Reflections on the art of interpreting

“I translate verbatim and in the first person. To add or omit anything would distort the dialogue. I have to find the right words and register, but I’m also required to mirror emotion and intonation. Silences are important, too; they are all part of how we converse. The way words are delivered changes a whole message. You feel a bit like an actor at times. I once spoke for a doctor accused of manslaughter who was so desperate to prove his innocence. For that day, I felt that I became him.”

I read Lauren Shadi’s article – ‘Experience: I’m a translator for criminals and the voiceless’ – in The Guardian recently and all I could think was – This is what I would love all interpreters to know!

You stop being you when you interpret for someone; you become the other person in a language they don’t speak. That is the essence of interpreting – your function as an interpreter is to transfer a message accurately from the speaker to the person listening, and that message should be totally free of your personal reactions or opinions.

The part I find most difficult about interpreting is the theatrics – jumping around excitedly because the speaker is jumping around excitedly is weird for me because I naturally want to be invisible. But conversely I’m most invisible when I most closely mirror the speaker in language chosen, tone of voice and movement.

I find interpreting tiring (and exhausting for long periods) but it is incredibly exciting and rewarding too. This article reminded me of some of the challenges of interpreting – it is emotionally draining to recount an experience which was disturbing or upsetting for the person speaking, and a great deal may hang on your choice of best fit for words or register or culturally specific information.

But at the same time this article reminded me of the joy of interpreting, the rush of having to think on your feet in real time and getting it right, being able to be a voice for the voiceless, or ears for someone who would otherwise be excluded from the conversation. That’s something that money can’t buy!

This post was originally published on the 10th of March 2020 and has been transferred from my previous blog (Brazil from the outside in hosted by Blogger) after some technical difficulties with the site.

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