Confessions of an interpreter

 | Interpreter insights

There are many gifted linguists and translators who will tell you that they are simply not cut out to be interpreters. They can’t abide the idea of working under pressure, harnessing speech after speech to runaway presenters. Yet interpreters thrive on this kind of pressure. Perhaps it’s how we’re wired? Here is an inside look at the inner workings of interpreters and what drives their passion for their work:

Languages: a love affair

There is no one explanation for this attachment to languages. Perhaps interpreters were born to parents who spoke different languages or lived in countries where different languages were spoken. Maybe they took to languages at school and later honed their skills abroad. What really counts is a solid command of one’s mother tongue and a thorough understanding of the other learned languages. However they acquired their skills, people who make a living out of languages never stop learning and striving to improve.

Good days

We enjoy moments of soaring grace, when we are caught up and carried along by a speech that we get “inside of”. The interpreter’s art is to put her/himself into the shoes of the speakers and make their message his/her own. We have to slip into their persona, to sense what they will say and try to anticipate their thoughts with words they could not have chosen better themselves. There’s nothing quite like it!

The interpreter as artist

We convey the speaker’s message just like an actor but we work without a script. We hang on the speaker’s words just like the audience because we’re all hearing it for the first time. And yet, we have to be who we hear: we are the speaker and we are their voice. Now persuasive, at times hesitant, now jocular and then earnest. We have to think about our audience, too, but unlike the actor, we must not be seen. The delegates hear us and think they are hearing the speaker.

The skills

Interpreters need to convert what is said in one language into a cogent statement in another, untangling the cultural differences that bar comprehension. They must be able to pick up new vocabulary and assimilate new ideas in record time and – above all – tease out the core meaning and structure of a speech. Versatility is the watchword, even in highly specialized subjects. The speaker is never the same, nor is the place or the subject matter or the team of interpreters onsite. But one thing is immutable - we remain the soul of discretion.

Conferences

Conference follows conference and no two are quite the same. Like advertisements, they cover a wealth of material on numerous subjects, some enthralling to the enquiring mind and others an acquired taste. Conferences are a bit like books; they can beguile to a greater or lesser extent, some are readily accessible and some require an extra effort. Interpreters thrive on the variety and constant learning that come from interpreting at international conferences.

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Martine BONADONA
Member of Calliope in France