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How Those Incredible Interpreters Do It

Part 2: A freelance language interpreter tells us about his profession.

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

I have always been fascinated by language interpreters. I wrote in the teaser of my first post on the topic (see here) that we often take the work of interpreters for granted, and yet they accomplish one of the most difficult linguistic tasks humans can undertake. They are special bilinguals par excellence. Several years have gone by since that post and what better way to come back to it than to find out about the profession by interviewing an interpreter. Iain Whyte, who heads an interpreting and translation agency in the Paris region (see here), grew up speaking both English and French. He has been active all of his life as a language professional, be it in the written or the spoken modality, and has very kindly accepted to answer my questions.

In what way did growing up bilingual and bicultural help you become a professional interpreter?

I was born in India of a French mother and a British father, and lived there for about nine years. My parents used the one person-one language approach (see here) and when we left, I was fully bilingual, although slightly more dominant in English due to my English schooling there. I then spent the next ten years in boarding schools in England but lived in France four months of the year where my parents had settled.

I went to university in France, first Paris Nanterre University and then Sciences Po, the Paris based research university in the social sciences, and had no problem fitting in. The grounding I received there in politics and economics, and my fluency in my two languages, were a good starting point to provide translating and simultaneous interpreting services to business corporations, NGOs, local governments, and so on.

We have all seen photos of interpreters in booths or at the back of conference rooms doing simultaneous interpretation. What is involved and how difficult is it?

It involves interpreting what a person is saying in real time, that is, as the person is speaking. It requires a high degree of concentration, which explains why we work in teams of two or three, each team-member doing a 20- to 30-minute shift before handing over to a colleague. You have to get used to speaking and listening at the same time, a skill you gain through practice and experience. It calls for concision and clarity of expression, as well as synthesizing and analytical skills. Obviously, being specialized in the topic or area of expertise involved is a necessity.

What other aspects of simultaneous interpretation are special?

You have to be quick at finding equivalences for expressions and sayings. You have to keep up with the speaker no matter how fast he or she speaks, and identifying in part with the speaker is important. One of the most difficult challenges is interpreting jokes, whose power often lies in a play on words which is difficult or sometimes impossible to render in another language.

Can you explain what consecutive interpreting is and how it is done?

During consecutive interpreting, the speaker stops every 1–5 minutes, usually at the end of a “paragraph” or complete thought, and the interpreter then steps in to render what was said into the target language. A key skill involved is note-taking, since few people can memorize a full paragraph in one hearing without loss of detail. Many professional interpreters develop their own “ideogramic” symbols, which allows them to take down not the words but the thoughts of the speaker in a sort of language-independent form.

Consecutive interpreting is more laborious than simultaneous interpreting as it slows the proceeding down. All participants in a meeting have to wait for the interpreter to stop speaking before they can resume their exchange. In addition, for those who understand both languages, source and target, it means hearing the discourse twice.

What is whispered interpreting (chuchotage) and how is it different from the above?

Whispered interpreting is the same as simultaneous interpreting but it does away with any equipment such as a booth, microphone, and headset. The interpreter sits next to his/her client(s) and literally whispers the interpreted message.

Many interpreters have a source and a target language (e.g. English into French). Is that your case or do you interpret as easily in both directions?

Because of my family background and linguistic experience as a child, I’m able to interpret as easily in both directions. This sometimes gives me a competitive advantage over others, particularly when clients don’t know into which language (e.g. English or French) the interpretation will be required.

How do you prepare yourself before taking on an interpreting job?

First of all, I accept interpreting assignments only in my domains of expertise. In addition, my clients usually provide me with preparatory material such as presentations, PowerPoint slides, reading lists, speaker profiles, statistics, and so on. I also make a point of keeping abreast of the latest developments in my areas of expertise by reading the generalist and specialist press.

Some speakers are easier to interpret than others. Can you tell us what aspects of speech output facilitate your task?

The speaker’s rate of speech flow is important: it mustn’t be too slow or too fast! In fact, we interpreters have the same concerns as ordinary listeners regarding the clarity, pace and quality of the speaker’s discourse. The speaker’s ability to summarize his or her thoughts clearly and concisely from time-to-time is also much appreciated.

With the advent of modern communication technology (video and voice interaction over the web), how has your job changed?

We can now interpret meetings online without having to travel, and we can do so at any time of the day and night, e.g. interpret a speech by Donald Trump given at 2 a.m. French time (8 p.m. US time). And during conferences and events, our interpreting also benefits people who are not physically present in the same venue.

Tell us about the work you do for France 24, the international news and current affairs television network based in Paris?

It involves interpreting during live radio or TV broadcasts while the event is actually taking place (state ceremonies/visits, parliamentary debates, speeches, etc.). It also involves interpreting pre-recorded material, notably interviews with celebrities, politicians, and so on. It requires good background knowledge of international and domestic politics and of the personalities involved. Round-the-clock availability and quick responsiveness to ongoing events is also necessary.

You have also interpreted for politicians including former French President François Hollande and current President Emmanuel Macron. How stressful is it?

It is no more stressful than interpreting “ordinary” people, but we are clearly aware of the risk of causing a faux pas or even a diplomatic incident if we use the wrong terms and generate misunderstandings.

Finally, what is an interpreting nightmare you have?

My worst nightmare is a speaker who thinks he/she is speaking clearly but is, in fact, not clear at all. These are the kind of moments when you have to be creative and give a semblance of sense to something that is devoid of meaning. Fortunately, this happens rarely!

Photo courtesy of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

  • For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, click here.
  • François Grosjean's website.
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