Interpreting political debates: Preparation and rendition.
September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments
Every two years we have elections in the United States. Generally, the candidates of the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) debate on TV a few weeks before the general election, usually held on the first Tuesday in November. Every four years the country elects a president and vice-president, and every two years Americans vote 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. Earlier in those election years, each party holds primary elections to pick their candidates to face the other party’s candidate in the general election. There are political debates within each party before the primaries. While Presidential debates are broadcasted throughout the United States on national TV, debates for State and local-level office are transmitted by local TV stations. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, 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 that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues 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 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 we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.
Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.
Before the pandemic, in some States the primary season took place as always, but others had to adjust to debates without a studio audience, and interpreters working from home instead of the event’s venue or the TV studios. During my career, I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: presidents, governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been recorded debates and some radio broadcasts. I usually run into the same colleagues when interpreting a debate: 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) for the races with a higher profile, but sometimes you get to work with a new colleague. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things we need to do to succeed at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate from home or at the TV or radio station.
- Know the political system. One thing that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary and general 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 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 many states will allow you to mail in your vote due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. The more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
- Know basic local and national 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 these and similar questions.
- Know the most relevant issues and people at the national level and in that state, county, or city. Most questions during Statewide and local office political debates concern local matters, not national issues; a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read national and local newspapers, watch and listen to national and 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 national and 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 United States and that state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and suddenly, 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. Keep in mind 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 if they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. 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. At least listen to two 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 distributing assignments to the interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. T.V. and radio producers like a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers pay attention to other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: the voice of your candidate should be as similar to your own voice as possible; but it is more important that you understand the candidate; 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 if a technical problem occurs or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode, or one of the now possible glitches when working from home (power failure, internet speed, thunderstorms, etc.) Remember, this is live radio or T.V.
- Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the 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. During the health crisis you should demand your own booth so you can keep your social distance from other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, several interpreters will likely have to share the same booth; in that case, make sure there are plans to spread up all interpreters even if working in the same big hall or studio. 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, and work out a system to communicate with them during the event if you will work from home. Generally, TV and radio stations have able, knowledgeable, and experienced tech support staff so this should not be a problem, but you have to voice your concerns because some are not familiar with the way interpreters work. Station staffers 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 ideas and opinions out of your professional work. You will have to interpret for people with a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you 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 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; if working from home get computers, tablets and other equipment ready way before the event; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, signal, internet speed, and everything else. Get plenty of water so you do not run out during the debate. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page if there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and 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 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 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 where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments, experiences, and tips.