The NYT this morning gave a description of how municipal workers in an Afghan town hid in their homes after a recent Taliban takeover of their city. A man told of how, when faced with threatening signs calling everyone back to work to keep city services working, he found the work stations were intact. The only noticeable difference was that the president’s portrait had been removed from the wall.
I could not help recalling my time in Kosovo 1999-2000 after that NATO invasion. Following assignments as United Nations international-staff interpreter in Rwanda and Angola, I had settled into my apartment in Paris when Luis da Costa, chief of UN peacekeeping human resources, called to ask me to accept a job in Kosovo.
For my first three months there, I worked as interpreter for Dominique Vian, who’d been called from his position as prefect of French Guyana to be head of the civil administration “pillar” of the new UN mission, UNMIK. I interpreted in whispering and consecutive modes for him in high-level meetings until he was replaced by a German, likely due to French top-heaviness with the arrival of the new head-of-mission, Bernard Kouchner.
Chaos reined in translation and interpretation. Any Kosovar with notions of English was being recruited as interpreter/translator (what’s the difference?) haphazardly by the UNMIK, the media, NATO (KFOR), the offices of coalition countries that had fought and replaced the Serbs, and others. Poor translations of press releases, statements by local officials and other important references were hastily produced and distributed by myriad offices. No one knew which version to work from. Having run the language services of my former UN missions, I sounded an alert, writing a memo to mission leaders describing the need to professionalize and coordinate such services within UNMIK.
With Mr. Vian’s departure, I had a contract but no position. As my UN classification was P4 (managerial/professional) and staff was short, Enrique, director of Pristina Region civil administration, asked me to accept a position as civil administrator for two Kosovo municipalities, Glogovac and Podujevo.
I signed up for a UN vehicle, found an interpreter, Besa, and with Judy, a Kenyan UN volunteer assigned to me, drove to each of these places to introduce myself first to the local KFOR commanders, Brian, a Canadian, in Glogovac, and Major Parry, a Brit, in Podujevo. This is where the Afghan situation looks so familiar.
Major Parry, after introducing me to the contingent colonel, took me to meet Mr. Gashi, who had been installed as "mayor" by the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which, with NATO as an ally, had fought the Serbs and now considered themselves the legitimate government of Kosovo.
The glitch was that the UN Security Council had created UNMIK precisely to set up that government, and I was the new UN administration’s first representative to arrive in town. I was, moreover, the municipal administrator, the new mayor, as far as the UN was concerned.
Mr. Gashi and I, nevertheless, over the ubiquitous cups of jasmine tea, got along very well, largely thanks to the excellent work of the British military. Once illegal logging threatened the forests, so Major Parry got his guys to stop them, and together we worked out a licensing system. When the KLA authorities started issuing Kosovo license plates, there was a mini power struggle; the UN was supposed to do these things. It was dealt with at central level by Kouchner for the UN and Thaci for the KLA, under the watchful eyes of the NATO countries.
We municipal administrators for Pristina Region met regularly and compared notes. The KLA initiatives could be observed on the ground everywhere, and we endeavored to coordinate our response. The matter of the legitimate authority to issue marriage certificates arose first in one of my municipalities, Podujevo. Sandra, the Kenyan regional legal officer, drew up the vows. Check out the photo. Mr. Gashi (white shirt) and I (in suit and tie holding document) presided at the wedding, a huge event as the first marriage in Kosovo since the war. Besa (behind Gashi) interpreted the vows. Major Parry (in camouflage uniform next to the young couple) and the British contingent colonel (back to camera bottom left in camouflage) represented KFOR.
Besa was, and is, a musician. Like so many other interpreters, she had just filled a need by accepting requests to interpret, mainly for the press during the war. We worked together for several months. It was fascinating, as an interpreter myself, to be on the other side of interpretation. In dozens upon dozens of meetings, I relied entirely on her to communicate with Gashi and all other local officials. Together, often with Judy and Major Parry, we visited and comforted the victims of horrendous crimes, tried to settle squatting incidents, and attempt to address complaints of every sort. She was of precious assistance and I thank her so much for that! Just think: If it had been Afghanistan today instead of Kosovo 2000, she would be one of those facing today’s horrors.
Jock Covey, Kouchner’s main deputy, found my memo about coordinating language services and asked me to leave civil administration to set up an UNMIK HQ language office. Posting job announcements, having no functioning phone, combing through resumés, testing and retesting, cross-checking evaluations given by one linguist with the opinions of others to avoid friends just getting friends hired, all that with power outages in the frozen winter (after years in nice and warm Africa!), initially with no office, no furniture, computers or printers, it was trying but extraordinarily enriching. One of my colleague interpreters, Mr. Kabashi, asked me to teach at Pristina’s main university, where the students were tremendously unmotivated in the freezing classroom. I think Kabashi probably made them come.
I was a pampered international civil servant, of course, compared to those who had endured the war and were then surviving best they could through the peace. Before leaving Kosovo in April 2000, I conducted training of UNMIK police interpreters in all Kosovo regions. They shared their stories of how, when the UN police questioned someone, they as interpreters were accused by their fellow Kosovars of being traitors. They would ask me what to do when the person spoke directly to them, as countrymen, not as interpreters. I would remind them they wear two hats, that of someone receiving a United Nations salary, but more importantly also that of a local citizen who needs to look out for their own safety and that of their families.
I am writing as David, not as an officer of AIIC USA. I will nevertheless mention that AIIC USA did join a petition to U.S. Secretary of State Blinken in defense of interpreters in Afghanistan. Now, I shutter to think of those caught up in the hell of war unfolding before our eyes.
I should say "humour," as this blog post by Count Smorltalk is a quick trip to European English Land. Click to the right to read the article about an excellent book on the above important subject for interpreters. All interpreters must master the art of taking notes for consecutive. Count Smorltalk is quite funny but has dealt nicely with a serious topic. Andrew Gillies' book on note-taking for consecutive lays out nicely the basic concepts I learned back in the eighties, and then adds a few. Read this article for fun. Then go and get Gillies book for the serious stuff. Then practice like crazy to master consecutive.
Are you a freelancer like me? Ever wanted a steady job? Well, these stats are for salaried T/I. Freelancers are not included.
How many employee interpreter/translators do you think there are per 1,000 population? My guess had always been we are about 1/10,000. Well, combined employee T&I is about 1/1000. So with freelancers we are far more.
The median hourly rate was $25.16.
The average annual salary - again not including freelancers - for T/I was $52,330 in May 2020 and across all occupations $41,950.
We in AIIC helped to distribute this poll carried out by Camille Collard of ESIT (Ecole Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs). Out of a hefty sample, 850, in 19 countries, less that 25% were from ourside Europe and 87% were freelancers.
An article in The Guardian describes platforms where you move about, and the volume of people's voices varies according to the distance separating you. The idea is to overcome the rigid format of Zoom-type environments. People can talk at the same time. You choose your avatar. Be a fox, a spaceman, your own likeness. I haven't tried it yet. Has anyone else?
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.