Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

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§ 6 Responses to Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

  • […] Source: Please let the interpreter do the interpreting! […]

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Hello again, Tony!

    My experience in the United States tells me that the tremendous coverage and sheer force of the English speaking networks is so powerful that it simply renders useless the possibility of any other language “butting in” on their broadcasts. The very same national networks relegate the need of interpretation of any major event into any foreign language rendition to the lowest common denominator: It’s simply a non issue because they need to have the ratings and the marketing justification to do so.

    My past life in advertising and graphic design had many instances in which thinking about translating a campaign into Spanish was not even a thought. Yeah, yeah, there’s always the politically correct approach and there are some exceptions, but sorry, folks, it still doesn’t cut the mustard!

    Seems like regardless of the large Hispanic presence in this country, the diffusion of the Spanish language still has some restraints placed upon it by some entities and individuals who resist and attempt to rein in its inevitable expansion.

    Additionally, I’ve personally heard less than desirable so-called “interpretations” of speeches, documentaries, movie scripts and news events that embarrass those of us who know the Spanish language, and I suspect it was all done in the name of savings and the ever-present and terrible budget creature.

    In some, the critical gaps have been so many that one could swear we are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon! Furthermore, they embarrass those who are educated in Spanish as well as those who are immigrants from other Spanish speaking countries, because it creates the impression that ALL Hispanics speak and express themselves that way!

    Although being the proverbial melting pot it is, the United States has had global fame for its monolingual attitude towards anything, so I’m not surprised that the “either my way or the highway” philosophy has been the linguistic order of the day for years, and sadly in some aspects, it still is. Grant it, things are changing but there’s still work to do and quite a ways to go.

    But that’s okay.

    I’ll state here and now, that within a few years —and the countdown has already begun— those who don’t speak Spanish in the United States, will have a harder time because the Hispanic “minority” is going to be the majority, so look out and get ready ‘cause here they come!

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • I think Fox have been well and truly criticised for various things recently (including making unresearched and unverified comments about places and people in the UK).

    I have experienced situations where I have been “squeezed out” and made to feel redundant as an interpreter, but this has been in a hospital setting, and not a broadcast. But I am still left unsure as to what my situation is when this happens. The circumstance was that I was in an extremely delicate antenatal appointment with an expectant mother and her husband, and the radiographer had to give some bad news. Understandably, the parents were distressed, but the situation was poorly handled by the hospital. They were taken to a tiny room and told to wait, then a nurse came in and started speaking French to them, more or less “usurping” my role and ignoring me. This was extremely unprofessional, but there was no way I was going to make a fuss when the patient’s welfare was paramount. The nurse told me I could go, and that she would take over. There was nothing I could do. I understand hospitals are busy, but the nurse was not a qualified interpreter and this should never have happened. As a professional health interpreter, my concern was for the welfare of the mother and father, and I would have preferred to have seen to it that they were taken care of and their concerns expressed.

  • emmabecciu says:

    In Italy, the situation is a little bit different, and there is a number of professionals who work for the TV and provide interpreting. Apart from some famous names and faces, most of them are not on screen.
    The problem comes when the presenters over-evaluate their capabilities, and decides to improvise themselves interpreters. One of the most famous exampñes, quite recent, is the one I am linking here. De Niro is interviewed, and has an interpreter. Usually, the same person’s voice would be heard by us interpreting into Italian as well. I have no idea why this is not happening in this case, and instead is E. Canalis, back then Clooney’s girlfriend, who tries her best. She does not understand De Niro’s words, and keeps repeating them hoping that her co-presenter will help. As a reply, he just says: “Don’t look at me, you are the American one!”, joking on her relationship. In this case, they would have spared everyone a lot of embarrassment if they had let the interpreter do the interpreting!

  • Big events like this should be left in the hands of a professional interpreter. Bilingual individuals who do not have the proper command of the source are not fully trained to do interpretation; bias will always interfere, and one’s inflection of opinion seems to be the norm for bilinguals doing interpretation. In this instance, the bilingual’s passion for the sport has got in the way of his “professionalism,” drastically interfering with the quality of translation.

    Never hesitate to contact professionals for important events.

  • Ana Lucía says:

    Great point and great timing too! I watched the Ballon D’Or here in Uruguay on ESPN, which wasn’t any better than Fox Sports. The original feed, which was mostly audible for me and not interrupted as much by the Argentine presenters was in English, German, etc., the interpretation being done in the ceremony was not transmitted on TV, so I completely missed what the German players said, for example. Also, because they pick and choose what pieces of information they understand and want to tell viewers, instead of saying what was being said in real time, they commented at least twice, on the fact that one of the nominees for Best Female Player had married another woman recently.
    Another terrible example of how sports networks do this was the Super Bowl, after the game, they include the feed of players being interviewed by American journalists on the field, and comment over that using phrases “He says that…”, etc., and it was very amusing when one of them said “Oh, it’s so difficult to translate”, which was followed by me yelling at the screen “Yes, because you have no idea of what you are doing!”.
    As for award ceremonies, I wait for the highlights the next day. What a local network has been doing for the Oscars the last couple of years is have two commentators who know English (not as much as they think, though) and mix in telling the audience what people are saying with their opinions. I remember a couple years ago MTV had experimented with instant subtitles, it wasn’t perfect, but I much rather prefer it because I could listen to the original and the subtitles weren’t as bad as what they want to pass as simultaneous interpreting.
    Let’s try and praise broadcasts when they use interpreters and tell those that don’t that we don’t like it. Sometimes they listen, we are consumers after all and it’s us they are trying to push all those ads on.

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