What It’s Like to Be A Professional Interpreter


Ashley Zhao, Staff Writer

When you think of interpreters, what probably comes to mind are courtroom scenes from movies where interpreters sit in sound-proof booths interpreting in real-time to government officials below.

But in actuality, interpreters often have to do their jobs in private closed-door meetings called “bilateral interpreting”, explained Barry Slaughter Olsen, a professor of translation and interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“It’s a very real situation when certain meetings just have a limited number of people in a room and those people are sworn to secrecy,” Olsen stated.

Even before anyone arrives at a meeting, terms are agreed upon in advance and agendas are meticulously negotiated and outlined, which can range from arms reduction to economic cooperation and water rights. Other things must be decided before a meeting begins as well, like whether or not recording is allowed, if records can be kept, and the people who will attend. When interpreters do arrive and position themselves, you’d think they’d be in between whichever diplomat they’re translating for, as they can hear much better. But since a majority of meetings occur in front of the press, interpreters must sit off to the sides as not to be in the center of attention or appear in press photos. By sitting on the sidelines, interpreters can easily be cropped out of pictures to be published later.

When interpreting, there are two styles of interpretation that can be used: simultaneous and consecutive. When using the most common style in diplomatic situations, consecutive interpretation, interpreters will wait until their speaker pauses before translating. In instances where the speaker does not stop talking, interpreters will rely on note-taking. Instead of translating word for word, interpreters will remember specific ideas, jot them down using symbols, and then translate those ideas accordingly. Each interpreter has their own system for notetaking and creating symbols that would be most useful in a meeting. For instance, if two diplomats were discussing dolphin-safe tuna fishing, DFL could be used to represent ‘Dolphin Friendly Label’, and the letters ‘TU’ in a box would represent caught tuna. Simultaneous interpretation generally involves earpieces and microphones, with interpreters working in a soundproof booth.

For private meetings, “we can employ what we call chuchotage—which means whispering in close proximity to third parties in French,” Olsen said. However, simultaneous interpreting is not ideal due to the strain it can put on interpreters. Not only does whispering for a long time damage your vocal cords, but it can also be hard for the speaker to hear because of ambient noise like ventilation. Interpreters must also figure out the optimal decalage, which translates to “ear-voice span” in French, referring to the optimal time that an interpreter starts translating after the speaker starts to talk. But the further back in the speaker’s speech the interpreter is, “the more the interpreter has to keep in short-term memory,” Olsen said, ”They’re listening and processing as they’re interpreting.”

Things like grammar, syntax, and tone may also be put at risk if an interpreter translates too closely to what the speaker is saying. Furthermore, interpreters are prone to fatigue and burnout, which will hit at around thirty minutes of straight interpreting. At this point, interpreters will usually switch out with one another to avoid risking their well-being.

If a conversation gets emotional, interpreters “are not meant to be mediators, our only job is to stay true to the message of the speaker,” explained Olsen. “If someone becomes rude or angry, or threats are made, then we’re supposed to interpret those threats faithfully.” However, if a speaker is to gesticulate while they speak, it is not the interpreters’ job to imitate their movements when they translate. If a joke is made to lighten the mood, it can be lost in translation because words often sound completely different in other languages and are some of the most difficult things to interpret. There’s not much you can do, but there’s an anecdote about an interpreter who, when faced with an untranslatable joke, simply stated, “The speaker has shared a joke, it is untranslatable, please laugh now.”

It is difficult to juggle the many things that interpreters face every day in order to interpret well and accurately, but “this job is important because it’s what makes communication possible between countries and people,” said Olsen. “I’ve been at it for 25 years, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Photo Courtesy of STUFF.CO.NZ