Welcome to my new students

Thursday and Friday this week marked the start of this years introduction to interpreting course at the University of Bergen. So I would like to say welcome to my students. Welcome to an interesting course. I hope this will be a term filled with refections on communication, interpreting, ethics and language.

In this blog you can find posts relating to issues we’ve discussed during class. All those posts are marked with tag “TOLKHF“. Please feel free to discuss or ask questions.

You may also find my list “30 days on interpreting” interesting. I’m half way through now. You can view the list here.

Interpret everything – or not…

Mary from AIB Interpreters guest blogged at The Interpreter Diaries about Franz Pöchhackers presentation at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A line in her post inspired me to write about what it is to interpret everything.

a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.

In most guidelines or professional codes for interpreters, there is a paragraph or article on interpreting “everything”. In the Swedish one‘s it says: Under tolkningen skall en auktoriserad tolk återge all information så exakt som möjligt (a certified interpreter shall, when interpreting, render all information as exactly as possible), and in the Norwegian one: Tolken skal tolke innholdet i alt som sies, intet fortie, intet tillegge, intet endre. (the interpreter shall interpret the content of everything that is said, conceal nothing, add nothing, change nothing).

In her Sense Theory, Dancia Seleskovitch says roughly that the interpreter grasps the sense beyond words in one lanugage and clads that sense in the words or the other lanugage. Thereby she elegantly tackles both the problem of word-for-word translation and also what exactly “everything” is. But “everything” is so much more than just the meaning or the sense of the utterance. If you take “everything” beyond utterances that are directed to the interlocutors, for instance.

There is of course no answer to the question “what is everything?” and “should you interpret everything?”. But there are a few interesting reflections one can make. Firstly – when conference interpreting, do you interpret everything you hear through the microphone even if the comments were not made to the audience. Everyone who understands the language in question will also understand that private comment, is it therefore my duty to interpret that in order to put all the listeners on equal footing? Or should I understand it as private an not interpret it?

In a social setting, let’s say a medical appointment, the doctor’s telephone rings or a nurse enters the room. Should you interpret what you can hear of the telephone conversation or the exchange between the nurse and the doctor? A person with the same language as the doctor would have understood it. It’s not polite to eavesdrop of course, but fairly impossible not to hear if you’re sitting right next to a person engaged in another conversation.

Another thing about “everything” is innuendos or what you read between the lines. Sometimes interpreters and translators “explicitate” to explain something to their readers or listeners that isn’t immediately understandable from the interpretation or the translated text, but which was understandable for native speakers of the source language. But how much should you explicitate? Are you sure you read correctly between the lines? Would the speaker prefer it not to be spelled out directly?

Do you interpret “everything” and how much do you explicitate?

More about Sense Theory (Interpretive Theory) from Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Translation Studies here.
And more about Explicitation also from Routledge here.

Interpreters make mistakes

Kovács and Kováts have a blogpost on an interpreter making a mistake in the European Parliament Plenary session. Painful of course and possibly not very professional (I say possibly, because I don’t know the reasons behind it).

Many things influence interpreting quality, technology (sound quality, other technology, the speaker and the speaker’s delivery, and of course the interpreters proficiency, language knowledge, health and so forth). Still, needless to say interpreters make mistakes. One of the more infamous mistakes were made by the Japanese-English interpreter in the negotiations between President Nixon and Primeminister Sato in the textile conflict in 1970. Sato apparently replied to Nixon’s demand by saying in Japanese “Senshu Itasimashu”, literally meaning “I will do my best”, but with the more figurative meaning “I will look into it”. What the interpreter actually said is apparently not known, but Nixon went hope believing that he had a promise from Sato and when things didn’t happen as expected, Nixon got extremely upset and it sent Japan out in the cold for years to come.

As one of the bloggers in the meeting with the Hungarian Presidency said: “Interpreting is stressful because so much can be at stake”. Your interpreting may be the reason for somebody believing that he or she is dying when in fact it’s only a routine examination. Your interpreting may be the reason for deep misunderstandings between heads of states.

On the other hand it is also stressful because people used to interpreting will use the interpreter as a good excuse for not upsetting the counter party. If the other party’s reaction showed that he or she did not appreciate your comment you will immediately rephrase and add “I’m sure the interpretation got it wrong” – very handy excuse which most interperters will faithfully translate without comment.

But what can you do as a speaker to avoid mistakes?

1) Use your mother tongue more, i.e use interpreters more: If there is a constant demand for interpreting to and from a certain language the interpreters will get very skilled and more skilled people will train to become interpreters. On top of that you are probably a better speaker in your mother tongue.

2) Provide the interpreters with plenty of documentation and briefings: Rule of thumb: the more prepared the interpreter, the better the interpretation.

3) Pay your interpreters: Just as for any service or product, you pay for quality.

4) Demand trained interperters with good credentials: Interpreting is not something language students do for fun. Most professional interpreters have degrees or have passed certification or ackreditation tests. If an interpreter cannot show such professional credentials chances are you’re not dealing with a professional interpreters.

5) Complain: If you have done all the above and you are still not satisfied – complain. If you complain you have a chance to improve the interpreters preformance or understand the reason for why it did not work as expected.

And what do the interpreters do to avoid mistakes?

1) We prepare: Interpreters spend a lot of time preparing, reading up on back ground information, keeping generally informed, making word lists and so forth.

2) We help each other: At least if we are working in a team (unfortunately not very often for court, medical or social interpreters), colleagues help each other with terminology, figures and misunderstandings.

3) We are always honest with our mistakes: If we discover that we have made a mistake it is our duty to inform our customers. In simultaneous interpretation you will hear either “sorry, it should be…” or “the interpreters corrects…”. In court or social it is easier to interrupt and explain that a mistake was made.

4) We don’t take assignments that we are not trained for: In the interpreting Code of Ethichs it is very clearly stated that we should not accept an assignment that we are not trained for either linguistically or thematically. Of course we do not have to be trained lawyers to do court interpreting, but without basic knowledge of court we should not accept court interpreting for instance. The European Union spend much effort to train their interpreters in EU-matters.

Of course interpreters still make mistakes, but the lesson to be learned is to be attentive to it, and immediately correct it.

When is it right to refuse to interpret?

Translating and Interpreting has a recent post on what assignment you would decline on a moral or ethical basis. Would you for instance translate a user manual adapted to children for a rifle knowing that the target audience were children soldiers?

The translation guy’s blog started the discussion (based on input from a company presentation he had listened to) but discussed whether you would translate porn or any defense or military work.

For me as an interpreting teacher this is always an issue that comes up. Can we at some point say: no – this is my limit, I will turn off the microphone. Last autumn I taught a course on consecutive interpreting to already seasoned community interpreters, several of them mentioned the difficulty of translating very crude language or swear-words if you are deeply religious. They said they had several colleagues who would refuse to translate such things. I argued then and I have also argued earlier that insults and swearing is not an excuse to not interpret. People have the right to be angry and they have to their own language use. Although, culturally you may have to adapt the insults of course(e.g. Scandinavians use less insults with sexual connotations than southern Europeans).

Then there is of course the situation where your speaker may have a completely different conviction than yours. It may be political, religious or moral. You may not agree with your speakers very right or left wing political views, you may not share the same faith or you may not agree with the sexual abuser who is totally convinced that his behaviour is perfectly normal and that the abused woman is only a drama queen. It does not matter, they all have the right to a voice. I have a very personal relationship to my speakers, even if I don’t agree with their views I still put my heart into their story and interpret it the most faithfully I can. I have turned of the microphone to let out some steam though, but I’m convinced my different opinion did not show in my interpreting.

But what to do when it comes to situations where you find it absolutely impossible to interpret, where you believe that it’s morally, ethically or personally wrong?

First of all, on a very practical level I think that interpreting agencies have an obligation to send the right interpreter to the right place. You don’t send an eight-month-pregnant interpreter to interpret a case of sexual abuse of very young children, for instance. This happened to me once and I can tell you that it was not only awkward for me. I fulfilled my obligation to interpret of course but it was clearly a very bad matching of interpreter. Had my agency cared to ask about the nature of the interpretation or had they cared to tell me I would not have ended up there. The same goes for male interpreter to a gynaecologist and similar situations.

Secondly, you must decide beforehand if you are going to decline an assignment, you cannot do it ad hoc. It’s very unprofessional to do it on the spot. Either you decline beforehand or, if you’re already there you fullfil your obligation, but decide not to take that type of assignment again.

I have to say that in my whole career I have not had to decline one single assignment for moral or ethical reasons (I actually only know of one colleague who has done it, and I would have done the same in that case), I have declined assignments due to very bad working conditions though or clear breach of contracts from the hirers side, but that’s a different story.

Update: I have just noticed that this discussion is also going on at interpreting.info. The thread is here

Every word counts

I regularly write short columns for the Swedish journal “Språktidningen“. Recently, I wrote a column on how much every word counts, especially in asylum interviews and asylum hearings. I wrote:

Imagine that you are interpreting a first interview for an asylum seeker. The man says in French: Je suis allé au Port Nouveau” – you interpret: ‘I went to Port Nouveau’, since you have learned that the verb “aller” in French is equivalent to the Swedish term “go”. Later in the interview it becomes clear that the man has walked by foot to the Port Nouveau. The migrations officer becomes suspicious: “How exactly did you go to Port Nouveau? Before you just said that you went there, but now you say that you walked. What did you really do?” Immigration Services assesses whether people are telling the truth. It is important that you suddenly just change your story. With a bit of luck, this small incident is quickly solved, but what if it doesn’t? What if your interpreting is a contributing factor to that the man not assessed as credible.

A more light-hearted but not less clumsy example happened to me when I interpreted at a meeting where the English term “piracy” unexpectedly came up. Since piracy in the term of copying products and brands illegally was most in vogue at the time, I understood and interpreted it to its Swedish equivalent. Then “we” started discussing different ways of fighting this and I followed, until the speaker started talking about the use of different countries’ corvettes (small warship). Strange, to stop piracy with corvettes, I thought, before I realized that “we” talked about the Gulf of Aden and pirates at sea, a totally different term in Swedish.

The interpreter must therefore be alert to any ambiguous words. However, making a mistake is most likely not a question of life and death, as long as you clearly recognize that the mistake is yours and gives the correct translation.

My examples in the column is as I said definitely not an issue of life and death. But when I read this article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet I got a scary example of how important it may be. The article reads:

“The interpreter […] did not understand what I said,” says Ali Taleb. The statement that he had a cameraman with him when he filmed “Night of Baghdad”, is such a misunderstanding, because he often had camera man with him. But “Night of Baghdad”, he filmed himself. And the statement of a cameraman or not is now being used as evidence that Ali Taleb changed his story. The statement about the camera man gets completely out of proportion, says Clara Klintbo Skilje.

I couldn’t have given a better example myself of how important every word is.

The meaning of a word

I really liked this article on words that are like icebergs. When you think about it you can peel off layer after layer, and it’s not even sure one word means the same to you as it does to me, in fact it probably doesn’t. I wrote about Sapir-Whorf here, who claimed that your language affects the way you think (I simplify the reasoning of course), and in some way I DO believe that language (together with cultural heritage of course) affects the way you think. That’s why it may be so extremely difficult to grasp everything that lies beneath the surface, just as with the iceberg.

More on interpreting for friends

I have once again had my fair share of interpreting for friends in different situations. The network of public service interpreters and the habit of using such interpreters is not very well established in Belgium. Of course I’ll interpret when my friends ask me to, but it is a very interesting contrast to my every day interpreting job.

As a public service interpreter in Sweden I am called to, for instance, a clinic when a doctor needs my services in a consultation. Simply the fact that the clinic books me makes me more neutral in the clinic’s eyes, this is strengthened by the fact that I have the same ethnical background as most of the personel.

However, when interpreting for my friends, I arrive to the clinic with my friend/the patient, I have the same ethnical background as the patient. I have, in the eyes of the doctor, the same status as the patient’s husband, or sister or any other accompanying family member. The fact that I loose my official role also affects the interpreting. I wrote in an earlier blogpost that it’s more difficult to use the neutral interpreting “I” when you have a non-professional relationship with your client (e.g. interpreting for a friend), and when the other user of your interpreting service, in this case the doctor, does not perceive you as “a professional interpreter” because of your relationship to the patient; it’s very difficult to keep that neutral distance and professional tone.

Naturally, I should (and I do) struggle to keep my professional voice and I need to point out to the participants that I am a professional and imparital interpreter. However, this is so much easier when there is an existing service for public service interpreters, and when you are booked by the authority not by the patient or your friend.


Interpreters are regularly confronted with angry people. Most often, luckily, not people who are angry with the interpreter, but clients who argue with each other. People who use swearwords or words that you would never ever want to take in your mouth.
So, how do you deal with it? The sad truth is you have to be faithful to your speaker. If your client is angry, you have no right to tone that down, the counter party or parties have the right to know what was said in order to respond correctly.

Just remember that people of different cultures swear differently. In latin cultures many swear words are related to sex or genitals, whereas nordic cultures have more swear words relating to the devil or hell. And with new generations growing up swear words, just like slang, changes. So it may be good to brush up your swearing terminology from time to time.

This clip from Youtube shows Nicolas Farage, an EU-sceptic (to say the least), British MEP attacking Commission president Herman van Rompuy. The challenge when interpreting this is of course to trust that what you hear is truly what Farage is saying.

Me, myself and I in interpreting

As an interpreter you interpret in the first person. Anyone even remotely acquainted to interpreting will tell you that. It’s one of the first articles in any interpreting guidelines. The reason for using the first person when you interpret is that you are the voice of the person you interpret for. If you use the third person instead, for instance: “He says that he does not remember that day”, you take away the voice of that person and by taking away the voice you also take away some of his or her credibility.
Now, this is something I have never had any problems with. No problem to interpret in the first person, and I have interpreted in many different context both very formal (such as ministerial meetings) and very informal (such as house call with a midwife). The first person singular was never a problem, until I started interpreting for my friends. I live in a French speaking area and have friends who do not speak French, so from time to time I interpret for my friends, at the doctors, at the garage and so forth. And for the first time in my career it’s hard to use the first person. Instinctively, it seems, I use “my friend needs to…”, “Madame says that…”. As soon as I realize what I’m doing I stop of course, but then, unconsciously, I slip back to third person again.
I have no idea why this happen, I would guess that for the first time I interpret for people I know very well, and because of that it feels strange to be their voice. It does not bother me with complete strangers, but apparently it bothers me with people I know.

Professional responsibility, Camayd-Freixas

We’ve just discussed Eric Camayd-Freixas in class and his brave act after the Postville raid. You can go back to what I wrote in 2008 about Interpreter’s responsibility here. Back then, it was a hot topic among interpreters. There are also several clips on You Tube featuring interviews with Professor Camayd. I find this one very interesting, and this is the second part of it.