When the speaker delivers rude remarks during an official event.
December 16, 2013 § 21 Comments
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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