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

July 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Academy Awards and those who watch them from a booth.

February 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are just a few days away from that very American ceremony that the world has made its own turning it into an international event: The Academy Awards, or as it is better known: The Oscar.

There are very few broadcasts that depend more on the services of an interpreter than the Oscar ceremony. It is a fact that people will be watching, again, all over the world.  Although most of them do not speak a word of English they will have people over for food and drinks, perhaps will dress up for the occasion, and will tune in for the broadcast that will be simultaneously interpreted into their native language by a team of very skilled interpreters from a booth in Hollywood or from a TV studio somewhere else in the world. Because dear colleagues, not all interpreters will be lucky enough to be working from California; many of them will do their job from a small TV studio somewhere in their own countries where they will pick up the American feed and “pretend” that they are broadcasting from the site of the event.    The Oscar is also an important event to the interpreter community at large because let’s face it; in many countries we are part of that very small group of people who watch what Americans refer to as foreign language films (for the rest of the world: movies that are not in English) If you add the fact that a film in your own language, or even from your country, may be nominated for this coveted award, then you will have a most memorable night. But, what is the Oscar? Where did it get its nickname?

The Academy Award statuette was designed by an MGM art director named Cedric Gibbons and a sculptor named George Stanley in 1928.  At that time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences referred to it as the Academy Award of Merit. That was its original name.  It was in the 1930s that the trophy got its nickname: Oscar.  There are several tales on how the statuette came to be called Oscar.  The Academy endorses the following: A librarian who worked for the Academy in the 1930s named Margaret Herrick thought that the statuette had a physical resemblance to an uncle of hers. The uncle’s name was Oscar.  Columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when she made the remark, and he seized the name in his famous byline: “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar’.”  (Levy, Emanuel [2003].  All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Burns & Oates. ISBN 978-0-8264-1452-6) others claim that it was Bette Davis who named the statuette Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson.  One of the earliest recorded mentions of the term Oscar goes back to a Time Magazine article about the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony.  Even Walt Disney is quoted in 1932 as thanking the Academy for his Oscar.  Others claim that it may have been named after Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.  Whatever the origin of its now world-famous name, the trophy was officially referred to as the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Regardless of the language combination, the Oscar ceremony presents two interesting problems for the interpreters working the event: (1) the sometimes local expressions and politically incorrect speeches by the recipients of the award, which incidentally might not be suitable for some audiences depending on each country’s censorship legislation. Although much of this has been taken care of by the broadcast delay rule that exists in all live broadcasts originating from the United States (motivated by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunctioning during a Super Bowl halftime show); and (2) The title, different from its original, that a film gets depending on the country and language where it will be shown.

Regarding the recipient’s speech I had one of these situations during the Golden Globes, not the Oscars, when Meryl Streep uttered a bad word. Fortunately for me, because of the delay policy, I did not have to worry about that rendition as the exclamation was edited out. But it was not always like that, and I can just imagine what our colleagues went through in the past when many actors used the Academy Awards as a channel to protest and criticize governments, policies, and philosophies; not to mention Jack Palance’s push-ups routine when he got the Oscar for his performance of “Curly” in “City Slickers.” The issue of different titles is tough, really tough. It was more difficult in the past before globalization because at that time many interpreters had not even watched the movies as they had not opened in their home countries yet, so they could not even “guess” the movie.  Titles like “The Sound of Music” that was renamed: “La novicia rebelde” in Mexico, or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was named: “Atrapados sin salida” had to be tough to interpret when you had no idea what the movie was about. At least naming “Jaws” “Tiburón” was easier to figure out.  Now I invite you to share with all of us your personal experiences interpreting the Academy Awards, or to bring up other movie titles that were tough to translate. Finally, I would like to end this piece with a big thank you to all the interpreters who through the years have made it possible, and many times under very tough conditions, for the entire world to sit down in front of the TV set and for one evening every year root for their favorites based solely on one criteria: how they acted, directed, produced, or in any other category contributed their talents to the greatness of a film.

Finally a movie that shows interpreters doing what they really do.

February 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Several weeks ago I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty.” Like many others, I was focused on the screen fascinated by such a successful mission of our intelligence and military forces, but I had an additional reason to be happy with the movie. Bigelow and Mark Boal, the screenplay author, stuck to authenticity and historical accuracy by including and showing the role of the military interpreter.  I figured that on this Academy Award week when everybody will be talking about movies, I should bring to all of my colleagues’ attention the very positive depiction of our profession in this film.  It feels so good to see how the profession is acknowledged as an integral and essential part of the mission, and how the interpreters are shown performing their services instead of acting like a United Nations James Bond of the booth as we were portrayed on another movie that had nothing to do with interpreting but the title.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie, not a documentary. Its main goal is to sell tickets and entertain, therefore, it shows interpreters in action at different parts of the movie, not all the time. Already a long movie, it would have been longer (and boring) with interpreters in every situation they were required; however, it gives the viewer a good idea of how important the military interpreter was to the operation. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.

I also believe that this movie helps other interpreters not in the military field to understand what a military interpreter does. Despite previous posts where I have (and many of you have) explained how military interpreters are not neutral because one of the parties they interpret for is the enemy whose defeat is essential, this blog has seen many opinions by colleagues stating that military interpreters should be impartial, that they should convey the idea to all parties that they are neutral, and that military interpreters should interpret everything because that is the only way for both parties to communicate.   This movie illustrates what a military interpreter does, how they work in full gear with a weapon, how they interpret for one party (their commander) and only inform the other party what he has been instructed to let him know. It also shows the difference between a military interpreter who works in a conflict zone, and those military interpreters who provide community (not military) interpreter services in the event of an evacuation due to a natural disaster, or any other type of relief, including helping civilians in countries at war with the military forces they work for.  I would love to see your comments about the portrayal of these military interpreters in the film, or if you prefer, your comments about any other movie where interpreters were showcased.

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