The interpreter and the political season.

August 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We are officially in a political season that comes biannually to the United States, and especially every four years when the presidential election makes it more intense. In fact, the American presidential race impacts not just interpreters who live and work in the U.S., it also means work for many colleagues who provide interpreting services abroad and are retained by news agencies, broadcast companies, and government officials to simultaneously interpret stump speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates.

Many of us, in many languages and from all corners of the world, just finished the two political conventions, and with this, we ended the primary season as well.

It is after the political conventions that all candidates begin to seriously campaign for office at all levels of government. In a country as diverse as the United States, this means that platforms, brochures, event invitations, press bulletins, and other similar documents will be translated in order to reach the constituency of that particular politician. It also means that many interpreters will be contacted and asked to interpret stump speeches at political rallies, press conferences, interviews, and political debates.

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November.  Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials.  Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues.

Because of our system of government, most political races take place at the local and state level. For this reason, many colleagues will have an opportunity to participate in the process as interpreters retained by local agencies and television networks. To some degree, those colleagues who live in the big cities will surely interpret House and Senatorial debates for regional broadcast and even national markets in languages such as Spanish.  Many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues.  Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks.  This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Interpreting political debates requires many skills that are not always necessary when we work doing other interpretation.  The candidates deal with questions on very different subjects, and their answers are somewhat spontaneous and sometimes unresponsive.  The interpreter needs to be ready for this type of work.  Reading about the issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform are needed parts of the interpreter’s preparation.  Besides political interpreting, a debate is also a media interpreting service.  As a media interpreter, you are required to work with technicians and radio or TV equipment, and you have to work with an awareness that many people are going to listen to your rendition, and that everything you say will be recorded and replayed over and over again.

I remember being at Mile-high Stadium in Denver, Colorado during the Democratic National Convention  interpreting President Obama’s acceptance speech live.  I remember the commotion, the crowd of “famous” politicians and broadcasters coming and going all over the broadcast center; and I remember the moment I stopped to think of what I was about to do: Interpret the nomination acceptance speech of the first African-American candidate from a major political party who had a very good chance of becoming President of the United States.    All of a sudden it hit me: There will be millions listening to my rendition, it will be broadcasted and replayed by Spanish language news organizations all over the world.  Wow!  Then, as I was getting a little uneasy about the historic significance of the task, I remembered something a dear colleague once told me about broadcast interpreting: Your rendition is to the microphone on the table in front of you. It is only you in that booth. I regained my confidence and composure and did the job.  The same experience took place just a few weeks ago in Philadelphia when I had the same opportunity during the nomination acceptance speech of the first woman candidate from a major political party.  I know that interpreting for a big crowd, or interpreting an important event, not only for a broadcast, but in the courtroom or a conference, can be very stressful and intimidating. Believe me, interpreting in Cleveland and Philadelphia was not a walk in the park.

Throughout my career I have traveled to different cities and towns to interpret primary and general election political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors.  Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city). I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events.

As I get ready for another official campaign cycle, I have thought of the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation.  These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work.  Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them.  If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else.  Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more.  Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate.  Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work.  If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries who will be interpreting this year’s political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

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§ 4 Responses to The interpreter and the political season.

  • Franco says:

    A few additional comments from MY experience and about MY experience.
    The last comment is the most important.
    Even when you know the candidate is lying or embellishing his comments, you MUST interpret exactly and with the same demeanor.

    I went to listen George McGovern when he was the (D) Presidential Candidate. After listening to him I went back to my dorm, for which I had to go though the building. In doing so, I saw McGovern standing by a door, by himself, apparently waiting for his ride, “What can I tell him”, I thought. “I know, I’ll congratulate him on his candidacy”. When I got close, I told him the following (still with an accent), exactly:
    “Mr. McGovern. My Name is XxxxYyyy and I’m a foreign exchange student from Zzzz. I would like to congratulate you on your candidacy and I would like to wish you success. If you are elected, may I ask you a favor? – Please stop giving foreign aid to foreign countries. For instance, in Zzzz, my country, it never gets to the poor people that need it the most. If you give 10 million dollars to Zzzz, you are either making 10 people millionaires, or 1 person a multimillionaire. Thank you, Mr. McGovern.”
    A very tall man, he kept his arms crossed and looked down at me. He didn’t say anything. But I could “hear” him thinking: “Who the h*** is this little foreigner telling me such great truth?!”
    I also told the same thing to Mitt Romney in 2011.

    * It also helps to know the “Political” talk in the Latin American countries. I was very exposed to the “Socialist/Communist” talk at my country’s university. This is standard, even in the US. The Democrats have adopted many slogans and phrases. They are not exact, but they must be translated in context. It makes it easier the interpretation of slogans. Even in the political insults. When the communists wanted to politically insult an opponent they would say: ¡Retardatario! ¡Retrógrado! ¡Enemigo de la Revolución!.
    (A challenge to the interpreters).
    Also,
    ¡Lacayo del Imperialismo!
    Which was countered by:
    ¡Tontos Útiles!
    And we all heard:
    ¡El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!
    Also, referring to the members as “Camaradas”, but to the public as “Compañeros”.
    The Democrats, to the members:
    “Brothers and Sisters”, which is a challenge for the interpreters because it does not have the same context when translated. It’s too intimate. It’s more religious. Plus, in Spanish, saying Hermanos is sufficient because it includes both genders, as we all know.

    There’s more exploitation of the Spanish language when candidates and speakers begin speaking in Spanish, usually grammatically wrong, specially on the syntax. It’s shuddering.
    How did you handle these instances?
    Congratulations!

  • Franco says:

    Sorry, I forgot the one and most important political insult, now in the mouths of the Democrats, as heard in the DNC:
    ¡REACCIONARIO!

    Reactionary!.

    A caveat, these are not actually insults, that’s why I call them political insults, because they carry such a deep definition. Many times said without knowing the actual etymology. And many more times taken without knowing their etymology.
    Similar to:
    Racist, demagogue, populist, homophobe, and all the other phobes.

    I’m very surprised at the dissapearance of the famous word BOURGEOIS!
    Apparently replaced by ELITIST!
    I prefer Bourgeois because it adequately describes our society with the New Rich, who now feel entitled to provide personal opinions as final and conclusive.

    Bourgeois is, thanks to Marxism, a pejorative, deprecatory term. As mentioned in Wikipedia: los términos “burguesía” y “burgués” incluye un cierto componente peyorativo, especialmente cuando se utiliza en contextos políticos con fines polémicos; es habitual también su utilización en contextos académicos.

    My respects to those who interpret high profile politicians.

  • Franco says:

    And just as important, maybe more, is interpreting the Olympics. On the Spanish side there are serious errors in Translation/Interpreting.

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