My last word on interpreting for this political season.

November 7, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Tuesday is Election Day in the United States, and people going to the polls means the political season is over for politicians, campaign staffers, beat reporters, and yes: interpreters.  Unlike any other presidential campaign during my professional life, the last eleven months were full of surprises and unusual challenges for the interpreter.  First, we had sui-generis primary elections; on the republican side we interpreted stump speeches and presidential debates full of disqualifications, insults, rudeness and unparalleled vulgarity, and we learned to interpret for non-politicians like Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. On the democratic side we interpreted stump speeches at campaign rallies where the candidate who motivated and inspired the crowd the most did not get the nomination, and we worked presidential political debates that, compared to what was going on at the republican party, seemed low-key and frankly boring. Even some of the victory and concession speeches after the primaries were bizarre at times. And then came the general election campaign.

Although it may seem that from the interpreter’s professional perspective both campaigns were about the same, and they are both ending with speeches where nobody talks about their platform, but about how awful the other candidate is, it was not like that at the beginning. Starting with the democratic convention, Clinton run a very conventional campaign; the speeches were of the kind the interpreter expects to hear during a presidential race. On the other hand, the republican campaign started with a very different convention full of insults and disqualifications among the supporters of the different candidates. There was also a very strange “endorsement” speech that really was a non-endorsement address by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (followed by one of the strangest press conferences I have interpreted in my life) And of course, the constant chants of “lock her up” from the floor of the convention that we as interpreters decided not to interpret since the chants did not come from the podium, and we were there to interpret the speeches, not the crowd’s reactions, the same way a sports interpreter is there to interpret what journalists and athletes have to say, not the screams coming from the bleachers. And then, we had the three debates.

Even though I only interpreted the second and third debates, I watched them all, and for the first time in my life, partly out of curiosity, and partly motivated by many blog posts by other colleagues, I also watched the interpretation rendered by friends and colleagues from other countries.

Because of the unusual candidates and the tone of the presidential campaign, many foreign radio and TV stations carried the debates, and in many cases the interpreters were not from the United States and they were physically abroad working from a studio in their hometowns. First, I congratulate my colleagues for the great job they all did; despite the fact that I could not understand the rendition into some of the languages I watched, I observed the professionalism and delivery of the interpreters working the debates and I salute them all. I also want to take a moment to address all of my colleagues who have ferociously criticized the work of some of these colleagues, and ask them to please consider the difficulty of doing this work with technicians, radio or TV equipment, and the awareness that many people are listening to your rendition live, and later on to the recorded version that will be replayed over and over again. Next, I ask the same critics to recall the times when they have interpreted a live unscripted event before millions of people and assess their performance. I suspect that most of those screaming the loudest against these interpreters have never done this kind of work. I did not listen to all of my colleagues, and I suspect that there were probably some bad renditions, especially if the interpreter selection was left to an agency more interested in finding cheap interpreters and less inclined to pay for high quality, but the overwhelming majority of those who interpreted the debates did a magnificent job.

For me, it was interesting to see how some of these foreign interpreters had difficulties with things we don’t even think about because we live in the American culture and system. Basic political concepts, idiomatic expressions, and references to U.S. geography and history were cause for pause and struggle. The mechanics of the debates presented an unfamiliar situation to some colleagues who grew up and live in countries where there are no political debates, and if there is such a thing, it is often a staged show with soft questions by a friendly panel, that look more like a press conference where the candidates take turns answering questions and ignoring the other opponents also at the podium.  Because of our socio-political reality in the United States, we do not interpret foreign leader debates for the American audience, and for this reason I do not really know what it feels like to interpret a foreign debate such as the ones between Clinton and Trump, but as an interpreter who lives in one State and often interprets gubernatorial, congressional, and local government debates somewhere else, I have to prepare to deliver a professional rendition.

Some of the things I do to get ready to interpret for a political debate include:  reading about local and campaign issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work, learn the structure of the State government, read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, search the web, know basic history and geography of the place where you will interpret the debate, know national and world current events in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer; and finally: know the rules of the debate.

Finally, there is another issue that merits comment: From their own comments, it was clear that for many colleagues interpreting Donald Trump was nearly impossible. I disagree.

It is true that Trump often leaves sentences unfinished, that he does not follow a logical pattern when he talks, and he often interrupts others. Interpreting somebody who behaves this way may be hard, but it is not uncommon. My years of court interpreting took me to many individuals whose speech is much more difficult to interpret, yet I did, and so do hundreds of colleagues who work at the federal and state-level courthouses of the United States every day. If an interpreter spends an entire professional career interpreting in the booth, working with highly educated people, or just with those whose main objective is to convey their message to an audience, interpreting for a person of Trump’s characteristics will be extremely tough; however, those interpreters who had a broader formation, including some work with criminals and witnesses who will do anything to say as little as possible in a court of law, and to mislead a judge and jury every time they have a chance, will find themselves in familiar territory when they listen to Donald Trump.

We have a few days to go: Election Day and the aftermath when we will deal with the results. There are a few more things to interpret in this political season, but we are at the very end of what will forever be a unique presidential campaign cycle for everybody, including the interpreter community that had to deal with situations we never encountered in the past, and for the first time, turned into an international affair for interpreters everywhere. I now ask you to share with us your experiences, thoughts, and comments, from an interpreter’s perspective, about this political campaign, the conventions, the presidential debates, and interpreting for Donald Trump.

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§ 7 Responses to My last word on interpreting for this political season.

  • Chris says:

    >> If an interpreter spends an entire professional career interpreting in the booth, working with highly educated people, or just with those whose main objective is to convey their message to an audience, interpreting for a person of Trump’s characteristics will be extremely tough; however, those interpreters who had a broader formation, including some work with criminals ( …) will find themselves in familiar territory when they listen to Donald Trump.

    wow did I just read that? wow! good luck, you!

  • Steve Moore says:

    Excellent article! As a US citizen who grew up overseas (Ecuador) I’m acquainted with some of the differences between countries that you mention. (Try explaining a South American political system to people who have never set foot outside the USA.) Very good treatment of your subject.

  • Great article, Tony, as always. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Interesting to know how it feels to interpret Trump’s speeches. By comparison I only can imagine the hard task had by your colleagues when it was about interpreting the former Uruguayan president José Mujica. Apart from saying unfinished sentences, he is all the time inventing non-existent folk sayings, such as “difícil que el chancho chifle” (“it’s hard to hear a swine whistling”).

  • Thank you, Tony, for expressing the essential value of us, and our colleagues in the judicial world. At the risk of offending or alienating other kinds of interpreters (❤️ U ALL,I promise)…….there is but a reason why court interpreters are considered the zenith of the language profession, at least with regard to that overwhelming segment that covers all forms of civil and public service…..and at least, this should be the enforced standard among all court interpreters. We are there, where language is literally being produced on the record, and it’s affecting someone’s life. We see the Raw and the Real of human nature, itself.

    However, I happen to think that conference and “political” interpreting is part of a whole other segment…..

  • Yet court interpreters are paid ditch-digger wages and get little recognition, even from the courts themselves. I have just spent a gruelling two and a half days at the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court in London) without any kind of aid such as headphones whispering interpretation for hours at a time in a situation in which it was extremely hard to hear the proceedings, to say nothing of standing in the witness box in front of everyone. Yet I was paid less than a quarter of what I am paid for conference interpreting!

  • It takes a lot of nerve to interpret two of the most powerful people in the planet. Definitely that’s what probably makes it difficult, despite some of the speech inconsistencies mentioned before. Least not forget, the interpreter’s responsibility to deliver an accurate message for such an important moment that will go down in the history books.

  • Very insightful article, Tony — thank you!

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