Interpreting a live sports event.

March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Today sports play an important role in our world as entertainment and business. We are all aware of the enormous amount of money that events such as the Olympic Games and World Cup Soccer (football outside the United States) generate from advertisers and broadcasting rights.

In a globalized economy, thanks to modern telecommunications, people can follow and root for teams and athletes from every continent. This presents corporations, governments, and sports federations with the challenge of making the games and matches available to everyone, regardless of the language they speak.

The days when the only sports-related events requiring interpreting services were the meetings of the International Olympic Committee, or the conferences attended by FIFA executives are behind us. In this new reality people are watching England’s Premier League, Pay-Per-View world championship boxing, and the Super Bowl from every country in the world. World-class college athletes train and compete in countries where they were not born, and professional hockey and basketball players become stars in foreign countries.  These days all Major League Baseball teams are contractually obligated to provide interpreting services to their foreign-born players who do not speak English fluently, and interpreters living in the United States are getting used to reading ads from professional baseball teams looking for Spanish or Japanese interpreters to be a part of their staff for the entire season.

This time I will skip the description of the professional interpreting services provided by sports conference interpreters during a league or federation meeting where they will interpret for executives, government officials, and athlete’s representatives. I will not discuss the job of sports escort interpreters who accompany professional and amateur athletes for an entire season, acting also as their cultural advisors in everything from training camp to the clubhouse; and from traveling to the away games to opening a bank account, or assisting them during an interview with the media. I have touched on these services before and I plan to do it again in the future.

On this occasion we will talk about the job of the sports media interpreter during a live event.

As a big sports fan, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to interpret during the broadcast of boxing matches and team sports’ games and tournaments. There are quite a few of us who do this worldwide, but the proliferation of media outlets and the ever-growing public appetite for more sporting events has turned this interpreting field into a more than viable option for many more colleagues in the immediate and long term future.  For this reason, I decided to write about the many services provided by a sports media interpreter during the broadcast of events such as a UFC fight or a soccer game.

Basically, a sports media interpreter can provide professional services in different environments: Live at ringside during a boxing match; live on the basketball court during halftime; live for a quick interview from inside the cage after a mixed martial arts fight; or live before and after a baseball game during a press conference.

One of the most compelling jobs that an interpreter will ever have to perform is that of a ringside or cage-side interpreter for a boxing or mixed martial arts combat. Interpreters sit ringside or cage-side just like the sportscasters; they get a microphone and a headset, and interpret live for the radio or television broadcast the conversation between the fighter and their corner, as well as the encouragement and instructions from the trainer. The task is difficult as the interpreter needs to know sports terminology, idiomatic expressions, and has to be up-to-date on the most current events in the world of that particular sport. A break generally lasts sixty seconds and the broadcast splits the minute between the two corners; therefore, the interpreter has about thirty seconds to render the conversation simultaneously on a clear pleasant voice, but conveying the emotions experienced by those in the red or blue corner.  This must be done in the middle of a noisy arena where music is playing at the highest decibel levels, at the same time that a producer is whispering instructions into the interpreter’s ear through the headphones.

Finally, because these corner conversations are intimate talks between fighters and seconds, there are times when those who are having the conversation code-switch from one language to another (in my case English into Spanish and vice-versa) or use foul words, and even racial slurs.  Interpreters’ concentration is paramount as they have to stay on the target language regardless of the code-switch, and they must decide, according to their contractual obligations with the broadcasting company, or their professional judgement in lieu of the former, whether or not they will interpret the bad words. This has a lot to do with cultural and legal considerations. Audiences in different countries react different to foul language. Sometimes, depending on the network, interpreters have less room to maneuver on the field of profanity. Over-the-air stations usually ban this vocabulary while cable TV is more tolerant. Some countries have a brief time-delay of a few seconds before broadcasting a live event.

Racial slurs are universally left out of the interpretation as they add nothing to the sport-watching experience. The most important rule is to keep it accurate but coherent, informative, and brief. The interpreter never can go beyond the time allotted to the corner conversation. Sometimes there is a second interpreter of another language pair waiting for you to finish so they can start their thirty seconds from the opponent’s corner and you cannot eat up part of their time.  Sometimes it is even more complicated as you have to interpret both corners dedicating thirty seconds to each fighter.

Sports media interpreters also provide their professional services for brief one-on-one interviews with a sports broadcaster. They usually happen at the end of a game or bout, during the halftime of a team sport’s game like football, soccer, or basketball, or in between periods in a hockey match. In boxing and mixed martial arts they take place in the cage or ring, and for the other sports the interview can be on the field, court, or right outside the locker room.

Unless you are working in the clubhouse, these interpreting assignments are performed in a very noisy environment and without a headset which makes it difficult to hear the interviewer’s questions and the athlete’s answers. Because they are extremely short, generally about ten to thirty seconds, the one or two questions by the sportscaster (with the second being a follow-up question many times) are interpreted simultaneously by whispering into the athlete’s ear, and the answers are interpreted consecutively speaking into the microphone held by the interviewer.

All rules above apply to this interpreting situation as the limitations are similar, but there is one unique situation that often arises during these interviews, especially the ones that take place after the game or fight: Regardless of the question they are asked, many athletes start by thanking or acknowledging a higher power, and they end the interview by greeting certain people in their staff, their hometown, or any other group they identify with. Because of time constraints, the interpreter should limit the rendition to the subject matter, leaving out these statements and greetings. Air time is very expensive and the audience has a short attention span.

There are times when TV networks do interviews that are slightly longer right after the fight or game. They do them at a TV set built under the seats of the arena or stadium. Usually, these short interviews take place before the athletes get to the locker room and they last about two to three minutes. For these interviews, the interpreter generally appears on camera between the sportscaster and the athlete and does an abbreviated consecutive rendition of both, question and answer. In this situations, interpreters are given the question ahead of time so they have a chance to figure out how to shorten it by going straight for the main topic at issue. Again, answers are kept to the essential, and the interpreter must look professional and sound pleasant. Interpreters speak into a microphone held by the sportscaster and usually go to the makeup chair before appearing on camera. As you see, to perform these unique tasks interpreters who do this type of work must have deep knowledge of the sport in question, have vast knowledge of the athlete’s career, and need to be up-to-date on everything that is going on in that particular sport. You must keep in mind that there are many in the TV and radio audience who know everything there is to know about the sport. I hope this explains why sometimes some interpreters who are not familiar with this type of work unjustly criticize sports media interpreters’ performance with remarks about everything that was “left out” of a question or an answer. Now you know the true story of the “he didn’t say that” or “that is not what they asked”.

Another common professional service in the world of sports media interpreting are press conferences. Like all similar events interpreted by conference interpreters, sometimes the question is interpreted simultaneously from a booth, and on occasion the rendition is consecutive. Answers are generally interpreted on the consecutive mode, and rarely rendered simultaneously.  When the interpreters are not in a booth, they sit away from the TV cameras at a table with microphones and headsets. Here the interpretation is just like at any other press conference.

In individual professional sports there is usually one press conference on the day before the event and a second one right after the match. For team sports there is usually one before and another one after the game. These team sports’ conferences are attended by the coach of the team and some of the most distinguished players during the game. Before the game the visiting team goes first, followed by the home coach and players. After the game the winning team goes last. Unlike the other interpreting services described above, press conferences are interpreted by teams of two or three interpreters, and unlike most other press conferences in the world, sports press conferences often take place in the wee hours of the night (often spilling over into the next day).

Every day we see more TV stations emerging all over the place; most of them are local in coverage, and because local sports coverage is relatively inexpensive compared to producing TV series or movies, and due to the popularity of sports, especially local teams and athletes, there will be more broadcasts of regional tournaments everywhere. This reality, paired with globalization, which brings to your hometown athletes from other latitudes who many times do not speak the local language, will continue to build up the demand for sports media interpreters all over. I immediately think of the hundreds of professional minor league farm teams in the United States for example.

I hope you will find this brief description of the profession useful when deciding whether or not to apply for one of these jobs. I now ask you to share your thoughts and experiences as sports media interpreters.

Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

September 11, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. Last time we talked about some of the things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult, and I shared with you my first five; today we will discuss the rest to complete the list of ten. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with them all, some or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Here we go:

SIX.  When the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, and there is nothing to interpret. Sometimes we run into speakers who have worked with interpreters in the past, but those interpreters were of a different level. They have given speeches or presentations using the services of interpreters who deliver their rendition consecutively; that means that the speaker is used to start and stop many times during the speech. This should not be a problem and the transition to a simultaneous interpreter should be smooth when the speaker worked with good interpreters in the past. There are excellent diplomatic interpreters who work the consecutive interpretation magnificently; the orator can talk in complete sentences and ideas, and he can do it for a long time without having to worry about the interpretation being deficient. This speaker can adapt to the simultaneous interpretation used in conferences easier. The real problem is when the speakers have used the services of not-so-skilled interpreters before: sometimes low-level agency interpreters, sometimes a relative or a friend who is not even a professional interpreter, and they have been told to stop their speech frequently so that the interpreter can render a few words at a time (often sounding nonsensical and monosyllabic) Because the service providers’ professional capacity was so limited, the speaker just assumes that this is the way it needs to be done. The consequences of this type of speech are nefarious. All interpreters know that it is impossible to interpret what has not been said yet, and in these cases, when the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, half way through an idea, or right after a “difficult” name or technical word, the interpreter is being left defenseless. There is nothing to interpret because the speaker has not said anything yet. Even when the main idea has already been expressed in the source language, or even when the words already uttered make for a good beginning of a sentence in the source language, the interpreter may be unable to say a word because of linguistic or comprehension reasons. The interpreter will not be able to start his rendition when the syntax in the target language is different because the interpreter does not know yet how to start the sentence. Interpreting requires that the interpreter understand and process an idea spoken by the presenter in order to find the right words in the target language; to do this, we as interpreters need to understand that idea. Of course, this is impossible when the interpreter only gets half of the idea. These two realities that interpreters work with all the time, make it impossible to interpret what the speaker has said. Of course, there are agencies, speakers, and unfortunately even interpreters, who will tell you that interpreters must interpret what is being said, that if the speaker is not making any sense, the interpreter should interpret nonsense as well. I am sorry to tell those who subscribe to this theory that they are wrong. The interpreter is never meant to sound like a telegram or a broken record (I understand that this last analogy may sound strange to those of you who were born after records were gone, but I did not find another updated expression that accurately conveys what I am trying to express) One thing is to work in court where the interpreter’s job is to interpret everything because the rendition’s goal is to assess the credibility of the speaker, but that has nothing to do with the job of the conference interpreter who has to act as a bridge between two languages and two cultures to facilitate mutual understanding and comprehension. This can only be achieved when people express themselves in a coherent fashion. Once again, if this is happening during the presentation, the interpreters need to let the speaker know that this is not working and they need to ask him to speak naturally, without any pauses and ignoring the presence of the interpreters in the booth. To prevent this from happening, when we meet the speaker and we learn that this person has only worked with consecutive interpreters, we need to briefly explain simultaneous interpretation to the speaker, and ask him not to pause the way he does when he works with interpreters who do not do a simultaneous rendition. Speakers are usually smart people and they understand the absurdity of speaking like a telegram.

SEVEN.  When the speaker uses metaphors unknown to the audience. A very common occurrence is when in the middle of a presentation the speaker uses an analogy, quotes a character, or resorts to a metaphor that has no meaning or relevance in the culture of the foreign language audience. These are tricky situations because the interpreter has no way to know ahead of time that this will happen, unless the speaker is well-known for turning to these practice in which case the interpreters must discuss it with him ahead of time. This is the permanent solution: to educate the orator so he knows and understands that his message could get lost because of the examples or cultural references he is making during the speech. Once they understand this point, they should be encouraged to omit the allusions, or if that is impossible due to the nature of the message, to at least replace the metaphor or the example with something from the local culture or with something universally known. If the speaker does not like these options, then the interpreter should at least ask him to put his analogies and metaphors in context and to explain what they mean. Going back to the main problem: What is the interpreter to do when the speaker brings up the culturally unknown example or story right in the middle of the speech? Because the interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between speaker and audience, in my opinion the interpreter can do one of two things: Either find an acceptable equivalent in the audience’s language and culture, or at least explain and put in context, when possible, what the speaker just said. I will give you some examples: Americans are very proud of what they call “Americana,” (American culture and lifestyle) and sometimes they assume that it is universally known. For this reason, many great American speakers use “Americana” during their speeches; one typical example is baseball. Americans love baseball, it is their national pastime, you can find 10 to 15 professional games on TV every summer night, they grow up with the sport, its terminology, its analogies, and its heroes. As far as the rest of the world, unless you come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, or Korea, most people have never even heard of baseball, and those who have, have never watched a game, much less know its rules and history. On the other hand, if you take the United States off the picture, you will agree that football (which by the way, is called “soccer” in the U.S., is the most popular sport in the world) So when an American speaker brings up a metaphor or a remark from their national pastime and he says: “…It was three and two with two outs at the bottom of the nine with the score tied and on the verge of extra innings…” as an interpreter you have two choices, you can either transplant the analogy to a well-known cultural reference to the audience, in this case I would chose football, or you can just explain what the speaker is saying. In my example, the rendition would go like this: “…it was the last minute of the second half, the score was tied, and they were about to go to overtime…” If I cannot find a similar analogy in the target culture, then I would have explained it like this: “…now the speaker is using an analogy from an American sport called baseball to illustrate that they were at the very end of the line, and nothing had been decided yet…” In other words, if needed to facilitate the communication, as long as it does not alter the message, I would replace Washington with Bolivar, Jerry Lewis with “Cantinflas,” and “more American than apple pie” with “más mexicano que los nopales.” The key is to make sure that you are facilitating the communication without altering the message. That is why we need to study and have a wide knowledge of many things so that we can make these calls and in case we made a mistake, so we can bring the audience back to the speaker’s message. Remember, this is working under extreme conditions, it is not the type of speech we face every day.

EIGHT.  When the speaker is constantly saying: “let’s see if they can interpret this.” I know that most interpreters are very proud of their professional achievements. We all know that this is not an easy career and it is difficult to reach a certain level. Professional interpreters are constantly studying and practicing their craft; they thoroughly prepare for an assignment by researching, studying, and planning, so when it is time to get in the booth and interpret the presentation, they do a magnificent job and make the event a success. It is for this reason that I dislike speakers who think they are clever or even funny when after saying a technical term, or an unusual word or expression, they interrupt their speech to tell the audience: “let’s see if they can interpret this,” or “I hope this didn’t get lost in translation,” or even worse: “I don’t know if this was interpreted correctly…” Who do these individuals think is interpreting for them? Don’t they know that there are two professionals in the booth? Or, do they think so little of themselves that they just can’t imagine anybody spending enough money to get them top quality interpreters? Obviously, I dislike these remarks and the attitude of these speakers. I also know that their comments do not affect our job as far as being able to do the rendition. Of course I could say that these constant remarks are annoying and distracting and they can break an interpreter’s concentration. This is true, but the professionals that we are, we cannot allow for these remarks to bother us. They are uncomfortable, but our reaction should be no different from that of the actor who gets booed while on stage and continues with the performance. Therefore, what is the value of including this annoying practice in my “worst ten”? Besides the ranting session above, it lets me make the point that even this disgusting experiences cannot keep us from doing our job; and if there is a speaker who is constantly challenging the booth or casting doubt on the skill and knowledge of the interpreters, this can create a feeling of mistrust in the audience. By making these remarks over and over again, he is sending a message to the audience that what they are hearing with the headphones may not be accurate or complete. This is unacceptable. Even under these conditions the interpreter’s job is to make sure that there is communication between the parties; therefore, during the first recess, the interpreters need to address this issue with the agency or event organizer, and with the presenter. It is a simple matter of expressing this potential risk in a professional and respectful manner. Many speakers will realize that what they have been doing is not so funny, that they have offended somebody, and that it makes sense when they are told that some of the people in the audience may be second guessing what they have been hearing so far. After the break, most caring savvy presenters will clarify this point with their audience and will refrain from making any more comments about the interpretation. So you see, there was a reason why I included this as part of my “worst ten.”

NINE.  When the speaker refuses to share his materials with the booth. It is common practice for the interpreter to get all of the materials that will be used during a presentation. This is usually done without thinking twice about it. The interpreter accepts the assignment and the materials start to flow into the e-mailbox, or they become available in the cloud. Speeches, resumes, Power Point presentations, publications, newspaper and magazine articles, etcetera; they all come to the interpreter. Everybody knows, from the agency, to the publisher, to the presenter, that these materials are essential to the interpreter’s preparation for the assignment. They are all aware that the interpreter has absolutely no interest in reproducing the materials or to violate in any other way any intellectual property legislation. This is why it is extremely difficult to work those events when the speaker refuses to share his materials or his presentation. For a long time I thought that this would only happen in second-tier assignments where the speakers were not sophisticated enough to understand the role of the interpreter, but I was wrong. I have run into conferences with very well-known researchers, college professors, and others, who refuse to share their materials. Of course this is a problem that either will be resolved before the event, or it will be unsolved but the interpreters will at least know what to expect. The best course of action in these rare cases will be to first talk to the agency and ask them if they would have any problem with you talking directly to the presenter so you can explain why it is that you need the materials. If the agency says no then that’s that. The event will not go as smoothly as it should, but it will not be your fault. On the other hand, if it is possible for you to talk to the speaker, you should explain to him what interpreters do, state the reasons why you need his materials, and even promise him that you will delete the files after the event. Assure him that your interest on his papers does not go beyond the conference, and tell him, if confidentiality allows it, who are some of your clients. This will put him at ease and he will share the materials. You see, sometimes the problem is simply a lack of communication; when the agency contacted him they only asked for the materials (like they usually do) without any explanation as to why they needed them and who was going to use them. The only thing missing was the explanation. On the other hand, when the speaker refuses to share, then you have a difficult bumpy road ahead, but it can be a little smoother if you do your homework. When you have no materials, you need to find them yourself. Get together with the rest of the interpreting team (including all languages as this research will benefit you all) and develop a strategy. Allocate tasks and responsibilities to the team members: Decide who will research on line, who will talk to others in the field to see if you can get some answers to your questions, google the speaker to see if he has any accessible publications online, download and study his previous speeches, and on the day of the event, show up with a fast computer or tablet an a defined plan of action so that the support interpreter is constantly looking up information while the principal is interpreting. Do this throughout the speech, both interpreters switching tasks back and forth. At the end of the day you will not have the materials for the conference, but you will have enough materials and other tools to do a first-class job.

TEN.  When the speaker starts reading very fast. Fewer things can affect more an interpreter’s rendition than a speaker, turned “town crier,” who starts reading at the speed of light from a document that was never shared with the booth. It is true that many presentations include portions of materials that are read aloud; it is a fact of life than many speakers will read their speech from a teleprompter, some people still pull out the little piece of paper and read from it, but most of those cases involve materials that have been given to the interpreters ahead of time. If that is the case, the interpreters will adjust to the speakers speed (because it is also a fact that we all speak faster when we are reading from a prepared text) by either doing a sight translation or, depending on the interpreters’ preference, a simultaneous interpretation of what is being read. It is difficult but doable because the interpreters saw the text ahead of time; they know what the speech is about, they have detected and solved the linguistic and cultural problems contained in the text; in other words, the interpreters did their homework because they were given the chance to do so. The “pulling out of my sleeve the document I am going to read” strategy represents a different kind of problem and all the interpreter can do is to follow the speaker as accurately as possible, trying his best. If possible, even after the reading session started, the second interpreter can go to the speaker’s team and see if they have an extra copy of the speech they may want to share with the booth. This happens more often than you think, and although it is not the same as getting the document ahead of time, at least helps the interpreter with two key elements: First, the names that sometimes are very difficult to understand when we are not expecting them, and second, the interpreters will at least have an idea on the length of the written speech and this will help them plan accordingly and distribute the tasks in the booth. I want to make it clear that top level interpreters will interpret the contents of the document the speaker is reading and transmit the message to the foreign language audience seamlessly, that has never been in doubt, as it has never been in doubt the high difficulty that is involved in an interpretation of this nature.

With these last five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter I conclude my two-part post that started last week. I now invite you all to share with the rest of us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of mine.

The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1.

August 21, 2014 § 24 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. This time we will talk about those things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with all of them, some, or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Just like we have done it before, today we will discuss the first five, and we will deal with the rest next in a few weeks. Here we go:

ONE.  When the speaker constantly switches between languages. Sometimes we get to an event to find out that the person that is going to speak is fluent in both languages of our combination. That is not bad news of course. The real problem is when this individual comes to the booth and kindly announces that she will be switching back and forth between both languages to keep the audience “engaged.” Of course we all know what this means to us: This will be the interpretation from hell! There are very few things more difficult to achieve than a good rendition when you have to constantly switch from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. This is very taxing on the interpreter and it can lead to “brain confusion” when our poor little brain cannot distinguish anymore and ends up interpreting into the source language (English into English for example) because after so many switches it becomes difficult to switch in the middle of an idea. Therefore, this is a nightmare for the interpreters, but if this is confusing to us, trained professionals who are bilingual and do this for living every day, can you imagine the confusion in the audience? These individuals went to the event to learn something and all of a sudden they find themselves with a headache and zero understanding of what is going on; And to top it off, while these chaos is going on in the booth and the floor of the auditorium, the speaker is ecstatic that she is showing off her command of both languages, her perfect pronunciation and grammar, her lack of accent. No way. My friends and colleagues, this is unacceptable! We have to protect the speaker, the audience, the interpreters’ sanity, and the event. Just imagine the total confusion if there is a dedicated booth for each of the two languages. First, we must understand that most speakers who are truly bilingual decide to do this for the benefit of their audience (some of them even remember the interpreters and decide to do this to give us a “break”). If the switch happens unannounced in the middle of the event, and it becomes obvious that this will be happening during the entire speech, you draw straws, or somehow decide who will bite the bullet, and while one interpreter will have to do the switching back and forth, the other one will communicate to the presenter that she must stay in one language because it is impossible to switch back and forth. This can be succinctly explained in a very respectful professional handwritten note that should be handed to the speaker as soon as possible, even when the speaker has a security detail and it is difficult to approach her. When the event has not started, or in the above scenario after the event, the interpreters have to sit down with the presenter and permanently solve this situation by explaining the difficulties of interpreting when the orator constantly switches back and forth. Make her understand that it will be very difficult for the audience because unlike her, they are not bilingual, so they will be confused and they will have to be putting on and taking off the headsets over and over again; and more importantly, explain that she will look better to her entire audience if she stays with one language. At that point you can even let her choose the language she prefers (unless she is clearly better in one of the two). It is likely that you, as the interpreter, will have to be somewhat flexible and agree to the occasional word or phrase in the other language; just explain to the speaker that there is the possibility that her words be lost to some of the audience as they may not be agile enough to pick up the headphones that quickly. She may then agree to eliminate these phrases. You may have to go along with a couple of questions being answered in the other language. This is fine as long as she announces it, gives the audience plenty of time to put on their earpiece, and sticks to one language throughout her answer.

TWO.  When the speaker insists on talking in a language he really does not speak. There are plenty of times when the speaker thinks that he is bilingual but in reality he is not. We already saw the difficulties of interpreting a real bilingual individual who switches back and forth between both languages. This time the problem is quite different. Here we have a situation where the presenter truly believes that his second language is good enough for a speech. This is the typical individual who feels that he can be understood in the foreign language because when he visits the other country he has no problem ordering a beer or asking for the bathroom. If a person begins his presentation let’s say, in English, and a few minutes later, already into the speech, he announces that because he goes to Cancún for two weeks every year, he has learned Spanish and he will now deliver the rest of his remarks in Spanish, the interpreters are in for a very bumpy ride. There are several possible situations: If the person pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading a written speech and the interpreters have it in the booth, even if the person cannot pronounce half of the words correctly, the booth can sight translate the speech for the benefit of half of the audience. Those who speak the language that the speaker thinks he is reading out loud will have to figure out what he is saying. Chances are that between the occasional giggles, they will be able to understand enough to know what the speech is about. If the interpreters do not have the speech in the booth, they will be in a similar position as the audience described above. They will certainly use their experience and skill to protect the speaker and deliver the message, but it will not be good, or pretty. Many times the hardest interpretation is when the person is speaking without a written speech and his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation and accent are so bad that the interpreter cannot fully grasp the topic, or at least some parts of the presentation, including names, places and figures that are usually among the most frequent mistakes made by those who do not speak a language fluently. At this point what always happens is that people from the audience start yelling words to help the speaker complete his sentences. This looks terrible, but it actually helps the interpreter because he now understands the words that are being yelled by the audience. In this case the solution is similar to the one above. Most speakers will stick to their native language after reading the interpreters’ note. Most presenters will never attempt to do this again in the future; but be aware of the real world: There will be, now and then, stubborn individuals, as well as those who will feel offended by the interpreters’ suggestion and will do the speech in the foreign language regardless. Under these circumstances the interpreter simply does his best as explained above, but he also communicates with the agency, event organizer, or sponsor, so they are aware of what is happening. Remember, they do not speak the foreign language either, and unless you let them know what is really happening, they will just assume that everything is going great and their speaker is bilingual. One more thing that may need to be done in extreme cases when the speaker is just a total disaster, is to let the audience know, through the interpreting equipment, in a very professional and respectful way, that part of the speech is being lost due to the fact that the booth cannot figure out everything the speaker is saying. Most people will understand what you are referring to because even when you do not speak a language, many times you can tell if the person speaking is doing it with fluency or not. They will also know that everybody is aware of the problem, and that you cared enough to let them know instead of simply ignoring them. The only thing to add is that in those cases when the temporary and permanent solutions above will not work because of the speaker, you will have to make a choice as to whether or not you will work with that individual again in the future.

THREE.  When the speaker speaks away from the microphone. There is a universal principle in the interpreting world: You cannot interpret what you cannot hear. It seems obvious right? Well, it may be obvious, but it is not universally known or understood. There are plenty of speakers who tend to move away from the microphone as they speak. When there is a podium with a fixed microphone, often times the speakers try to be more “convincing” by furiously gesticulating in all directions. This often means that they may be facing in the opposite direction from the microphone, making it extremely difficult for those in the booth to hear what they say. Other presenters feel the need to get closer to their audience, so they leave the podium area and walk all over the stage without a microphone; some of them even go down to the well to mingle with the crowd; all of this while constantly speaking without even thinking that microphones are there for a reason. Of course, although difficult to hear them, those sitting in the audience will be able to hear all or part of the speech, but the interpreters upstairs in the booth will hear nothing, even with the door open it will be very difficult to hear this speaker over the interpreter’s own voice; then there is the group of speakers who use a wireless microphone, either a lapel mike, a handheld, or one of those you put over your head and next to your mouth, but they do not turn them on! Finally, there are those instances when the sound system is not working and the show must go on. Obviously, the temporary solution for those who move away or speak away from the fixed microphone is to ask them, on a very professional and courteous manner, to speak into the microphone and stay behind the podium. Those who forget to turn their microphone on should be reminded to turn it on; the real challenge arises in those cases when the sound system is toast and the show must go on. There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, if there is portable interpreting equipment as a backup in the facility, use it. The interpreters would have to leave the booth and move to a table on the stage where they can be close to the speaker and hear him without the benefit of a microphone. The speaker will have to speak louder anyway so that those who do not need interpretation can hear him, so the interpreters will have to turn on their bat radar and listen carefully. For the solution to work, the interpreter doing the rendition will have to speak into the portable transmitter’s microphone on a whispered mode (chuchotage) in order to hear the speaker over his own voice; this will put a tremendous strain on the interpreter’s voice, so there will be shorter shifts and more recesses for the interpreters to rest their voice. If there is no backup portable interpreting equipment at the facility, the presentation will have to switch to the consecutive interpreting mode. The audience will have to get closer to the stage so that they can hear the interpreter, and they will have to be warned of the fact that the speech will take longer because of the interpretation. Another, and most desirable solution, would be to temporarily suspend the presentation while the event organizer or technical team fix the system or provide a backup. As a permanent solution to these scenarios, interpreters should discuss basic protocol with the speaker, asking him to always turn the microphone on, to always speak into the microphone, and to repeat into the microphone the questions or comments by those who may speak without having the benefit of a microphone. It is important to let the speaker know that the interpreters work in a booth behind a closed door, and their only connection to the outside world is through their headphones that will receive everything that is being said into the microphone and nothing else. The speaker must be educated so he knows that, unlike a regular listener in the audience, simultaneous interpreters need to hear the speaker’s voice over their own voice, and speaking on an unnatural way, like whispering, can damage the interpreter’s work tools: his vocal chords. Most speakers may need a few reminders during the session, but they will immediately remember and react accordingly. Finally, a professional interpreter should always discuss Plan B with the event organizers, agency when applicable, and technical team. There should always be a backup system for everything that needs to be used during an event.

FOUR.  When the speaker taps on the microphone or says “hello” directly into the mike.  The vocal chords are an essential tool to the interpreter, so is his hearing. Throughout our career, every once in a while we are going to encounter speakers that identify themselves with rock stars and want to do a sound check like Keith Richards: They will turn on their microphone, and they will tap on it immediately after. Then again, some of them will just take the microphone next to their mouth, and here I include those who grab their lapel and pull the clipped mike towards their face, and say, in what they consider a very cool way, something like: “yessss!!!” or “testing…testing” or something else they saw in a concert sometime ago. All of these individuals feel great after they do this testing of the equipment. They think they looked cool, professional, and self-confident. Everybody else in the room agree with them; typically, some people in the audience will give them the thumbs up after they perform this sound check, others will simply smile; no one will think it is wrong. No one but the interpreters in the booth who are wearing headphones and have already adjusted the sound levels to what they need, in order to hear the speaker over their own voices. The result is awful and extremely painful. In general, interpreters hearing is very sharp because they are trained to listen and detect any word, any sound that comes from the speaker’s mouth. Imagine the combination of a very acute sense of hearing, a sound system (by the way, already checked by the technicians and adjusted to the taste and needs of that particular interpreter) already at the required level for the interpreter to deliver his rendition, and a person either furiously tapping on the mike, or doing a sound check that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. This is a practice that needs to be eradicated: Zero tolerance. The best way to address this issue and keep it from happening is to simply ask the sound engineer to let the speaker know that the equipment has been tested and that he does not need to test it again. This will hopefully give one of the interpreters enough time to leave the booth and explain to the presenter that there is very sensitive equipment in the booth, that the interpreters will be wearing headsets throughout the presentation, and that any tapping on the microphone, coughing into the mike, ruffling of clothes in case of a lapel microphone, or talk directly into the mike, will affect the interpreters directly; it is important to convey the potential consequences of doing any of this things, such as having an interpreter temporarily incapacitated from doing their job, or a very scary permanent hearing injury which would leave the interpreter without a way to make a living. Of course, an even better method would be to have the agency, event organizer, or sound technician speak to the presenter ahead of time, and even provide some written guide to public speaking that includes a chapter on working with the interpreter in the booth. Many reputable agencies and organizations, as well as most professional seasoned speakers, know of this potential problem, and they avoid this bad habits, but we as interpreters must remain alert in case a speaker slipped through the cracks. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the occasional banger: the speaker who every now and then, in the middle of the speech will tap into the microphone to “make sure it is working.” This is the worst possible scenario. Some colleagues may disagree, but to me the pain is so sharp when they tap into the microphone, and the risk of losing my hearing is so high, that I truly have zero tolerance for this behavior. If this happens during the presentation and I have a way to communicate with the speaker from the dashboard in the booth, I will immediately do so; if I do not have this option, then I will ask the technician to please go to the stage immediately and ask the speaker to stop. Next, as soon as there is a break, I go straight to the speaker and let him know what happened, acting in a professional manner, I show him that I disliked what he did, and I try to get a commitment that he will pay more attention to what he is doing with the microphone. There have been many instances when I have screamed in pain when a speaker taps into the mike, and the audience has heard it in their headsets. There is nothing in the book of ethics or professional conduct that says that the interpreter must endure pain inflicted by the speaker’s conduct, and I will have zero tolerance for the rest of my career.

FIVE.  When the speaker slows down to a crawl. There are some very experienced presenters who have been speaking in public for years, they are well-known and popular; the only problem we have with them in the booth is that despite their long careers, they have never or rarely worked with a foreign language audience. They are not used to the interpreter. Now, these speakers are seasoned and they know what needs to happen to keep their audience’s attention and to drive their message; they know it so well that they come up with “homemade” solutions in order to have a successful presentation before a foreign language audience. The most common change to their public speaking habits is on the speed they use to deliver their message. They slow down to a crawl so that “the interpreters can keep up with the presentation.” Of course, all simultaneous interpreters know that this delivery does more harm than good. The speakers need to realize that their message needs to sound natural to keep the audience engaged, and as long as they speak slowly in the source language, the interpreters will inevitably end up speaking slower in the target language as well. The first thing that needs to happen when this situation arises is to immediately let the speaker know that he needs to speak normally, that he does not need to worry about the booth; that the interpreters are trained professionals who do this for living and they will be fine, in fact much better, if he speaks at a normal, natural speed. This can be accomplished through a direct communication such as a note or a brief message through the technician or one of the interpreters; Many times this is accomplished by signaling the speaker that he needs to speak faster. There are universal signs that almost everybody understands for this. Of course, the way to avoid this type of situation is to educate the speaker ahead of time. I believe that in this situation, when you have a speaker who does not usually work with a foreign language audience, it is the duty of the interpreter to let him know some basic rules and principles about working with an interpreter. One of these principles is precisely to ask the speaker to speak at a normal speed and forget about the interpreter. The presenter should let the interpreters do the worrying; that is part of their job, and they know how to do it.

These are the first five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. I will share the rest of my list in a few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you all to tell us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of my first five.

The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 1

June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The “ten worst” series is back again. This time I will talk about those actions, omissions, and attitudes of other interpreters that not only annoy us, which they do, but that also affect our professional performance and the image we project to the client and the professional community.  Obviously, and very sadly, a “ten worst” list is not enough to include all the things we see and hear out there when we are in the booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the battlefield, or anywhere else that interpreters are doing their job.  As always, I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.

Here we go:

  1. Well, that’s what I charged because that is all they wanted to pay and I didn’t want to lose the client. Nothing really bothers me more than an interpreter that doesn’t know how to charge for his or her services.  This is a business where we provide a professional service and those in the field who don’t understand it and don’t want to understand it are not only working towards a life of misery for themselves and their loved ones; they are hurting us all.  The only reason why some of your clients are always trying to get you to work for less than you deserve is because of this group of interpreters who are willing to do anything for practically nothing. This practice influences your local market because there is a cheap alternative competing against you who is ready to take your client away even if they will make very little money. Let me be really clear, I am not saying that we should constantly overprice what we do, although there is nothing wrong with charging any amount a client is willing to pay: it is a contractual relationship, the meeting of the minds. A quick solution would be to sell your services better than those individuals who charge below the market so the client sees the added value you bring to the job.  Long term solution: Educate your market. Make sure all potential clients know the difference between a good interpreter and a person who will charge little and deliver even less. These paraprofessionals will always exist; in most instances just ignore them. They are not in your league. I don’t know about you all, but I am in the business of working little and making a lot of money. I am not interested in working for peanuts every single day. I can think of many other things I can do with my time.
  2. To snatch the microphone away from you or not to let go of the microphone.  It is very annoying and very distracting to work with somebody who is just watching the clock and the moment the big hand gets to half past or to the top of the hour they grab the microphone or turn off your output on the console. Some of them even stick their wrist between your eyes so you can see that it is time for them to interpret totally disregarding the rendition. They just cannot wait until the natural pause happens and the switch can be seamless.  And then you have those in love with their voice and their rendition who never let go. They simply turn their head away or avoid your stare and continue talking.  Of course I know that I will get paid regardless of who did most of the work, but I am also aware of the fatigue factor and I do not want the audience to suffer through a diminished rendition just because of the ego of my colleague in the booth. In these two scenarios a quick, but many times useless, solution would be to wait for the next break and talk it over with your partner, or in the event that you already know that this will happen because you have worked together in the past, politely and professionally set the “rules of the game” even before you start interpreting.  The long term solution to these very disturbing working conditions would be to refuse to work with that colleague in the future and to explain to the client your reasons for the refusal.
  3. To leave the booth as soon as you take the microphone.  To me it is very difficult to understand how some colleagues perceive team interpreting when they leave the booth or exit the courtroom as soon as they are not actively interpreting.  I understand restroom brakes and important phone calls and e-mails; we are a team and I gladly stay alone when my partner needs to take care of one of these situations.  Is it because they do not know that the supporting interpreter is as important as the one actively interpreting? I have a hard time buying this justification when they have been around for some time and have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a second interpreter sitting next to them.  To me it is very simple: They erroneously understand team interpreting as “tag-team interpreting” which is what wrestlers do when they work in teams. I believe the short-term and long-term solutions I suggested for number 2 apply to this scenario as well. I have a word of caution for my new colleagues and friends who just started in this profession and may feel intimidated or uncomfortable when it is the veteran interpreter who abandons the station:  Treat them as equals. You are doing the assignment because somebody thought you were good at this. Even the “big ones” have to do their job as part of the team.
  4. To cancel at the last minute.  This is another one of those practices that hurt you as a professional who has been scheduled to work with this individual, and also hurts the image of the profession.  Of course I am not talking about an emergency when a colleague has to cancel due to a health issue, a family crisis, or an accident.  I am not referring either to the interpreters who cancel because after accepting the assignments they realized that it was way over their head, unless they cancel the day before instead of two months ahead of time. I am talking about those who were offered another job on the eve of your event, and those who are simply irresponsible and unreliable.   This is a very serious problem that can be worse when you are also the organizer of the event or the interpreter coordinator.  A quick solution could be to talk to the interpreter and see why he or she is quitting at the last minute. Sometimes the reasons can be addressed and corrected (a hotel they dislike, a flight at an inconvenient time, etc.) occasionally a good pep talk can fix it (a last-minute panic attack because of the importance of the event or the fame of the speaker at the conference) and sometimes the cancelling interpreter may agree to start the event while you get a replacement.  A long term solution in this case is a no-brainer: Never work with this person again. Black-list this individual, and if necessary and if the contract allows it: sue him.   It is not wrong to cancel an assignment because you got a better offer to do another job. What is wrong is to cancel at the very last minute.
  5. To refuse to help the new interpreters.  Our job is a personal service. I am hired to interpret because the client wants me to do it; not just anybody to do it. They want me.  I understand and value the fact that getting to the top takes a lot of work, many years of dedication, a devotion to what you do. I applaud those who got to the summit and use it as a marketing tool.  I also love to work with them. It is a pleasure.  Unfortunately, some of these great interpreters do not like to share their knowledge and experience with the new generation.  I have seen, and heard, of instances where the masters of the profession ignore and mistreat the newcomers. They keep the secrets of their trade close to their chest as if afraid that once known, they could be turned against them.  This very real situation creates a nightmare for those scheduling the interpreters for an event and could result on the loss of a client.  As a short-term solution you can talk to the veterans and explain that you need them for the quality of the rendition, and for the same reason, you need them to teach the new interpreters how to work like a superstar, and you need them to help the often nervous newcomers to feel at home in the booth or the courtroom so they can also learn and perform.  Because most veterans are wise and love the profession, the same strategy, at a larger scale, can be part of the long-term solution, together with a campaign to educate and empower the new interpreters so they feel that they also belong in the booth.

These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this part of our professional practice.

The Booth: Location…location…location…

July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

During one of my recent trips I ran into one of my veteran colleagues. Of course, we talked about what we are doing and updated each other on our respective lives, but after a few minutes the conversation went back to the “good old days”.  We remembered a time, many years ago when we worked at a conference where the booth was right next to the door that was right next to the hallway where the bagels and muffins were served. Needless to say, the door was opened like fifty times, and on occasion it was kept open while a group of conference attendees entered the room carrying multiple bagels and cookies.  I know this is nothing new to any of you, but it got me thinking about what is the best possible location for a booth from the interpreter’s point of view.

To me it is clear: We need to have the booth where we can see the speaker, the screen, and the audience. However, because of physical or technical limitations this is not always possible. My question to you is: Where do you like to see the booth when you work, and if you need to make a choice between the features I mentioned above: Have a view of the speaker, the audience, and the screen, which one could you do without?

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