I’m glad Lynn Visson’s LRB Diary about being an interpreter is available even to nonsubscribers, because otherwise I’d be tempted to quote the whole thing. As it is, I’ll just pick out enough morsels to intrigue you into following the link:
The six booths correspond to the UN’s six official languages: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. International organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also use these languages at their conferences. But the most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is no theft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.
…Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad. Going on automatic pilot can be dangerous. You can never be sure that a statement you’ve heard a thousand times won’t turn out differently the next time you hear it. You translate the statement you expected to hear and find yourself congratulating the chairman on his excellent work when in fact the speaker was expressing condolences to the chairman’s country on the losses suffered during a major earthquake. In a second you switch gear: ‘Therefore, I congratulate the distinguished delegate … on the extraordinary way his country has coped with the disaster which has struck the nation.’
…When the interpreter has absolutely no idea of the meaning of a sentence, the solution is, short of shutting off the microphone and bursting into tears, to stay neutral. Most people tend to repeat themselves, and there is a good chance that in the next sentence the speaker will repeat the idea in a more intelligible manner. Specialised knowledge too is a problem. A UN interpreter is lost if he hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in international affairs, but he also has to have a broad knowledge of subjects ranging from climate change and oil and gas investments to international trade law, terrorism, Aids, stem cells and human rights, and the new terminology these fields acquire daily. For the interpreter into English the responsibility is even greater, as this is the language most frequently picked up by the media. Idiom is another issue. The English until hell freezes over comes out in Russian as after it rains on Thursday, and I had egg on my face as I sat down in a puddle. Confronted with a completely incomprehensible saying, the interpreter does well to say: ‘And in my country we have a proverb appropriate to this occasion.’
And don’t miss the “misgivings” story!
Also, for those who might be interested: Harrassowitz is having a sale.