Lost in…Interpretation?

4 Dec

Bérengère Sim

“I need a Spanish interpreter and a Russian one.” My heart stopped beating as my manager looked straight at me and said, “You’ll be interpreting at the media stand for a Spanish swimmer”. Ok, stay calm. There is absolutely no need to panic. As the interview started, I turned on my Spanish brain and hoped that neither journalist nor athlete could hear my heart thudding against my rib cage. Each question and correct interpretation boosted my confidence and, if I may say so myself, I did quite a good job. And so went my first interpretation at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this summer.

Interpreting is a lot harder than it seems. I for one thought it couldn’t be so bad – after all I had been an interpreter for the majority of my life, being the go between for my non-English speaking French relatives and non-French speaking Scottish relatives at all sorts of family gatherings. I was proven wrong: journalists and athletes will not simply talk slightly louder than normal and laugh all the time if you get a question wrong and no one understands. As an interpreter, you have to be able to think extremely quickly, and I don’t mean simply knowing every single word that has anything to do with a pentathlon (some of which I didn’t know in English or French, much less Spanish). I mean when the Uruguayan chef de mission strolls up to you wondering what kind of flower is in that vase over there and you have absolutely no idea what it is in any language and have frankly never had the inclination to find out.

Jokes aside, it is an extremely rewarding experience. At every question or answer understood by either party comes a rush of adrenaline. It feels good knowing you’ve helped two people (or more sometimes) understand one another. You break the language barrier. Also, it carries a lot of responsibility – and power – since you are the only person who understands everything. In both professional and non-professional situations alike, interpreters are essential. Although, at the Youth Olympics, some learnt this fact the hard way – other colleagues didn’t quite appreciate how useful we were until they desperately needed us. As it so happens, shouting “Electrocardiogram!” at the top of your lungs doesn’t mean the Senegalese athlete will understand.

Some people think that interpreting is eventually no longer going to be as important a profession with technology taking over. But lets be honest here – when I type into Google translator “Without interpreters, the world would be done for” and it comes out with “Sans interprètes, le monde serait fait pour” I am clearly 100% right. That made no sense whatsoever. Point proven – a machine can never replace a human in this case. Some wise words for aspiring interpreters: do not be intimidated by the monster that is technology.

As for my experience? Well, I am the first to admit that I didn’t memorise all the vocabulary that was given to us in the first week but I came to realise it was more a spur of the moment thing. I mean, Bougainvillaea (those cheeky flowers) wasn’t on the list and I would have needed that. Just remember, language students, whatever you do, whether interpreting at a conference or writing that history essay on Louis XIV, do not replace your brain with Google Translator when lost in translation.


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