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.

Bloggers discuss interpreting with the Hungarian EU presidency

I stumbled over a link to the Hungarian EU-bloggers Kovács and Kováts. In their blog they link to a recorded meeting between the Hungarian presidency and some EU-blogger. Listening to the part on the interpreting and language regimes is sort of depressing for an interpreter. There seem to be more than one misunderstanding or prejudice regarding interpreting in the discussion, here I would like to adress a few of them.

Interpreters cost alot of money and you need a huge amount of interpreters for every meeting: Well, providing interpretation in booths with all the technology needed costs money. A free lance interpreter personally get just over 1/3 of the sum mentionned in the clip for one working day. The rest I would guess is technology, booths and so forth. You cannot hire a conference interpreter per hour. If you require that they produce high quality interpreting product in a wide variety of areas they need to prepare. So logically interpreters are hired per day. If you are a free lance conference interpreter based in Brussels you probably interpret 10-15 days a month, the rest of the time you spend preparing and training.

In a full regime (all 22 languages listened to and spoken) meeting in the EU you need 66 interpreters. You need them because interpreting is a highly complex cognitive task that you cannot keep doing beyond 40 minutes without becoming a really bad interpreter. So for a 3,5 hours meeting interpreters take turns, and they do so to deliver good interpreting.

Yes it’s alot of money but still a tiny amount of the administrative budget of the EU.

Interpreters are paid even if nobody uses them. Yes, luckily! Can you imagine how many skilled interpreters would like to take on assignments where you were only paid if your delegate was talking or listening to you? As if a journalist was only paid if somebody read the article. I book a day, prepare for it, mabye decline other missions and… don’t get a salary because the person who would use me was ill that day or decided not to say anything.

Ministers could say they do not want interpreting and reduce costs by using English: They could, but politicians are not elected for their language skills, they are elected for their political conviction and skill. Furthermore, they wouldn’t reach their own voters directly. Many meetings are webstreamed and they can be listened to by the greater public in every person’s mother tongue.

Outsource the interpreting and use interpreting via internet to reduce costs. Technology is not there yet. Tests have been made and meetings exist with distance interpreting (although not in the EU-institutions), the number of meetings is low however since the experience is not always positive. Interpreting via a telephone line is difficult enough, you don’t have access to the non-linguistic features of the speakers and the listening range is limited. If you want to do it on distance you take the interpreter completely out of the communicative event and the listening range is much worse. So you will not get that high interpreting quality you’re (hopefully)aiming for.

There are alot of rules for interpreting that meeting organisers have to follow. Well again, what type of interpreting quality are you aiming for? If you have one interpreter working for a whole day without breaks and food and sitting so that he or she cannot follow the meeting, you will get the interpreting you pay for. For a general overview of rules see AIICs professional standards

Which language do you work to and from. If you start to work for the European institutions you have a university degree, you must present at least three languages (mother tongue +2) and you have pass an ackreditation test. You work FROM your foreign laguages INTO your mother tongue.

What if your bilingual? Only a negligible group of people are bilinguals in the meaning that you have full mastery of all the domains in two languages without foreign accent (if you think that you are a true bilingual, just think about a word like colanderin your other languages, and if you can cope with colander, try picket line), and can interpret to them from all the other languages they work with(A-language in interpreting lingo). A slightly larger group is very near native and can work between two languages: the mother tongue and the B-language (very near native)

And what is a C-lanugage? A language you work from into your mother tongue only, a language that you know well (at least C2 in the Common European Framework, but that you cannot interpret into. Again simultaneous interpreting creates a huge cognitive load, knowing a language is not enough if you want to interpret into it. You NEVER work INTO your C-language.

Do interpreters use an interpreting software? I have blogged about it earlier – machine interpreting is not here yet. Interpreters get background information from the speakers (if we’re lucky), we use word lists, dictionnaries and (if we have internet access) the webb. But the only thing that provides the actual interpreting is the software contained in the human brain. There are no shortcuts.

Is English used as a medium language? If me and my colleagues in the booth don’t have for instance Slovak as working lanugage, do we use English as medium language then and interpret from English? Well, it depends – If we don’t have Slovak we have to find a booth that interprets from Slovak, a relay, but it doesn’t have to be English. Big relay booths are French, German, English and Spanish, but I regularly work on relay from the Danish booth as well, I have colleagues who prefer the Dutch booth as relay booth. Clearly, if only the German booth interprets from Slovak you have to use the German relay, but mostly it depends on your own language preferences.

If there is anything more I can clarify, please let me know.