Articles on translation and interpretation

Great conference!
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Great conference! (didn't understand a thing...)
The audience is expectant. Everything, from the roster of stellar speakers to the poster-bedecked walls, stunning flower arrangements and smartly uniformed hostesses, augurs that the event will be a success. At last, the meeting commences.
But wait! Something is happening... Is it possible that the Nobel prize winner at the rostrum is talking gibberish? A handful of people clap enthusiastically while another lot sits looking bewildered. As it begins to dawn on people that the disjointed ramblings issuing from their headsets are not the precise words of the illustrious speaker before them, heads turn toward the back of the room where an interpreter labors away, churning out his own version of the eminent lecturer's talk.
Meeting gone awry? Organization of the conference was perfect in almost every way. As this nightmare scenario - all too often a reality - shows, poor interpreting can torpedo conference proceedings, tarnishing the organizers' image in the process. Repercussions for the host country's image and prestige of guest speakers constitute further collateral damage, the ultimate victims, of course, being the conference participants themselves.
Yet international meetings are a fact of life. Globalization means business is done worldwide, and while English has arguably become the world's de facto lingua franca (giving rise to the truism that the universal language is bad English) individual language skills may not always measure up in a situation, such as an international event, where a precise understanding is essential.
Such circumstances demand a common denominator, some equalizing force that can enable the linguistically challenged to take part on an equal footing with more linguistically accomplished participants. In the hands of skilled conference interpreters who capture and convey essential nuances, such "language intermediation" permits immediate comprehension and excellent cross communication, the litmus test of a successful event.
So what differentiates good conference interpreters from a host of other polyglots? People who can rattle off a foreign language draw admiration from the many who stumble when asking for a beer and snacks in a foreign country, but the ability to speak more than one language is in itself no guarantee of interpreting aptitude since the capacity to listen to a language and speak in another simultaneously requires a separate set of skills. (In other words, if your nephew who has spent a few years abroad studying a foreign language seems like the perfect choice to interpret the annual meeting of the board of directors of your company, think again.)
The role of the conference interpreter is to hear and understand what a speaker is saying, process that information and convey it to the audience in a different language. An interpreter's skill lies in knowing how to avoid literal translation while conveying the underlying meaning. This skill is particularly important when faced with an unclear or disorganized speaker. Unraveling the gist of a talk hastily or chaotically presented involves separating the wheat from the chaff, culling the essence of what the speaker means to say amidst a flurry of verbiage, a process often performed by the interpreter at very high speed. Indeed, the stress often associated with the profession is a product of the intense concentration required.
In addition to their interpreting skills, savvy interpreters know the idiomatic and colloquial expressions of the languages to and from which they interpret, and are familiar with the cultures to which those languages pertain. Equivalent expressions can be expressed quite differently in different languages. The proverb "más vale prevenir que curar", if translated literally ("it is better to prevent than to cure") would probably be understood by an audience, but sounds more authentic and retains its original punch when translated as: "a stitch in time saves nine". On the other hand, a literal translation of "a Dios rogando y con el mazo dando" ("begging God and wielding the mallet") would undoubtedly leave listeners perplexed, whereas "God helps those who help themselves" would instantly be understood.
Technical vocabulary is another pitfall. Truly professional conference interpreters devote long hours to familiarizing themselves with the subject matter and technical terminology for conferences ranging from anything like aluminum extrusion to railway safety, or the gamut of medical subjects. As in any other profession, experience shows. Curiously, serious organizations that go to great lengths to recruit highly qualified external consultants with glowing CVs think nothing of bargain hunting when looking for interpreters who are expected to provide a faithful rendition of information on which the organization's image depends. Such offhandedness can prove calamitous. The prestigious international meeting on artificial insemination where "frozen semen" was translated as "marineros congelados" ("frozen seamen") by an insouciant interpreter, is a case in point.
As in every profession there is a learning curve, but hiring interpreting neophytes who gain experience on the job at the organizers' expense can prove costly. A mediocre interpreter may do a passable job when the subject matter is not too demanding, but a skilled professional interpreter will ensure greater clarity and capture nuances that someone less experienced may miss. Even apparently non-technical subjects can be marred by blunders committed by a poor interpreter - the interpreter who referred to the architect Mies van der Rohe as "la señorita van der Rohe" is an example - proving that a knowledge of general culture is essential to good interpreting too
If, then, interpreting is the communication lifeline enabling an audience to follow a meeting and actively participate, why do organizers cut corners when shopping around for the professionals who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that communication will flow and the message be accurately conveyed? The figures are surprising. According to sources in the sector *, the tab for a gala dinner organized for 400 people attending a conference would be 32,000 euros. Flowers alone would cost 2,700 euros. Last but not least, a midmorning coffee break with croissants, at a cost of 12 euros per person, would come to a whopping 4,800 euros, over five times the cost of two professional conference interpreters working for a full day.
Seen from this perspective, the percentage of total cost represented by interpreters' fees is trifling. Yet the same organizers who agonize over menus and go to great lengths to plan embellishments for their meeting in painstaking detail are often surprisingly casual about finding the professionals who are critical to the success of the entire event.
On the one hand, reluctance to pay for first-rate professional interpreters reflects a general lack of understanding of what it is that interpreters do. Interpreter training, both formal (advanced and postgraduate studies; EU-sponsored training) and non formal (further research into specific topics and preparation of the subject matter of each meeting) is a time-consuming process which distinguishes top professionals in their field from a whole underclass of interpreting wannabes who lack the technique and the dedication required to build up genuine professional expertise. Organizers who throw up their hands in horror at the thought of what interpreting services will cost them would do well to consider the unremunerated extra days prior to the conference itself which are devoted to reviewing past notes, poring over documents and otherwise researching and becoming familiar with the subject matter and terminology which interpreters will be responsible for conveying clearly and accurately to experts in that field.
International organizations by and large are aware of the pitfalls of poor interpreting, and avoid this risk by hiring only experienced professionals for their meetings. The U.N., IMF, World Trade Organization, and European Institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council of Europe), to name a few, look primarily to AIIC, the Geneva-based International Association of Conference Interpreters, with 2,600 members worldwide (over 80 of whom are in Spain), to find staff or freelance interpreters for their needs. Because membership in AIIC, an organization which not only upholds interpreting quality but promotes favorable working conditions to this end, is contingent on endorsement of each interpreter's language combinations through a form of peer review, standards in the association are high. A minimum number of days' experience is required of candidates to AIIC, further ensuring quality.
(*) Figures provided by GRUP SERVEIS, Conference Organizers
A Thumbnail Guide to Interpreting
Interpretation can take different forms. The usual image that springs to mind is that of simultaneous interpretation, also sometimes -- though not entirely accurately -- referred to as simultaneous translation, in which interpreters, sitting in a soundproof booth speak into a microphone, transmitting the content of what they are listening to through headphones in another language, in real time.
In consecutive interpretation the interpreter takes notes while the speaker is talking and renders the content of what has been said when the speaker finishes, although for this purpose talks are broken up into smaller segments to facilitate the interpreters' task and avoid boredom amongst the listeners, who have to sit through the original version of the talk delivered in a language they do not understand. In this case sound equipment may be limited to a handheld microphone, depending on the number of participants and size of the room.
Simultaneous interpretation is preferred whenever possible because of the fluidity and immediacy it affords, although consecutive interpretation may be required where installation of sound equipment is impracticable. The major drawback of consecutive interpretation is that it takes twice as long, since there is a wait while interpretation is provided, meaning that effective meeting time is halved. Another form of interpreting is "chuchotage", a kind of hybrid technique in which the interpreter, sitting beside or behind the listeners, whispers the interpretation directly to them while the speaker is talking. Because sound equipment is not used, this form of interpreting is only feasible for one or two listeners at a time.
About the authors
Virginia Skrobisch and Edwina Mumbrú are members of Agrupación de Intérpretes de Barcelona (AIB), a Barcelona-based organization founded by professional conference interpreters with extensive experience working in the public and private sector throughout the European Union. AIB was created with the aim of bringing to the domestic market the same rigorous standards of interpreting quality demanded by international organizations. All AIB members are AIIC professionals.

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