How on earth can one listen to a message and transfer the meaning into another language simultaneously? As a young student of languages, this mystery mesmerized me. When I was accepted into interpreting school, to have the doors to such secrets open was truly an honor and a delight! In the end, as with most things, it was a matter of practice while applying the correct methods. But mainly practice. And once you do it, the sensation is akin to the one you get when, after long study and practice, you can play a piece of music on an instrument.
Kilian G. Seeber, professor of interpreting at the University of Geneva, compares the feat to air traffic controllers or astronauts in terms of the stress and complexity of cognitive processing. After 34 years practicing this extraordinary profession, I think he has a point. Use the button to have a read.
In my course about note-taking, I frequently refer to the way conference interpreting started with the Versailles peace talks. Here, in the announcement of this new book, the author puts it thus:
"When Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando and Georges Clemenceau met in Versailles in January 1919, they ushered in the modern era of multilateral diplomacy and—perhaps inadvertently—laid the foundation for a new profession. Indeed, communication among these statesmen was only possible thanks to the first conference interpreters. For the following 100 years, these interpreters would become a permanent fixture at all international multilateral conferences. As we celebrate one century of conference interpreting, this volume takes stock of some of the most important milestones throughout the history of this exceptional profession and looks at its future at a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the world of international meetings. Thanks to its refreshingly interactive format, this volume gives a voice to different stakeholders in the world of conference interpreting today, including practitioners, managers, researchers and trainers. The result is a surprisingly candid and critical discussion of some of the most hotly debated topics in the world of conference interpreting."
Recently I read online an article denouncing an expert interpreter's performance. The article is a tragedy. It lays out for all to see the poor journalists complete misunderstanding of the exercise. She fell into the trop of thinking that interpreting is spoken translation. She takes a translation, and a poor one at that, of what the interpreter rendered in the target language and compares it with a transcript of the source language.
In this excerpt from the 1978 English version of Danica Seleskovitch's book Interpreting in International Conferences, Seleskovitch examines closely the process of interpretation and precisely the objection raised by the journalist. She says, "Looking it over on paper, I can imagine the traditional objections like 'That's not what he said." This is precisely what the journalist did.
To take an interpretation, which is a once-off fleeting expression aimed at producing the same style whle imparting the information, feeling and intention of the speaker, the same way it would be perceived by the source-language listener. But to convert speech to text and anchor it on the page and compare that fixed result with a transcript of the spoken language of the original is of course useful. But it only gives a highly partial and distorted view of what actually happened. And to judge the interpreter on that basis is wrong.
That is not what he said.
"That is not what he said"
Perhaps a translator could come up with a better rendition
Different translators will have different translations of the same text. I think this is especially true in literary works, and even more so in poetry. So selecting the person with the right sensitivity, as well as the skill, would seem appropriate. However, the notion that skin color is the main criterion, or a necessary one, even though in my view it may indeed be central here, seems going a bit too far. How about political views or life path as a couple other important selection criteria?
Nevertheless, I would like to state an observation here: PC, which stands for "politically correct," could, in my view, just as well stand for "plain courtesy," as often has been pointed out. I do not understand the kneejerk reactions against PC. Calling people by the name by which they wish to be called, for starters, seems a no brainer. And every other case I've observed, without exception, of people getting on their high horse about someone supposedly being "too PC" has appeared to me to be trivial, and actually quite shallow.
As to the debate on Amanda Gorman's translator, you may need a subscription to the New York Times to read from the link to the right. Try it. But here is the text:
Alex Marshall By Alex Marshall March 26, 2021
Hadija Haruna-Oelker, a Black journalist, has just produced the German translation of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the poem about a “skinny Black girl” that for many people was the highlight of President Biden’s inauguration.
So has Kübra Gümüsay, a German writer of Turkish descent.
As has Uda Strätling, a translator, who is white.
Literary translation is usually a solitary pursuit, but the German publisher Hoffmann und Campe went for a team of writers to ensure the translation of Gorman’s poem — just 710 words — wasn’t just true to Gorman’s voice. The trio was also asked to make its political and social significance clear, and to avoid anything that might exclude people of color, people with disabilities, women or other marginalized groups.
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“It was a gamble,” Strätling said of the collaborative approach.
ImageFrom left, Kübra Gümüsay, Hadija Haruna-Oelker and Uda Strätling, who have worked together on the German translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.” From left, Kübra Gümüsay, Hadija Haruna-Oelker and Uda Strätling, who have worked together on the German translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”Credit...Katarina Ivanisevic (center); Christoph Keller (right) For nearly two weeks, the team debated word choices, occasionally emailing Gorman for clarifications. But as they worked, an argument was brewing elsewhere in Europe about who has the right to translate the poet’s work.
Refer someone to The Times. They’ll enjoy our special rate of $1 a week. “This whole debate started,” Gümüsay said, with a sigh.
It began in February when Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands, said it had asked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a writer whose debut novel won last year’s Booker International Prize, to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch.
Rijneveld was the “ideal candidate,” Meulenhoff said in a statement. But many social media users disagreed, asking why a white writer had been chosen when Gorman’s reading at the inauguration had been a significant cultural moment for Black people.
GET THE BOOK REVIEW NEWSLETTER: Be the first to see reviews, news and features in The New York Times Book Review. Sign Up Three days later, Rijneveld quit. (Rijneveld declined an interview request for this article.)
In March, the debate reignited after Victor Obiols, another white translator, was dropped by the Catalan publisher Univers. Obiols said in a phone interview he was told his profile “was not suitable for the project.” (A Univers spokeswoman declined to comment.) Literary figures and newspaper columnists across Europe have been arguing for weeks about what these decisions mean, turning Gorman’s poem into the latest flash point in debates about identity politics across the continent. The discussion has shone a light on the often unexamined world of literary translation and its lack of racial diversity.
“I can’t recall a translation controversy ever taking the world by storm like this,” Aaron Robertson, a Black Italian-to-English translator, said in a phone interview.
“This feels something of a watershed moment,” he added.
On Monday, the American Literary Translators Association waded into the furor. “The question of whether identity should be the deciding factor in who is allowed to translate whom is a false framing of the issues at play,” it said in a statement published on its website.
The real problem underlying the controversy was “the scarcity of Black translators,” it added. Last year, the association carried out a diversity survey. Only 2 percent of the 362 translators who responded were Black, a spokeswoman for the association said in an email.
In a video interview, the members of the German team said they, too, felt the debate had missed the point. “People are asking questions like, ‘Does color give you the right to translate?’” Haruna-Oelker said. “This is not about color.”
She added: “It’s about quality, it’s about the skills you have, and about perspectives.” Each member of the German team brought different things to the group, she said.
The team spent a long time discussing how to translate the word “skinny,” without conjuring images of an overly thin woman, Gümüsay said, and they debated how to bring a sense of the poem’s gender-inclusive language into German, in which many objects — and all people — are either masculine or feminine. “You’re constantly moving back and forth between the politics and the composition,” Strätling said.
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“To me it felt like dancing,” Gümüsay said of the process. Haruna-Oelker added that the team tried hard to find words “which don’t hurt anyone.”
But whereas the German translators were happy to engage with the identity politics, others expressed frustration at the translator departures and their implications. Nuria Barrios, the translator of the poem’s Spanish edition, who is white, wrote in the newspaper El País that Rijneveld stepping down from the project was “a catastrophe.”
“It is the victory of identity politics over creative freedom,” she wrote, adding: “To remove imagination from translation is to subject the craft to a lobotomy.”
Image Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was chosen to translate Gorman’s poem to Dutch but later stepped down. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was chosen to translate Gorman’s poem to Dutch but later stepped down. Credit...Jeroen Jumelet/EPA, via Shutterstock Some Black academics and translators have also expressed concern. “There is a tacit idea that we are supposed to be especially concerned about the ‘appropriateness’ of a translator’s identity in the particular case of blackness,” John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said in an email.
Other differences between writers and their translators — such as wealth levels, or political views — were not sparking concern, McWhorter added. “Instead, our sense of ‘diversity’ is narrower than that word implies: It’s only about skin color,” he said.
Couching the discussion in terms of appropriateness was “really ridiculous,” said Janice Deul, a Black Dutch journalist and activist who on Feb. 25 wrote an opinion piece for De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, calling Rijneveld’s appointment “incomprehensible.” The following day, Rijneveld resigned.
When I interpret and at the end of a long meeting the participants end up saying something like, "Oh, yes, Mr. Violet, I almost forgot you were here," of course that's a high compliment. They were able to concentrate on their discussion. One of my main goals has been achieved: they connected almost as if they spoke the same language.
Nevertheless, I have now heard the term "invisible" used several times as if it were some kind of ideal. Let me juxtapose this:
"I remember working at meetings when the delegates remained silent after the speeches but always broke into applause after the [interpretations]." (Norman Langford, ILO, 1948, Birth of a Profession, p. 27)
OK, this is rare and only for consecutive of long speeches where the interpreter's performance is highly noticeable and quite welcome.
And there's no doubt that when the interpreter is noticed it should never even slightly, if possible, hinder or influence the course of events.
Nevertheless, in a multilingual event there is something happening, linguistically and more broadly. Two or more cultures are finding a way to accommodate each other. Even when two corporations or NGOs meet, in their manner, maybe their dress and in their speech, those identities are reflected. They may even issue badges to distinguish one group from another. The presence and visibility of interpreters are more likely than not part of a set of signals that naturally characterize a multilingual event. I don't see "invisible" as a goal. But maybe that's just me.
Read more on this by Jan Rausch on Monika Kokoszycka's wonderful blog using the button.
In Danica Seleskovitch's 1968 book "Interpreting for International Conferences" (1978 English translation by Daily and McMillan), she explains why interpreters need good sound: "As soon as [the interpreter] has to make a conscious effort to perceive what is being said, his attention is diverted, his technique upset and he begins to give a literal translation instead of re-expressing the meaning of the message."
In addition to the important reminder that we interpret (and "re-express") the message, not the words, we also learn that in 1968 what we now call conventional simultaneous interpretation equipment left much to be desired, much like RSI today.
The process by which poor sound undermines interpreting (see also my video: http://bit.ly/DViolet-WhyQuality) is crucial to convincing platforms to up their game and meet ISO sound requirements for simultaneous interpreting.
But this quote should give us pause for another reason: did interpreters like Seleskovitch reject the new technology and go back to doing consecutive exclusively?
Comme chaque année, à la date du 20 mars, la Journée internationale de la Francophonie est célébrée dans le monde entier, dans les pays francophones mais aussi dans ceux où la langue française est moins répandue. Cette date fait référence à la naissance, le 20 mars 1970 à Niamey (Niger), de l’Agence de coopération culturelle et technique, qui allait devenir l’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.
Interpreters are performing all at once four separate tasks while the ordinary listener generally is doing just one. That is why an interpreter may find the sound poor when ordinary participants find it satisfactory. Why is this? Please click the gold button to see the explanation in my most successful video. I'm posting it again because good sound, and the injuries to interpreters due to bad sound (no RSI platform has ISO compliant sound), are such serious matters today.
"They wanted a translator who was a woman, young, activist, and preferably Black... So to translate Homer better to be from VII b.c. Greece," commented Victor Obiols, translator of Homer and Shakespeare into Catalan, when turned away as translator for Amanda Gorman's stellar poem made famous at the Biden inauguration. It reminds me of when I was told no for a French<>English job because they'd found a "native speaker." Could that person interpret? Who knows?
Please DO NOT USE: Microphones built into a PC, wireless headsets connected to the computer via Bluetooth, phone earbuds (even if wired) or standard VICO room equipment with array microphones. None of these perform adequately for remote interpreting. They do not cover the frequency range of 125 Hz to 15000 Hz that simultaneous interpreters need to listen and speak at the same time; see ISO/PAS standard 24019.