(Source: Redemption Blues)
Develop a magpie instinct, picking up pieces of knowledge no matter how obscure, from Middle High German proverbs to solar panel technology, from condom thicknesses to mother boards.
Have a few stock quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare at your fingertips, as clients are fond of displaying their erudition (King Lear, Act One, Scene Four’s “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” an excellent solution for the perennial brain bender “the good is the enemy of the best”) and a few innocuous “filler” phrases when you need to play for time, taking that split second to dredge up the choice piece of vocabulary from the depths of your memory (a favourite of some being “We ignore this at our peril”). Avoid Spoonerism-prone expressions, such as “shed light on”. Once the penny has dropped, you will experience a pre-emptive shudder of mental mortification every time you contemplate using it.
Be prepared for the frustration of outsiders (especially those who should know better as they depend on your services on a daily basis) assuming that anyone with the most superficial of nodding acquaintances with languages being capable of doing your job. You may have a doctorate in nuclear physics (one of my colleagues does), but you are still pigeonholed as a linguist and looked down on accordingly. Of course, they are secretly jealous that they have been excluded from such a “cushy number”. “I could do that,” the glittering Eurojugend clones with their instilled sense of entitlement and superiority secretly believe behind their strained smile of absolutely insincere politeness. Whereas in truth even the perfectly bilingual are less likely to possess the rarefied aptitude than those brought up without such an advantage. This attitude is exacerbated by the fatuous claims printed as a marketing ploy on learning discs (“Learn Hausa in a week!”) so popular at the moment as holidaymakers contemplate alternative sunny climes. Worse, you are a parasite, an expensive frippery, a drain on taxpayers’ money, a glorified secretary, a menial to be shunted off to a cheap hotel miles away from the venue whilst those on an equal (or greatly inferior) footing in the official hierarchy are allocated doubles in situ (the cost of hiring fleets of coaches to ferry you back and forth is somehow mysteriously omitted from the calculation, what counts is the genuflection towards economising).
Acquire a taste for gin and tonic and always make sure you order doubles when it is your round. Insist on more than one slice of fresh lemon being slipped into the glass, even if the barmaid has to go to the fridge and retrieve the dimpled citrus.
Always respect the Magnus Magnusson principle (“I’ve started so I’ll finish”). If you embark on a sentence you are committed to finishing it or else you will undermine the confidence of your listeners. This is why it is never a good idea to echo the speaker when she or he says “We have a saying in Estonian that goes something like this and I’m not sure about the English equivalent…” (the advice in paragraph one notwithstanding). Waiting for a few seconds will allow you to determine whether a similar phrase does indeed exist in the target language and save you much grief. However, your voice must not waver in the meantime. Waiting just long enough without creating the impression you have lost the plot is a skill that can only be acquired with practice. Hesitation is not automatically equated with incompetence, but the line between keeping and losing your audience’s faith is fine indeed. If the chairperson is champing at the bit to grab the mike you can omit the last sentence or two provided they are merely closing platitudes and do not contain any information of substance. Alternatively, if you know the chairperson is listening to you direct you can pointedly carry on to the bitter end. Discretion is called for and familiarity with the chairperson’s personality does not do any harm.
Judicious editing is one of the most important aptitudes at your disposal and should be nurtured accordingly. Interpretation is not a mere slavish rendition of every word, but a distillation of the message, a processed essence purified of all extraneous verbiage, a concentrate of the speaker’s intentions. Ideally every utterance should be faithfully rendered (and the true interpreter will capture the speaker’s style and delivery as well as content), but this is not always possible. In that sense, interpretation is a highly pragmatic art. No matter how repugnant the views articulated might be to you personally, your presence is required as a conduit, a filter of concepts, a role, which does not entitle you to distort or maliciously interfere with the original message. The phrase “says the speaker” is handy in two instances: firstly as an exclamation mark to dissociate yourself with the content when the speaker has made a glaring error of substance (so that listeners are alerted to the fact that a lack of comprehension on your part is not to blame) and secondly to distance yourself from the most repellent of statements (although the latter should be used sparingly and many would argue that it is never acceptable to deploy it to voice a distaste, which is incompatible with our professional ethos). You communicate the thoughts and thought processes of others: you are only a participant in proceedings by default or proxy, an impartial witness, an arbiter of content at a linguistic level, but not a judge. If all else fails and you really have not understood either because the acoustics were poor (the sound cuts out with monotonous regularity or the expatiating customer has an irritating habit of turning round to joke with his friend in the row behind and the mike does not pick up the words clearly) or the point genuinely went over your head, there are two fallback tactics, leaving the offending word or phrase out altogether (which can prove fatal or impossible if everything hinged on that one component – all too often the case) or bluffing with a meaningless substitute (the indispensable padding phrase again). Clarification can always be requested by the delegates themselves. They have the advantage of being in a position to ask. You don’t. The true last resort is tactical mumbling. Speaking indistinctly won’t endear you to colleagues depending on your for relay, but mumbling the names (the problem usually arises because the individual giving the floor mangles the pronunciation so badly that only the most mentally agile, seasoned interpreter who can reel off the list of members of the body in question has a remote hope of deciphering them) or making a valiant attempt to mimic accurately the sound emanating from the chairperson’s lips at least opens the possibility that someone out there might be able to put two and two together.
In a spirit of collegial solidarity when (as will inevitably occur, and in the overwhelming majority of occasions unfairly) accusing eyes peer in the direction of the booth because a delegate regrets a slip of the tongue or unguarded remark and prefers to deflect attention onto the interpreters (in the knowledge that we are not allowed to answer back or rebut the charge), replace the “I heard over my headphones” or the “The interpreter fucked up” with “I’m sorry, but I must have misheard you” or “A wire got crossed somewhere” or “I don’t think I understood you correctly”. Never give them ammunition.
Always modulate. There is nothing more dreary than hearing a bored voice drone on through the headphones. Even if the topic is accrual-based accounting systems remember it is your duty to make it sound interesting. It will warm the cockles of some little stuffed shirt’s heart. You are the speaker for the duration. If she is angry, you must convey that rage. If she speaks with passion, you must reflect that enthusiasm. Your voice is your precious instrument, your greatest asset. Flaunt it.
Resign yourself to never being able to read a newspaper again (not even in your mother tongue) without underlining interesting or unfamiliar words. Tabloids are every bit as useful as broadsheets in this respect, as you can stripmine them of vocabulary items in a different register. The printed columns are a tool, not only in terms of gathering information, but also in terms of providing you with the basic raw materials of your craft.
If you are young, female and straight either resign yourself to permanent celibacy, serial affairs conducted on mission with married colleagues or import a partner or lover to Waffle Central with you. Love seldom blossoms at work. The hours are too irregular for a social life or any kind of fixed routine. Our profession, reputed to be the second oldest, is too often confused with the oldest. You will be deluged with unwanted and unsolicited propositions from all and sundry until you hit forty as of when you will no longer be noticed, considered out of the running (which may be a source of blessed relief or resentment, depending).
Cultivate a neurosis, such as fiddling with the light bulbs or haranguing the maintenance men about the inadequacies of the air conditioning. It will help you to fit in and give boothmates something to bitch about other than your imperfect grasp of the past historic whilst you fetch them a lait russe as a bribe to look upon your shortcomings with less acerbity.
Pursue an outside interest, preferably one that can shield you from the burden of unwanted conversation with colleagues you despise. Being cooped up in a confined space day after day takes its toll and the chemistry just isn’t there with everyone. Aversions can be so strongly felt that the interpreter sitting next to you might disinfect the headphones with alcohol and a paper handkerchief rather than don headphones that could have been polluted through contact with your auditory organs – nothing elicits disgust liked caked-on earwax. Especially if it originated from your sworn enemy.
Learn to ignore the implied insult of clients adjusting their toupees in the pane of glass separating you from them as if you were not there. Like it or not you are part of the furniture, part of the technical equipment and what you do is as enigmatic to them as how a mobile phone functions or how a Jumbo jet manages to haul its astounding bulk into the air.
Do not be alarmed at the shift in perceptions that comes from being exposed to an uninterrupted stream of sound day in day out. A person’s attractiveness will be conditional on the quality of their voice. Nothing will put you off a person more than a shrill, hash or in any way grating vocalisation. Your tolerance for extraneous noise will gradually diminish the longer you are bombarded with other people’s utterances. This is an occupational disease and will sneak up on you unnoticed. It may even extend to music.
Finally, one ineluctable paradox is built into the very nature of our art. We have to process complex information instantaneously. We must have honed analytical skills. We must have a flair for communicating across cultural barriers. In order to perform our job well we must possess an innate creativity that must always be harnessed in the service of those who by definition cannot appreciate our flashes of brilliance. We might pull off a linguistic salto mortale every second sentence without the reward of applause. We might unravel the most tortuous logic with perfect clarity yet our efforts go unnoticed. The brutal truth is that if they could appreciate us they wouldn’t need us. We only ever impinge on their consciousness if something goes wrong. If you are expecting gratitude or admiration in exchange for your intellectual fireworks, for the sheer amount of mental and emotional energy expended you will be sorely disappointed. The primary compensations are to be found in being present whilst history is made (or at least having a ringside seat whilst the swarms of journalists hang around the bar for the merest scrap of what you have heard in detail, although our “superiors” are currently plotting to deprive us even of that minor satisfaction) and the more modest consolation of being able to walk away at the end of the session and leave the day’s work behind you.