Noemi Wagner of Hungary began interpreting as a child. When her family moved to Prague she learned Czech quickly and interpreted for her parents. There were humorous moments that arose because a 9-year-old does not have the social, linguistic, or cultural awareness of a professional interpreter. But she loved that feeling of getting the message across and connecting people.
Another Hungarian interpreter, Monika Bognar, enjoyed the feeling of being able to communicate with people using the German she learned early in her life from relatives. Even so, interpreting wasn’t an obvious choice for her – she had a college degree in engineering. But as she was finishing school big political changes in Hungary brought an influx of foreign businesses and not many people spoke English then. Having spent a semester in the United States she spoke it well, and the pay for interpreting was good. She went to interpreting school.
The interpreters we see on stage or facilitating the connection of groups in person appear to be knowledgeable, essential links in important situations. And they are. The role places them in the limelight as experts with a sort of superpower, but when asked if their job has a sense of glamour about it they both laughed. They agreed that the best part, the magic, is when their minds go into a flow state and the translation of one language into another happens almost automatically, without willful thinking.
“I would say it’s like you become a robot,” Noemi says.
“You feel that you can do anything,” Monika says. “You don’t have fear, it just flows. Sometimes I translate things that ordinarily I don’t think I would even understand. I get the feeling that if I were sitting in the audience I don’t think I would have understood it, yet my mind translated it.”
Do interpreters have to get inside the heads of those they are interpreting for? If so, this could be challenging emotionally, possibly upsetting, and certainly draining.
“This is exactly what you do,” Noemi says. “You adjust yourself to the thoughts of that person. It’s almost as if you have to become that person.”
Monika explains that in her interpreting training she learned that there are three situations when an interpreter has the right to step outside of their role and put some distance between themselves and the words they are speaking by altering the way they phrase their translation. Normally interpreters translate and speak in the first person as if directly providing voice for the person being interpreted. But in the three exceptional situations an interpreter can and probably should shift to the third-person perspective:
1. When a person becomes hostile or violent.
2. When they use obscene, foul, or otherwise inappropriate language.
3. When they are speaking about something from a point of view that strongly violates the interpreter’s values.
An interpreter might also assist by requesting clarification from the parties involved. For instance, if a person tells a joke or uses a tone that might not be understood or makes an off-color remark in passing, the interpreter can ask them if this is definitely what they want to say or would they like to re-phrase. The interpreter may also explain the nature of the words to the other party, rather than just delivering them – like explaining that a culturally untranslatable joke is being told, without trying to provide a translation.
“But a lot of times I translate whatever is being said exactly,” Noemi says.
“Sometimes when I do that I notice people look at me strangely,” Monika says. “I read that interpreters who interpreted Donald Trump had trouble because his language was so simple that people thought their interpreting was just a poor translation.”
So which is more important, 100% accuracy at every moment, or effective flow of information with possibly some snap judgments about phrasing choices by the interpreter? Whatever the most correct choice is in theory, it seems safe to say that experienced interpreters have to develop instincts about how to handle different issues and make judgment calls based on their social skills at reading situations. The ultimate goal is accuracy in communication, but communication is complex.
Monika recalled a nightmarish early interpreting experience that seems, looking back, as if it could have driven her off her current career path. Thankfully it did not, and she can laugh about it now – but it does highlight the critical need for preparation as a collaborative step between an interpreter and their client.
“Many years ago I was asked to go to a press conference and basically I had no information and no idea what the conference would be about. But I thought I was such a good interpreter that I could do it. It was in my native language, Hungarian, but it was so fast, with so much information that I would not have even been able to repeat it in my own language, let alone in translation. I just stood there, tongue-tied, said a couple of words, and felt so ashamed. Of course my client was angry because he didn’t get any information about the conference.”
Ordinary mistakes during an interpreting session are not uncommon and an experienced interpreter tries to handle them gracefully, without panicking. For instance, an interpreter might not fully understand the context of a comment until a few sentences later, or they might struggle to hear or understand a particular person’s voice, sometimes just because of technology, like a faulty microphone. At moments like this it is completely acceptable for an interpreter to interject a comment, ask a question, or offer an alternative translation when they have sorted out the content.
Tips and best practices for working with an interpreter are borne out by the firsthand accounts of experienced interpreters like Noemi and Monika. Here are 4 of the most basic:
- Provide background materials for your interpreter well in advance of the event, preferably not just the night before, especially prepared speeches, lists of proper nouns and names, and any other known content details that could help them translate quickly, accurately, and without stress.
- Don’t direct your words to your interpreter; speak directly to those you are meeting with.
- Remember that your interpreter should not be expected or encouraged to contribute opinions to the discussion – they are only interpreting, and personal involvement is against interpreting protocol and stressful.
- Keep the discussion at a relaxed pace when possible, and include pauses and breaks. As skilled and quick thinking as your interpreter may be, interpreting nevertheless takes high levels of concentration and is exhausting. The optimal rate is about 100-110 words per minute, with fatigue setting in after about 30 minutes of intense interpreting.*
Deep into successful careers, Noemi and Monika love what they do and have not had assignments they regret taking. But both do have ideas of dream jobs they hope for.
“What I would like to do is interpret for big conferences about psychology or homeopathy,” Noemi says. “I have degrees in both of these areas, so I do a lot of translating and interpreting for webinars but I would love to do so for live conferences.”
Monika, who is also a yoga teacher, says, “I would enjoy interpreting for something along the lines of spirituality, such as for a famous spiritual leader, speaker, or master visiting Hungary to teach.”
Grit, intelligence, mental agility, and knowledge of languages and cultures are required to be a great interpreter. It’s a job with a lot riding on it every time an interpreter opens her mouth to translate, and yet it also clearly has qualities that keep people like Noemi and Monika excited about their jobs in spite of the challenges and stress involved. Even if it means that after they go home to relax they are still interpreting voices on the radio and television and dreaming in foreign languages.
Skrivanek finds, tests, and assigns only the finest professionals for the interpreting needs of our clients, and the jobs we have fulfilled range from personal tours of foreign countries, to courtroom testimonies, to United Nations conferences.
J. V. McShulskis
* Wired Magazine. Watch a video about how interpreting works here.