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.

When the professional and honest translator or interpreter saves time and money to the client.

July 13, 2012 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

One time a first-class translator friend of mine contacted me to see if I would be interested in collaborating for a big legal translation project of many court and expert documents from a ten-year long procedure in Mexico.  The case was now being litigated in a federal court of the United States, and the American attorneys needed to know what exactly had happened with the case in Mexico.

The project seemed different and interesting, so I accepted the invitation.  A few weeks later I received a mountain of documents that were the equivalent to one-half of the documents obtained from Mexico to this point. My colleague received the other half.  I started reading the Mexican file and I soon realized that my colleague had received the older documents and I had the newer pile.  After many days of reading and researching, and applying my legal background, because being an attorney sometimes comes in handy, I concluded that there were many missing documents, probably the equivalent to three more years following the most recent document I already had. I also realized that most of what I had read had been reversed by an appeals court and at this moment in time was irrelevant to the case.

As I was arriving to these conclusions, my translator colleague contacted me, told me a similar story, and we decided to meet in person to compare notes. After several hours of combing through the documents, we both decided that we needed to talk to the legal team and explain what we knew.  A meeting took place, and it was decided that the rest of the documents had to be ordered from the Mexican courthouse, and that we should stop the translation until the new documents arrived, so we could again, analyze the new pleadings, and determine what needed to be translated.  At that time I realized that our hard work as legal translators had saved time and money to the attorneys. The fact that we shared what we had with the legal team, gave them the elements needed to decide what should and should not be translated.  I understand that my formation as an attorney gave us the possibility to understand better these pleadings, but the same could happen in any other field.

I believe that it is important that the legal translator be honest with the client.  In this case, we protected our client, and guaranteed an attorney-translator/interpreter relationship for years to come.  It is during these situations, when it could be so easy to translate thousands of useless pages, and still get paid, that in my opinion the real professional steps up to the plate and decides to let go.  I was very fortunate to work with such a professional colleague who understood just as I did that the most important thing is to remain professional and honest with your client.  I invite you to comment on this situation.

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