Spare a Thought for the Interpreter

Any journalist, businessman, NGO worker or academic working in a country where they don’t speak the local language will know that a good interpreter is worth their weight in gold.

As crucial as these individuals are to the functioning of any international mission, summit or news bureau, their contribution generally goes unnoticed. As this editorial from The Guardian puts it:

They are in almost every shot yet they pass unnoticed, discreet facilitators at the elbow of power, perpetual outsiders. They are on the soundtrack of the post-communiqué press conference, and the monotone accompaniment of the dreary images of international gatherings, voices threading mechanically through anger and joy alike. But these latter are lesser mortals than the hand-picked interpreters at the ear of every head of delegation making the round of economic, political and military summits, three of them to every world leader, rotating through long meetings, tense bilaterals and tedious dinners. They are charged with conveying not a mere translation but an understanding of the nuance of every exchange.

In a rare incidence of an interpreter actually making it into the by-lines, the man giving the simultaneous interpretation for Colonel Gaddafis rambling speech at the UN Summit in New York last month collapsed 75 minutes into the podium-hogging monologue, screaming ‘I can’t take it any more!’ Link here. Apparently the interpreter lost the strength to continue around the point at which Gaddafi embarked on his explanation of how the Israel-Palestine conflict could be solved by a single state called ‘Isratine’.

And this leads into my other point: interpreters must also subjected on occasion to a level crushing tedium that I suspect it would be difficult for ‘internationals’ like me to fully appreciate. ‘It’s the stupidest job in the world’ one ex-interpreter told me. For him, the daily ennui of translating the same banal, rambling and sometimes completely moronic interview questions became too much for him to bear, and he moved on to other things. It must be truly galling to hold two higher degrees, speak two South Asian languages and four dialects fluently and to spend most of the time using these to ask questions such as ‘where can you buy toilet paper round here?’

Being an interpreter, whether at international summits or out in ‘the field’ is a pretty thankless job at the best of times. Perhaps it’s time that the UN or news bureaus came up with an international ‘Interpreters’ Day’ on which these men and women can come out from the shadows and be publicly thanked for their contribution. But in the meantime I urge all those who use their services – no matter how bad your day is going, whether you are sitting up a mountain being lashed with rain or stuck in an interminable meeting in stuffy office – to spare a thought for your interpreter!

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One Response to “Spare a Thought for the Interpreter”

  1. interpreting is the worst job in the world. and both of my former expat colleagues know just how much i detested it when our much-too-good interpreter was unable to! it’s not just thankless job (which it actually is in our case), but mind numbing and oh so so so boring!

    also, speaking of interpreters i think it’s plain wrong that foreigners who don’t speak the local language are provided with interpreters when in the “third world” but when a (very qualified and capable) non-english speaker wants a job in the west, them not being able to speak english is just not something “development” and “peacebuilding” organizations can deal with. i say this because i know of a case where a job was given to another non-english native speaker because the former ‘may not speak english very well’, when the latter too was under the same spell. only she was a western european and the former an east asian.

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