When the government at its highest level does not understand the role of the interpreter.

July 23, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Several weeks ago, the president of Mexico held one of his daily press conferences in Mexico City; on this occasion, Jerry Rizzieri, General Director of Mizuho Securities spoke of a credit his bank and others granted to Mexican state-owned oil company PEMEX as an attempt to rescue it from the enormous debt it faces. The event was important for the Mexican government and its president who has vowed to make the oil industry a key component of the Mexican economy. Rizzieri briefly spoke in English, and his prepared speech was sight-translated as a consecutive rendition not by one of the magnificent interpreters that regularly work with the Mexican president, but by Mexico’s Foreign Affairs secretary Marcelo Ebrard. From the moment Jerry Rizzieri stood up and walked towards the podium, Secretary Ebrard followed as if this had been planned ahead of time. The speech was a simple thank you written speech similar to the ones by those who win an Oscar or Emmy, apparently Ebrard speaks English, so there were no incidents except for the awkwardness of having the Secretary of Foreign Affairs sight translating a speech, and his obvious hesitation and confusion about the microphones.

Much was said in Mexico about the unfortunate episode, there was speculation as to whether the left-wing Mexican president, famous for cutting down on public expenses and reducing the budget, had used the services of the Foreign Affairs Secretary instead of retaining professional diplomatic interpreters. Some criticized the incident, others celebrated the episode; even interpreters wrote about it, both: for and against what happened. Opinions are always legitimate, journalists, interpreters, and the people may opine about the issue; but after watching the video, it is clear there were inaccuracies: First, Secretary Ebrard did not do a simultaneous interpretation; he did not do a consecutive rendition either. It is clear from the video that Rizzieri read from a written speech on the podium, and Ebrard did the same. The short speech could have been interpreted simultaneously or consecutively, but apparently government officers decided against it. It is false that you could not do at least a partial simultaneous rendition unless you had interpreting equipment. A diplomatic interpreter could have simultaneously interpreted the speech into president López-Obrador’s ear using chuchotage. Journalists and public would have not understood the speech, but it was a possibility at least for the president. (see minute 0:43 of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLcxFj-sX_s)

The biggest problem was the lack of professional interpretation, not just for Rizzieri’s speech, but for the event. The president spoke Spanish, and from the video you could conclude that not a word was simultaneously interpreted from the booth, leaving Mr. Rizzieri and his entourage without understanding what was said during the event.

You cannot defend what happened just saying it was a great move that saved taxpayers money by not hiring interpreters for this event. You cannot excuse it by arguing this was an informal event that, due to its brevity, did not justify retaining interpreter services because Secretary Ebrard speaks English.

Far from it, this was an insult to the foreign bankers who traveled to Mexico City to bail out PEMEX. C-Suite executives of international corporations, such as these banks, are used to meeting foreign dignitaries, attend official ceremonies, and speak to their counterparts aided by interpreters. It is likely (at least we hope) that meetings and negotiations took place in the presence of interpreters who make communication possible between the parties. Not having interpreters for the negotiations, or having them, but dismissing them before the press conference was a sign of incompetence, and a show of disrespect to the foreign visitors and those watching the press conference without a professional interpreter. No, this was not cute, this put the office of the president of Mexico in a very uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, it also confirmed rumors and stereotypes circulating outside Mexico. Professional diplomatic interpreters exist for a reason, they are qualified to bridge the communication gap between two or more parties, respecting the other party’s culture, and this way contributing to the harmonious relations among nations and individuals.

No, this was not a job for the secretary of International Affairs, and no, this cannot be addressed by having a pool of interpreters who volunteer their professional job to interpret for the richest level of the government they pay taxes to. These events require professional, experienced interpreters retained by the Mexican federal government, who are paid like the professionals they are. Anything short of that sets the profession back to the dark ages, in this case interpreting in Mexico. I now invite you to share your comments on this issue or similar experiences you have seen in other parts of the world.

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§ 4 Responses to When the government at its highest level does not understand the role of the interpreter.

  • Diana Clark says:

    Not at quite the same significant international policy level, but once when engaged to interpret during UN General Assembly meetings offsite for a cabinet minister of a large European nation, during meetings with her counterpart from another nation, her aide kept talking – actually almost shouting – over me and misinterpreting and skipping parts of both sides of the conversation. Since my client did not interrupt this, I sat quietly until there was a lull at which point I resumed interpreting, using correct (technical) terms that had been misinterpreted earlier.The client made no comment but the non-client party thanked me as we were leaving. I don’t take assignments for that client any more!

  • Alina Salvat says:

    Tony sadly this is a continuing issue that we Interpreters and/or linguistics profession face daily. I believe it is rooted in the myth that “anyone who is bilingual can interpret” or provide language/linguistic services. But of course you know this probably better than anyone.

  • Jesse Kates-Chinoy says:

    Hi Tony, this is an interesting question. I was intrigued to watch the whole video (thanks for sharing that link). I agree that having professional in-house interpreters on site is a good part of the solution. But I also see broader confusion and lack of planning and protocol. This is more common than we would like to admit, and it’s not always a question of failing to understand the need for interpreters.

    I am the in-house interpreter for the President of El Salvador. I work closely with the presidential protocol team to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Nonetheless, there are still times when we think we are ready, and things don’t go precisely as planned. (For example, I remember an event where we had set up our booths and distributed 100 headsets for simultaneous interpretation into English, only to have the President decide on the spot to give his extended remarks in English directly. There was no way to stop him and reorganize for consecutive or to redistribute the equipment we had deployed.)

    I agree entirely with your argument that failing to consider professional interpretation by professional interpreters at these high levels sets us all back. I would add to that argument that the solution is not limited to having interpreters available and under contract – State protocol departments would also be well-served to consult with in-house or professional interpreters to consider all of the possible contingencies.

    • Dear Jesse, thank you for your comments. I agree with you. In this case your other scenarios did not apply, but all those situations you mention happen all the time. We used to have an administration where things would change at the last minute without any notice.

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