The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

September 11, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. Last time we talked about some of the things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult, and I shared with you my first five; today we will discuss the rest to complete the list of ten. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with them all, some or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Here we go:

SIX.  When the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, and there is nothing to interpret. Sometimes we run into speakers who have worked with interpreters in the past, but those interpreters were of a different level. They have given speeches or presentations using the services of interpreters who deliver their rendition consecutively; that means that the speaker is used to start and stop many times during the speech. This should not be a problem and the transition to a simultaneous interpreter should be smooth when the speaker worked with good interpreters in the past. There are excellent diplomatic interpreters who work the consecutive interpretation magnificently; the orator can talk in complete sentences and ideas, and he can do it for a long time without having to worry about the interpretation being deficient. This speaker can adapt to the simultaneous interpretation used in conferences easier. The real problem is when the speakers have used the services of not-so-skilled interpreters before: sometimes low-level agency interpreters, sometimes a relative or a friend who is not even a professional interpreter, and they have been told to stop their speech frequently so that the interpreter can render a few words at a time (often sounding nonsensical and monosyllabic) Because the service providers’ professional capacity was so limited, the speaker just assumes that this is the way it needs to be done. The consequences of this type of speech are nefarious. All interpreters know that it is impossible to interpret what has not been said yet, and in these cases, when the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, half way through an idea, or right after a “difficult” name or technical word, the interpreter is being left defenseless. There is nothing to interpret because the speaker has not said anything yet. Even when the main idea has already been expressed in the source language, or even when the words already uttered make for a good beginning of a sentence in the source language, the interpreter may be unable to say a word because of linguistic or comprehension reasons. The interpreter will not be able to start his rendition when the syntax in the target language is different because the interpreter does not know yet how to start the sentence. Interpreting requires that the interpreter understand and process an idea spoken by the presenter in order to find the right words in the target language; to do this, we as interpreters need to understand that idea. Of course, this is impossible when the interpreter only gets half of the idea. These two realities that interpreters work with all the time, make it impossible to interpret what the speaker has said. Of course, there are agencies, speakers, and unfortunately even interpreters, who will tell you that interpreters must interpret what is being said, that if the speaker is not making any sense, the interpreter should interpret nonsense as well. I am sorry to tell those who subscribe to this theory that they are wrong. The interpreter is never meant to sound like a telegram or a broken record (I understand that this last analogy may sound strange to those of you who were born after records were gone, but I did not find another updated expression that accurately conveys what I am trying to express) One thing is to work in court where the interpreter’s job is to interpret everything because the rendition’s goal is to assess the credibility of the speaker, but that has nothing to do with the job of the conference interpreter who has to act as a bridge between two languages and two cultures to facilitate mutual understanding and comprehension. This can only be achieved when people express themselves in a coherent fashion. Once again, if this is happening during the presentation, the interpreters need to let the speaker know that this is not working and they need to ask him to speak naturally, without any pauses and ignoring the presence of the interpreters in the booth. To prevent this from happening, when we meet the speaker and we learn that this person has only worked with consecutive interpreters, we need to briefly explain simultaneous interpretation to the speaker, and ask him not to pause the way he does when he works with interpreters who do not do a simultaneous rendition. Speakers are usually smart people and they understand the absurdity of speaking like a telegram.

SEVEN.  When the speaker uses metaphors unknown to the audience. A very common occurrence is when in the middle of a presentation the speaker uses an analogy, quotes a character, or resorts to a metaphor that has no meaning or relevance in the culture of the foreign language audience. These are tricky situations because the interpreter has no way to know ahead of time that this will happen, unless the speaker is well-known for turning to these practice in which case the interpreters must discuss it with him ahead of time. This is the permanent solution: to educate the orator so he knows and understands that his message could get lost because of the examples or cultural references he is making during the speech. Once they understand this point, they should be encouraged to omit the allusions, or if that is impossible due to the nature of the message, to at least replace the metaphor or the example with something from the local culture or with something universally known. If the speaker does not like these options, then the interpreter should at least ask him to put his analogies and metaphors in context and to explain what they mean. Going back to the main problem: What is the interpreter to do when the speaker brings up the culturally unknown example or story right in the middle of the speech? Because the interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between speaker and audience, in my opinion the interpreter can do one of two things: Either find an acceptable equivalent in the audience’s language and culture, or at least explain and put in context, when possible, what the speaker just said. I will give you some examples: Americans are very proud of what they call “Americana,” (American culture and lifestyle) and sometimes they assume that it is universally known. For this reason, many great American speakers use “Americana” during their speeches; one typical example is baseball. Americans love baseball, it is their national pastime, you can find 10 to 15 professional games on TV every summer night, they grow up with the sport, its terminology, its analogies, and its heroes. As far as the rest of the world, unless you come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, or Korea, most people have never even heard of baseball, and those who have, have never watched a game, much less know its rules and history. On the other hand, if you take the United States off the picture, you will agree that football (which by the way, is called “soccer” in the U.S., is the most popular sport in the world) So when an American speaker brings up a metaphor or a remark from their national pastime and he says: “…It was three and two with two outs at the bottom of the nine with the score tied and on the verge of extra innings…” as an interpreter you have two choices, you can either transplant the analogy to a well-known cultural reference to the audience, in this case I would chose football, or you can just explain what the speaker is saying. In my example, the rendition would go like this: “…it was the last minute of the second half, the score was tied, and they were about to go to overtime…” If I cannot find a similar analogy in the target culture, then I would have explained it like this: “…now the speaker is using an analogy from an American sport called baseball to illustrate that they were at the very end of the line, and nothing had been decided yet…” In other words, if needed to facilitate the communication, as long as it does not alter the message, I would replace Washington with Bolivar, Jerry Lewis with “Cantinflas,” and “more American than apple pie” with “más mexicano que los nopales.” The key is to make sure that you are facilitating the communication without altering the message. That is why we need to study and have a wide knowledge of many things so that we can make these calls and in case we made a mistake, so we can bring the audience back to the speaker’s message. Remember, this is working under extreme conditions, it is not the type of speech we face every day.

EIGHT.  When the speaker is constantly saying: “let’s see if they can interpret this.” I know that most interpreters are very proud of their professional achievements. We all know that this is not an easy career and it is difficult to reach a certain level. Professional interpreters are constantly studying and practicing their craft; they thoroughly prepare for an assignment by researching, studying, and planning, so when it is time to get in the booth and interpret the presentation, they do a magnificent job and make the event a success. It is for this reason that I dislike speakers who think they are clever or even funny when after saying a technical term, or an unusual word or expression, they interrupt their speech to tell the audience: “let’s see if they can interpret this,” or “I hope this didn’t get lost in translation,” or even worse: “I don’t know if this was interpreted correctly…” Who do these individuals think is interpreting for them? Don’t they know that there are two professionals in the booth? Or, do they think so little of themselves that they just can’t imagine anybody spending enough money to get them top quality interpreters? Obviously, I dislike these remarks and the attitude of these speakers. I also know that their comments do not affect our job as far as being able to do the rendition. Of course I could say that these constant remarks are annoying and distracting and they can break an interpreter’s concentration. This is true, but the professionals that we are, we cannot allow for these remarks to bother us. They are uncomfortable, but our reaction should be no different from that of the actor who gets booed while on stage and continues with the performance. Therefore, what is the value of including this annoying practice in my “worst ten”? Besides the ranting session above, it lets me make the point that even this disgusting experiences cannot keep us from doing our job; and if there is a speaker who is constantly challenging the booth or casting doubt on the skill and knowledge of the interpreters, this can create a feeling of mistrust in the audience. By making these remarks over and over again, he is sending a message to the audience that what they are hearing with the headphones may not be accurate or complete. This is unacceptable. Even under these conditions the interpreter’s job is to make sure that there is communication between the parties; therefore, during the first recess, the interpreters need to address this issue with the agency or event organizer, and with the presenter. It is a simple matter of expressing this potential risk in a professional and respectful manner. Many speakers will realize that what they have been doing is not so funny, that they have offended somebody, and that it makes sense when they are told that some of the people in the audience may be second guessing what they have been hearing so far. After the break, most caring savvy presenters will clarify this point with their audience and will refrain from making any more comments about the interpretation. So you see, there was a reason why I included this as part of my “worst ten.”

NINE.  When the speaker refuses to share his materials with the booth. It is common practice for the interpreter to get all of the materials that will be used during a presentation. This is usually done without thinking twice about it. The interpreter accepts the assignment and the materials start to flow into the e-mailbox, or they become available in the cloud. Speeches, resumes, Power Point presentations, publications, newspaper and magazine articles, etcetera; they all come to the interpreter. Everybody knows, from the agency, to the publisher, to the presenter, that these materials are essential to the interpreter’s preparation for the assignment. They are all aware that the interpreter has absolutely no interest in reproducing the materials or to violate in any other way any intellectual property legislation. This is why it is extremely difficult to work those events when the speaker refuses to share his materials or his presentation. For a long time I thought that this would only happen in second-tier assignments where the speakers were not sophisticated enough to understand the role of the interpreter, but I was wrong. I have run into conferences with very well-known researchers, college professors, and others, who refuse to share their materials. Of course this is a problem that either will be resolved before the event, or it will be unsolved but the interpreters will at least know what to expect. The best course of action in these rare cases will be to first talk to the agency and ask them if they would have any problem with you talking directly to the presenter so you can explain why it is that you need the materials. If the agency says no then that’s that. The event will not go as smoothly as it should, but it will not be your fault. On the other hand, if it is possible for you to talk to the speaker, you should explain to him what interpreters do, state the reasons why you need his materials, and even promise him that you will delete the files after the event. Assure him that your interest on his papers does not go beyond the conference, and tell him, if confidentiality allows it, who are some of your clients. This will put him at ease and he will share the materials. You see, sometimes the problem is simply a lack of communication; when the agency contacted him they only asked for the materials (like they usually do) without any explanation as to why they needed them and who was going to use them. The only thing missing was the explanation. On the other hand, when the speaker refuses to share, then you have a difficult bumpy road ahead, but it can be a little smoother if you do your homework. When you have no materials, you need to find them yourself. Get together with the rest of the interpreting team (including all languages as this research will benefit you all) and develop a strategy. Allocate tasks and responsibilities to the team members: Decide who will research on line, who will talk to others in the field to see if you can get some answers to your questions, google the speaker to see if he has any accessible publications online, download and study his previous speeches, and on the day of the event, show up with a fast computer or tablet an a defined plan of action so that the support interpreter is constantly looking up information while the principal is interpreting. Do this throughout the speech, both interpreters switching tasks back and forth. At the end of the day you will not have the materials for the conference, but you will have enough materials and other tools to do a first-class job.

TEN.  When the speaker starts reading very fast. Fewer things can affect more an interpreter’s rendition than a speaker, turned “town crier,” who starts reading at the speed of light from a document that was never shared with the booth. It is true that many presentations include portions of materials that are read aloud; it is a fact of life than many speakers will read their speech from a teleprompter, some people still pull out the little piece of paper and read from it, but most of those cases involve materials that have been given to the interpreters ahead of time. If that is the case, the interpreters will adjust to the speakers speed (because it is also a fact that we all speak faster when we are reading from a prepared text) by either doing a sight translation or, depending on the interpreters’ preference, a simultaneous interpretation of what is being read. It is difficult but doable because the interpreters saw the text ahead of time; they know what the speech is about, they have detected and solved the linguistic and cultural problems contained in the text; in other words, the interpreters did their homework because they were given the chance to do so. The “pulling out of my sleeve the document I am going to read” strategy represents a different kind of problem and all the interpreter can do is to follow the speaker as accurately as possible, trying his best. If possible, even after the reading session started, the second interpreter can go to the speaker’s team and see if they have an extra copy of the speech they may want to share with the booth. This happens more often than you think, and although it is not the same as getting the document ahead of time, at least helps the interpreter with two key elements: First, the names that sometimes are very difficult to understand when we are not expecting them, and second, the interpreters will at least have an idea on the length of the written speech and this will help them plan accordingly and distribute the tasks in the booth. I want to make it clear that top level interpreters will interpret the contents of the document the speaker is reading and transmit the message to the foreign language audience seamlessly, that has never been in doubt, as it has never been in doubt the high difficulty that is involved in an interpretation of this nature.

With these last five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter I conclude my two-part post that started last week. I now invite you all to share with the rest of us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of mine.

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§ 19 Responses to The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

  • George Bernard Sperber says:

    Well, dear Tony, or dear Mr. Rosado. Your list was quite good. When in point 7 you speak about baseball, I can observe that I understood nothing at all of your metaphorical example. If a speaker I am supposed to translate would use it, I would be “lost in translation” indeed. I was born in Vienna, I left this city and went to Buenos Aires when I was two years old, and then I came to Brazil when I was 23. In these three countries baseball is not known at all. There might be a minority in Brazil, mostly of Japanese origin, that plays and enjoys this kind of sport. But, of course, football (or soccer) is the national sport in Brazil and in Argentina. I had the chance to be the interpreter of Mr. Lothar Matthäus during the last World Cup, in Rio de Janeiro, during ten shows that were transmitted on a cable TV program. I had the luck to have up to 400.000 listeners, because this show was very popular at that time. But, even if I knew a bit of the terminology of this kind of sport, I had to prepare myself thoroughly in order to do a good job. And I did it!

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Thank you Tony! And continuing on…

    For the sixth item, I’ve had speakers who’ve spoken too slowly and that does make for a challenging session. I alluded to it in my fifth comment on Part 1 of the “Ten worst things…” where i said in part: “…In this particular case, our professional patience factor needs to kick in because not everyone speaks as fast as we’d like, especially speakers that exercise some level of erudition in their presentations. Indeed, patience is a virtue…”

    The seventh item. Yeah, metaphors and other gems of wisdom are indeed challenging, but if one is prepared with the usual everyday sayings and such, I believe one can interpret with confidence. Believe it or not, I’ve taken the trouble to have an excellent copy of Shakespeare in Spanish and glean some of the usual classic lines and names of plays and tragedies from it, and wouldn’t you know it? I’ve actually used some in the opening statements by defense attorneys in criminal courts! May I suggest that the same be done with the classic literary works by Dickens, Verne, Cervantes, etc and for movie titles and famous lines from those movies because one never knows what the speaker will say. The very same thing happened to me while the VP of a company was quoting the MLK (Martin Luther King) speech “ I have a dream” which to me is a gem of American history, and right as rain, I was at the mike precisely when he began talking and quoting from that speech. Guess what: I know every word of that memorable speech and I was in that darn cabin interpreting it as if I’d written it myself! Man, I was as happy as a midget in high heels! How about that? That’s what I call being in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time!

    Eight comment. I believe this sounds as though the speaker doles out uncertainty while making a fool of himself, which in turn could make the interpreter(s) feel incompetent and possibly shamed before the listening audience. Additionally, it doesn’t make sense because the speaker is not hearing the interpretation, so how’s he to know if we “can interpret this”? If we put the shoe on the other foot, I think it would be more like: “Let’s see if we get lucky enough to get a competent speaker who can speak well enough for us to bother interpreting for” How do you like them apples?

    For the ninth item, may I say that in my experience as conference interpreter, I take all material furnished with a grain of sand because in almost every instance the speaker has deviated from the original and ends up with his own personalized version. Usually, the speakers will refer to a Powerpoint® presentation chart, which can easily be read in plain sight if the room is small enough, or with binoculars if it’s a large venue.

    The tenth and last thing tells me that reading fast is a terrible habit when speaking in public because most of the audience won’t be able to understand what’s being read while the reader drones on and on, and which becomes the primary reason for collective yawning, which in turn, I think is the death knell of any conference!. I’ve experienced the fast-talking in court, where the attorney will either speak fast or read fast and my concern is not so much for me not being able to keep up with the attorney, but rather will the witness understand what’s being read to him or about him?

    Thank you again for these “Ten worst things…” that we could experience at any given time. The consolation is that by way of your very enlightening blog and by being aware of them, we all become better interpreters.

    Thanks a million, Tony!

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • John says:

    Well written!

  • Li Tin CHU says:

    Thank you very much Tony!

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    In my reply for the ninth item, I meant to say “a grain of salt” instead of “a grain of sand” (Yes, the neurons do cross over every once in while!)

  • Dear Tony
    I have been following your brilliant blogs for ages and love them – today I have to contribute for the first time: I have just come out of the booth and I had an experience earlier today which fitted perfectly with what you wrote:
    The lawyer assisting the conference said: I will now read out the new changed statutes that I have re-drafted.
    The team leader promptly announced that we did not have the document and could we have a copy please?
    Answer by the lawyer: Don’t worry I will read it very loudly!
    … and he started reading
    … and we started interpreting through suppressed laughter!
    but something very sweet happened in the middle of this attempt at interpreting – one of the delegates came into our booth with his iPad with the document on it! Very much appreciated by the interpreters!

  • Tony,
    As a former interpreter I have followed your blogs both when I was actively interpreting and now that I work with interpreters and Social Media. You are a good writer and I enjoy sharing your blogs on my FB page. Thank you for your dedication to the profession! And by the way, I have seen you speak also.

  • I completely agree with everything both parts 1 and 2. The 9th really struck a chord with me as this was a huge problem in a volunteer mission I’ve recently completed (just because we aren’t paid doesn’t mean we’re amateurs who don’t take the job seriously).

    I actually run an informal GIF blog on what it’s like to be an interpreter just starting out and one way or another I’ve covered some of these experiences already (especially 6 and 10)… I would love to use some of these points and quote you if that were possible.

    The Bipolar Trainee

  • madamerobina53 says:

    For me, what struck a cord was a speaker who trying to be helpful does not provide enough content to interpret so I have to keep prodding them for more. Looks bad for them and for me as the interpreter. The speaker just does accept that I will give a cue if that is a tough concept and to slow while I transmit that concept.

    As for, see how they interpret that: I use that as a moment to provide awareness. No problem: just smile and do it.

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  • Frank Pool says:

    This post and the previous one are fenomenal, Congratulations Toni.

    I once had another experience when the Speaker pulled out a poem to read to the audience. I was interpreting into English for a group of Heart Surgeons for the USA. The speaker was a DIF official in Mexico. The event was going very well until he pulled out a piece of paper and started reading a poem, which I had not known. I had to summarize the poem, What else I could do?, My explanation seemed to work because I could see tears in the eyes of the ladies… An interpreter has to do what he has to do.

  • Thank you for this informative blog. As a conference interpreter in Toronto, Canada, I would like to subscribe. Regards.

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