me, and showing me a newspaper in Spanish told me: “…this is the newspaper from the legislator’s hometown. Look at the headlines…” The paper read on the front page:  “Legislator (his name) bravely sets the record straight with those powerful legislators…”  I then understood the exact reason why this man had done what he did: internal consumption. What created the worst moment of the conference, what embarrassed the members of his own delegation, was the same speech that made him a hero back home. I was glad I reacted the way I did and interpreted his words during that dinner.

I now ask you to please share an episode where you had to think fast and decide even faster about a rendition, even if it did not involve deciding what to interpret, like in court interpreting where the dilemma is nonexistent as you are required to interpret everything but other situations where the interpreter has to react quickly in the courtroom may occur.

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§ 21 Responses to When the speaker delivers rude remarks during an official event.

  • I remember one time at court in CR, I was interpreting the sentence of a person who had killed two people. Said person, all of the sudden, started saying “mother fucker retarded judges, this is bullshit”. I was shocked for a couple of seconds, then interpreted exactly what he said (I’m pretty sure most of the people there understood what he said, anyhow). The judge was confused at first but continue the reading, only to be interrupted twice more with the same remarks, which I interpreted exactly the same. After the third time, he was taken away from court and told that he’ll receive a translation of the 60-page sentence.

  • Khethiwe Marais says:

    Once I was in a same situation where a member of a legislature started swearing at the opposition member. I also handled the interpreting the same way you did. I interpreted exactly what the member of the legislature had said. When he was challenged on his swearing by the opposition party members, he denied what he had said. He accused the interpreter of not understanding the culture of the language he had used and acctherefore misinterpreted. Fortunately from the opposition members, one of the members knew the language well and attested that they interpreter interpreted correctly. There was a drawn out debate on the language issue. Eventually the Hansard record was sent to some language professor to arbitrate. The professor happened to be a member of the same party the swearing member belonged to. He decided to tone down the language used by the member of the legislature. When the report came from the language professor, the opposition members of the legislature did not accept it as they believed the interpreter had interpreted correctly and also one of their members understood the language and stood his ground. Eventually the member who had sworn at the opposition members, was forced to apologise for using an unparliamentary language.

  • Patrick Schunemann says:

    Early in my career I had a similar experience when a client started insulting the judge trying his case, the judge, a very senior lady, noticed my embarrassment in the split second I hesitated to interpret and before I rendered my interpretation, interrupting me, she said, “Mr Interpreter, it’s not your embarrassment, it’s his, please proceed!” I did so, conveying both word and nuance. To this day, when interpreting, I always remember what the wise lady said. The consequences are mine to pay only if I fail to relay what was said. In a way, all I am is a bridge joining two minds.

  • Emma says:

    I’m shocked that you might even consider not interpreting in full what anyone says on the job, regardless of content or tone. Why would you ever think it wise to change what is said by your speaker other than to idiomatically adapt it to the target language?

    • It wasn’t court interpreting. It was diplomatic interpreting.

      • Emma says:

        What difference does it make? One is not there to re-formulate what the speaker says so as not to offend, attack or make laugh, or transmit the speaker’s intention, whichever it was … One is there to translate what the speaker says into another language. What you’re implying is that one must, or at least may, change the speaker’s message based on one’s own assumptions, beliefs or even personal interest. One thing is loose translation of terms due to the immediacy of the job, but changing the message is a whole different matter. I totally disagree with this take on interpreting; truth is not only for the courts.

  • Patrick Schunemann says:

    I believe that the point that Mr Rosado was trying to make was precisely that, Emma. One is merely a communication conduit, but a person also. It must have been tough on the Interpreters in Nuremberg, don’t you agree?

    • Emma says:

      Yes, it is tough for everyone at some point in their career regardless of what they do. But isn’t conciously changing what is being said malpractice?

      • Patrick Schunemann says:

        Certainly, but he never said that he was tempted to change the meaning of what was said, or that he had intended to. I wouldn’t qualify it as malpractice, at least in Mr Rosado’s case; his judgement wasn’t impaired or his position unethical, he just felt appalled by the the gross misconduct of a fellow Latin American, in the end, after a heartbeat, his professionalism prevailed. Remember that we are interpreters, and that by definition were interpret what we hear into a language that can be understood by the others. In my case, it terrified me to have to utter the profanities my client was saying to a person whom I respected, not only as a judge, but as a venerable lady. That I would make precise meaning interpretation of the content was never in doubt. The simplicity of the judge’s definition of what she understood my role was: “Mr Interpreter, it’s not your embarrassment, it’s his, please proceed!”; It’s a mantra to me now.
        Also one learns from listening to other people’s takes on the limitations of our role and the insurmountable and unbreakable boundaries that protect us from having to make one’s own some other person’ sad behavior. The difference between us and other people is that when we say “I”, what I really mean “he or she”. This is an important distinction and the only protection that we have against vicarious trauma.
        (Please don’t think I pontificating)

  • Patrick Schunemann says:

    Oh, and please forgive the typos, three I counted, but it’s hard to check spelling in these browsers.

  • Isa Aviad says:

    I don’t believe his struggle was somehow misinterpreted. If someone is marketing themself as a qualified government interpreter .. the die is cast. We perform our duties the same way every time. There is no thinking outside of that. I was curious if the offensive legislator really used the phrase “brain washed” in the same context that we do in English? Did he really say el cerebro lavado? Also, your English/Spanish translations refer to billions vs trillions?

    Today, at a medical test, the provider used the word “shit” in a conversation with a female patient. I repeated the phrase (complete with “shit” in the exact same tone, speed, and inflection). They weren’t my words to change!

    In closing, depending on the venue, it can be helpful to explain clearly to the organizers the day of, exactly what simultaneous interpretation is and is not. I like to give a copy of The Code of Ethics that I adhere to. That way, if they, or another participant questions my methods, I can refer them to the common standards.

    • Patrick Schunemann says:

      Hi, as far as I remember, brain washing is used in the same context as, I imagine you do;forcing ideas into unwilling subjects. In many regions in Colombia, for example, it is also used to describe the impact of powerful advertising or propaganda on people, or that somebody has persuaded someone into another way of thinking. In the case of the rude guest, he meant that he would not be seduced or frightened into anything he disagreed with. This sentence is often used when referring to any communication from the the government. It’s a 60’s thing. You’ll often also find this when they refer to the effect of missionaries and religious cults. It has nothing to do with the procedure used to convert.spies or soldiers.

  • Olga Apollonova says:

    In the early 18th century Russian Tsar Peter the Great had ordered the members of his court to make speeches at the assemblies without any notes or prompts “дабы дурь каждого видна была” (so the stupidity of each one is obvious). The same principle should apply to interpretation. It’s our sacred duty to make everything obvious and clear. No omissions. No toning down. If an honorable quest is saying something like: “Well, you know, so to say, well… how do I put it? Generally speaking…so to say”… It has to be translated as is.

    I’ve been interpreting for the guests from Russian Duma (parliament) in Toronto once when one of the guests decided to make a speech during an unofficial dinner. He wanted everyone to honor the communist party. He said something to the effect that “Nobody had ever been persecuted in the USSR who hadn’t really deserved it”. I could see that the other Russian guests were pretty uncomfortable about that obviously false statement and didn’t want me to translate it… but I did.

  • Els Van Overstraeten says:

    Many years ago I was asked to interpret in a women’s shelter in Ghent, Belgium. There were some tensions between a few of the women and those needed to be sorted out, so there we were: two social workers, a Russian-speaking woman, a Turkish-speaking woman and a Spanish-speaking woman, each with an interpreter into Dutch (or Flemish, if you like).
    When the Spanish-speaking woman was asked why she was vexed she started to complain about one of the other women: how she let her children wander about all day and how she never changed her baby’s diapers and that she was a bad mother. One of the social workers, who was setting next to me, apparently understood Spanish and whispered to me “please leave out that last bit”. Since the purpose of the meeting was to resolve the conflict, not to stir up the fire, I hesitated for a split second and then decided only to render the woman’s complaints – not the “bad mother” remark. After ‘my’ message had been translated for her, the woman concerned admitted that she had been neglecting her children because she was overwhelmed by the whole situation and the Spanish-speaking woman agreed to help her out from time to time.
    I do agree that our job is to translate everything that is said, but after 15 years as an interpreter I feel that speakers sometimes say things they wouldn’t dare to say if the other party spoke the same language. They seem to rely on the interpreter to convey the ‘spirit’ of the message, and when the interpreter translates the exact words, (s)he is sometimes blamed, as was illustrated by Khethiwe Marais. I would not have decided to leave out the “bad mother” remark myself, but I understood why the social worker asked me to do so and decided to go along with it.

  • Olga Apollonova says:

    When you are interpreting in professional settings and someone is using a rude and offensive language … you have no choice but translate it. (And hope the others are as wise and professional as that judge.) However if there is a child around I’d definitely avoid interpreting obscenities using COMPLETE words. I’d utter the first letter of any particular word and find a way leave no doubt as to what EXACTLY was meant. In some cases it may be very quick and compact like “obscene F word”.

  • Ana Luisa Schwartz says:

    What an experience. The interpreting at the conference itself, as well as the amazing, seconds long, internal dilemma whether to interpreter all that was said and in the same tone used by the legislator.

    What surprised me was that you questioned yourself whether to render his remarks as he had said them.
    Has there been a time when an Interpreter has the right to change this?

    In a medical setting, interpreting during a patient-provider encounter, I have toned down a patient’s comments when irate with his provider, feeling guilty that I had. I always wonder if that doctor should have known exactly how this patient feels about her care.

    Any comments about this?

    • Patrick Schunemann says:

      Unfortunately, we don’t ever have a choice. We are just a voice, regardless of how it impacts us. Still, we are human. They say that we have to be impartial, we can be so without ceasing to compassionate, understanding. Detach yourself as much as you can, dear friend, or you’ll get hurt, worse still, you’ll hurt others.

  • Interpretation 101, the interpretation rendered must be faithful to every word and utterance from the source .language.

    • Patrick Schunemann says:

      C’mon Olga, don’t tell me that you would do so when somebody is being boisterous with a child, a wife who’s been a victim of violence, or anybody else who is is in a weaker position than the person being abusive. We can terminate an interview if we see that, you know.

  • I once had an experience like this. The manager for an oilfield contractor was being replaced, at his own request, mainly because of frustration with dealing with his counterpart from Latin America. I was asked to interpret during their last meeting. The English-speaking manager was summarizing the remaining tasks on the project, including the risks, which included his very low opinion of the Spanish-speaking manager. It’s been over 15 years and I don’t remember the exact words, but basically, the message was, “This project is doomed partly because you’re an idiot.” I looked at the speaker, eyes wide open, and he went on: “Please say exactly what I said.” It was hard.

  • Olga Apollonova says:

    It’s indeed rather difficult to interpret things that may hurt or even lead to violent outbursts. But we simply don’t have a choice. The situation with a “sanctioned omission” of the remark about “bad mother” is very far from typical.

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