Media – Focus on Interpreting

10 lessons from a life interpreting

When you see famous people on tours abroad, whether Barrack Obama through Europe or Britney Spears in Asia, they will often be in the midst of a scrum. Between the security and image consultants in the entourage, you might see a face not used to the limelight. This would be the interpreter.

Interpreters are oral translators, enabling bilingual communication between monoglots. The interpreter’s job is not simply to render each spoken word literally into the other language, but to convey broader meaning, respect cultural conventions, and manage idiom. On top of all this, in the event of any gaffes more often than not the interpreter will have to shoulder the blame. In politics no less than show business, embarrassing remarks are frequently excused as a mistranslation.

So how do interpreters cope in such a scrutinised world? One interpreter who has worked with several high-profile individuals offered some tips:

1. ALWAYS BE THERE: ‘When a client needs an interpreter for a trip abroad, they need an interpreter for the whole trip. I’m normally with clients right from the arrival lounge to the departure lounge. That means in the car with them, at the hotel with them, at the restaurant with them.’

2. WELL, NOT ALWAYS: ‘But sometimes a client will want a little time apart during a long and hectic trip. They might know the local word for “thank you”, and can get by on that if they want a private dinner. You need to use your discretion with rich, powerful and famous clients.’

3. READ QUICKLY: ‘Although most of my job is translating between two or more people at a meeting, it’s not uncommon for a client to hand me a letter or report and ask for an instant translation. You don’t want to falter and stumble unprofessionally in front of a senior leader, but it can be tough when you’re given a complex contract to explain.’

4. AND READ UP BEFOREHAND: ‘Of course, you can make it a lot easier on yourself by doing some preparation. If your client is an official with a trade delegation, you might want to familiarise yourself with some briefings from the relevant government department. Equally, if you’re interpreting for a pop star, you have to read through a selection of that month’s gossip magazines.’

5. DISCUSS THE SCRIPT: ‘When trips are very stage managed, like if the client will be giving lots of press interviews, there will often be pre-prepared responses to questions. You don’t want these carefully worded remarks to get lost in translation, so it’s always better to discuss the script upfront with the client. The message at the twelfth time of asking needs to be the same as the first.’

6. KNOW YOUR IDIOM: ‘Image-conscious clients – which is all clients if they’re travelling abroad – don’t want to sound clumsily out of touch. You can’t let their words turn into dated literature or elaborate poetry, often despite your better instincts. Their speech needs to be natural, and you don’t have the time to ponder the best translation of a culture-specific reference there and then.’

7. AT THE END OF THE DAY…: ‘Most interpreting assignments are short term, a week at most. So when you’re in the midst of those 18-hour days, you need to remember that these meetings or interviews will end at some point. You might not get much sleep or any weekend, but it’s all about client satisfaction.’

8. ENJOY THE PERKS: ‘I don’t know about other interpreters, but I don’t often get the chance to stay in luxury hotels in my personal life. Travelling constantly from airport to hotel and living on room service can be depressing, but luckily most clients want you close to them and that means five-star service. Just don’t be disappointed that they’ve booked an economy seat for you while they’re flying in first.’

9. DON’T LET YOUR CHILDREN KNOW: ‘Your kids will probably want an autograph if you let slip you’re interpreting for David Beckham that day. So keep quiet unless you want an upset child or an un‑amused celeb. Seriously, though, confidentiality is a major concern. Whether you’re dealing with a head of state or a tabloid fixture, no one expects leaks and these are more often than not litigious people.’

10. GO PROFESSIONAL: ‘Being an interpreter is being more than bilingual. You’re not just giving someone the gist of what’s being said; it has to represent each individual’s words accurately, fairly and fluently. That only comes with experience, and a lot of hard work. Another consideration is whether you need more than one translator. Especially when instant – simultaneous rather than consecutive – interpretation is needed, two or more interpreters will be needed. A good agency will explain all this to you.’

The interpreter is a full-time employee of Global Lingo, a London-based provider of translation and interpreting services to multinational corporates.