The delicate, balancing act of escort interpreting.

July 20, 2021 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Escort interpreting is a unique type of work. It is frequently exhausting, and often it is rendered under stressful or difficult circumstances. Long hours, picky clients, celebrities, noisy environments, could act as a deterrent to these assignments, but the interesting people, beautiful places, and memorable occasions pull interpreters into this work, sometimes provided as consecutive interpretation, and others as whispered simultaneous.

The difficulties above come to mind to many colleagues when considering an escort interpreting assignment, but what most interpreters rarely consider are the potential uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing situations we have to live through because of a word, gesture, or attitude of the client we are interpreting for.

Interpreters’ clients are humans, and they sometimes do or say the wrong thing at the least expected moment. Occasionally it is deliberate, often it is a mistake derived from ignorance and not bad faith; but several incidents are created by cultural differences that can be interpreted as bad manners, callousness, or aggressiveness.  

As interpreters we must make quick judgements and decide how far we have to take these unintentional mistakes when interpreting.

Intentional insults, ironic comments, and disrespectful attitudes must be interpreted. That is why the client said it. The client wants us to convey that message with our rendition.

When the embarrassing situation is the product of an offensive comment or a remark our client made without noticing it, or perhaps due to the lack of understanding of the other person’s culture and traditions, we have to assess the relevance of the comment, and based on that judgement, interpret the remarks, soften them up a little, or even leave them out of the conversation. It is all a matter of relevance.

Irrelevant comments need not to be interpreted when uttered by mistake or out of ignorance. They add nothing to communication, and for no reason relevant to the discussion, they could create an obstacle to the success of the encounter. Let’s see examples:

One time I was retained to interpret an important business negotiation between the presidents of two Fortune 500 companies. During a reception before the first round of negotiations, the event’s host I was interpreting for approached the president of the visiting firm and his spouse; trying to be nice and welcoming, he greeted them, told them how much he loved their beautiful country, and asked them to recommend him a good beach for the summer. Nice conversation, right? The problem was that the visiting president’s country is land-locked! Instead of interpreting the question as asked, I simply asked for suggestions on places to see during a visit to their country. The question was irrelevant; nobody was offended, and everybody enjoyed the event.

During a formal dinner, my client was sitting next to a very important person from a not-so-wealthy, but very proud nation. Chatting about their children during dinner, the other person bragged about her children’s academic accomplishments, and how it would be easy for them to be admitted to the top university in their country. After listening to this narrative, that went on for several minutes, my client asked: “if your children are such good students, send them to my country so they truly get a good education.” I did not see a need for antagonizing the mother of these kids, so I softened the remarks, and said: “Your children are remarkable students, they could attend college anywhere they wanted to. They will get a great education.”

Under similar circumstances, remarks as the ones in these examples, and many others I have lived through, have been left out or softened up to make them more palatable to the other party. Comments irrelevant to the matter in question, such as: “I did not expect to find your country this clean,” “with such heavy traffic, I don’t understand why you don’t build better roads,” or “all I see on the streets are ugly old cars you never see in my country,” have been left out of conversations because they added nothing to the success of the encounter. Some say that when negotiating peace, a foreign envoy remarked in the presence of Russian Empress Catherine the Great that negotiations with a woman would never be fruitful; the comments were omitted by the interpreter, and peace was achieved.

As interpreters we have to be ready to react instantaneously when presented with these situations, and do our best to interpret what is being said, while recognizing the irrelevant, unintentional offenses, and leaving them out of the rendition. A rigid, inflexible interpreter would create chaos instead of facilitate the communication.

Please share your comments on this important, but rarely discussed peculiarity of escort interpreting.

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§ 3 Responses to The delicate, balancing act of escort interpreting.

  • Mariam Birma says:

    I learnt a lot out of this post. I would probably have interpreted the offensive utterances and caused chaos.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    As usual, very interesting situations. Preparation: not only the cultures and traditions of the countries but the idiosincrasy of the individuals. Excellent advice on handling insults or potentially conflictive comments.
    I was interpreting for a President and CEO of a large US corporation who was closing a plant and terminating all the employment in a country. After the almost solemn explanation he ended saying: “Have a nice day.” I said: Thank you for your understanding. Thank you.

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