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THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHIEF INTERPRETER

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THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHIEF INTERPRETER
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  THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHIEF INTERPRETER  1  by Sergio Viaggio United Nations Office at Vienna The profession and the market have changed. There are more interpreters and less money for meetings.Within that framework, the criteria are eplored that a !hief "nterpreter follows when recr#itingfreelances. "n this connection some advice is offered to yo#ng interpreters. The importance of $""! isalso analy%ed. &astly, the need to establish and scientifically define and describe sim#ltaneo#sinterpretation is stressed, in partic#lar with respect to the importance of achieving a better #nderstanding of the profession by #sers and practitioners alike. INTRODUCTION "nterpretation is one of the oldest activities known to man' it has eisted ever since two m#t#ally#nintelligible lang#ages met. Translation, for its part, is probably not m#ch yo#nger than writingitself. (#t sim#ltaneo#s interpretation is a creat#re of the cent#ry, and even if it was tried at oneof the )omintern congresses back in the thirties, its real birth was the N#remberg trials. $ yo#ngactivity, then, and an even yo#nger profession. Those N#remberg pioneers were not professionalsim#ltaneo#s interpreters* there was no s#ch thing, b#t they proved that the activity was viable and  efficient. They are to present day conference interpretation what the Wright brothers were toaviation and +alen to medicine. " am prone to bring #p these parallels, beca#se we tend to losesight of a cr#cial fact* no matter how good we are and how satisfied o#r clients may be with o#r work, we have #st beg#n eploring o#r possibilities. $s with any other activity t#rned profession,initially practitioners co#ld not be b#t self-made. et it took only a co#ple of generations for thediscipline governing the activity to start spro#ting' schools were created where interpretation wasta#ght, and that of necessity led to the discipline begetting its own didactics. $ltho#gh m#chremains to be done, in fifty years we have gone a long way towards accomplishing what took medicine, for instance, some /0 cent#ries to achieve* t#rning into a recogni%ed profession basedon a recogni%ed discipline ta#ght at recogni%ed academic instit#tions. "t is not that we are moreintelligent, ind#strio#s or c#nning than physicians* simply, we were born in the age of masscomm#nication, a profession whose time had come before its first practitioners ever tried their tong#e at it. &et #s remind o#rselves, nonetheless, that even now, there are few if any professionalconference interpreters into and from most lang#ages' and " am not talking abo#t $ymara or a#sa, b#t of lang#ages no more eotic than 2innish or +reek. The "nternational Trib#nal to3#dge !rimes in the 2ormer #goslavia has had to go practically thro#gh the same motions as the N#remberg trials, ecept that now it has a core of veteran professionals to rely #pon for organising and training its interpreters. 4till, what will happen if the #t# and T#tsi victims of thegenocide in 5wanda ever get their chance to testify before s#ch a co#rt as well62or all practical p#rposes, we have established o#rselves firmly only in 7#rope and North$merica, and then only for the more international lang#ages, those that were spread bymissionaries sailing in battle fleets back then or by sheer economic weight now. "t matters littlethat more people speak 4wahili than 3apanese, or that more co#ntries speak 8ort#g#ese than+erman* "n this 9patent age of new inventions for killing bodies and for saving so#ls, all propagated with the best intentions9, as (yron saw it at the onset of the ind#strial revol#tion thatmade #s, professional interpreters, possible, the international, i.e. economic and therefore politicalweight of a lang#age stems not so m#ch from the n#mbers who speak it or the poetry they havewritten in it, b#t what they can sell or b#y. (ack in the :;<s if yo# knew internationally weighty lang#ages and had nothing more profitable to do, yo# co#ld always try and become an interpreter. $nd if yo# chanced to have a 1   Published in  XIV World Congress of the Fédération Interntionale des Traducteurs (FIT) ,Proceedings, Volume 2, Melbourne 1996, pp. 591-601.  lang#age combination that was more in demand than in s#pply, yo# co#ld more or less co#nt onrecr#iters tending to overlook some details of performance that otherwise wo#ld have had thedoor slammed in yo#r face. Of those legendary pioneers of the profession, only the best, the oneswhose names s#rvive in o#r collective professional memory tr#ly had the etra-ling#istic=#alifications that present-day interpretation schools demand as a matter of co#rse from everycandidate* back then, yo# #st b#mped into the profession' now --if yo# know internationallang#ages-- as every other reg#lar professional, yo# choose  it, and --perhaps even moreimportantly-- thro#gh an ever increasing n#mber of ever more proficient schools and the sheer eistence of s#ch a professional organi%ation as $""!, it  chooses yo#. >y personal case is ill#strative of the points made above* When " grad#ated with an >$in 8hilology from >oscow<s 8eoples< 2riendship University back in 1?:1 " cherished b#t onedream* to teach 5#ssian literat#re. Not for a moment did " s#spect that " wo#ld event#ally thriveat a profession " had never heard of. o# see, " happen to come from the 4o#th, the Third World,the Under-developing !o#ntries - if from one with a most promising f#t#re behind her, s#ch as$rgentina. 7ver tried to make a living by teaching and translating poetry in any of the 10; oddco#ntries belonging to the gro#p of ::6 &#ckily eno#gh, my parents had sent me to an 7nglishschool and the e-U445 bestowed #pon me a most genero#s scholarship, which allowed me toimbibe two c#lt#res and learn their lang#ages. 4o with my dreams somewhat shattered b#t mylang#ages blossoming " r#shed into accepting a position as 4panish translator with the UN, where" met a host of colleag#es more or less similarly salvaged from s#ndry professional wrecks.  No sooner had " arrived, the 4panish interpreters got wind of the new g#y in theTranslation 4ection, <the one who knows 5#ssian<. They caoled me into oining their ilk, whichafter a most #ns#ccessf#l attempt and a half " managed to do. $nd so did " become asim#ltaneo#s conference interpreter by sheer dint of negative serendipity* a scholarship so#ght #st to get o#t of (#enos $ires, an #nderdeveloped co#ntry that had no #se for my =#alifications,a lang#age not weighty eno#gh to have eno#gh people capable of translating into it from 5#ssian,an Organisation that needed passive 5#ssian so badly that it wo#ld make believe " passed theeam the second time aro#nd if " wo#ld only promise to try and learn to interpret.>y srcinal intention was to stay for some two years and then ret#rn to my nativelandscape, b#t " stayed on, blabbering away for some twenty years, #ntil life played #pon meanother of her friendly mischievo#s tricks. &ittle did " s#spect that " was to step across the greatdivide that even in the gilded North keeps labo#r in its proper place, and become one of theadministrative <them<. (#t it did come to pass, and here " am #pwards of fo#r walt%ing years withthe crown and sceptre of !hief "nterpreter at the United Nations Office at Vienna. Once aninterpreter, of co#rse, forever an interpreter, so " now have managed to earn the distr#st of lesuns et les autres  as either a son-of-a-bitch of an administrator or a pain-in-the-neck of aninterpreter. "t is in s#ch a d#al capacity that " am here before yo#, to tell yo# abo#t the stormyepanse of interpretation as seen from the m#rky heights of management. THE RECRUITER  o# all know more or less what it is to be an interpreter* it is ro#ghly like being a translator,ecept that yo# are more visible, travel more often and can be more la with yo#r s#b#nctives.4o " am going to tell yo# what it is like to be a recr#iter. When yo# are a recr#iter, it becomesimmediately apparent that interpretation is an overpriced, #nreliable and not really all thatnecessary service provided somewhat gr#dgingly by notorio#sly testy specimens who co#ntmin#tes the way 4crooge co#nted gold coins. What is more veing, tho#gh, is how m#ch it costsyo# to bring in from far away someone who is going to give yo# nothing b#t tro#ble, and howm#ch an irritatingly min#te binding agreement, the likes of which no other gro#p of temporaryhands in yo#r Organi%ation has, ties yo#r hands and sets yo# at odds with those who pay yo# anddemand more service for less money. o# cannot #nderstand why interpreters insist on livingelsewhere and how come everybody else seems to be vying to recr#it them at the same time, even 2  @tho#gh yo# know that they are as arrogant as they are incompetent. es, incompetent, otherwisethey wo#ld not be complaining every time they do not have a doc#ment, or abo#t a speaker going too fast or the slides being proected on the wrong wall' nor wo#ld delegates complain sooften abo#t not hearing in translation the cognates they epect. These people travel all over theworld, make more money than yo#, work /0 ho#rs a week at most, and all beca#se they weresimply smart eno#gh to p#t to profitable #se those lang#ages yo# know every bit as well if not better, ecept that yo# act#ally chose to work for a living.$s any caricat#re, my appraisal above contains more than a grain of tr#th. >ost peoplewho listen to and administrate interpreters are notorio#sly ignorant of what it takes to be one. "tis not their fa#lt* they cannot be blamed for believing what most of #s believed beforeinterpretation school or life ta#ght #s otherwise, to wit, that all it takes is indeed to know aco#ple of foreign lang#ages, and that knowing foreign lang#ages is a relatively easy thing* it iseno#gh to have st#died them somewhere. $s to the interpreter<s mother tong#e... well, who m#stact#ally st#dy his own mother tong#eA "f o#r clients and administrators are so #ned#cated, wehave no one to blame b#t o#rselves, since s#ch ed#cation m#st, of necessity, be theoretical, in thesense that it sho#ld be a coherent, systematic and faithf#l verbali%ation of eperience, aneplanation of practice, or, as >ar p#t it when defining science, eperience made awareness.Only interpreters can #nderstand what it really takes to be one, b#t not that many can alsoconvincingly eplain it to the layman in the $dministration' and that is why it helps so m#ch tohave s#ch an interpreter recr#it and deal directly with interpreters, someone who knows when tostand #nconditionally behind his staff, and can tell e=#ally when an interpreter is #st, well... 9o-man#ring9. $nd now for more matter with less art. The recruiter as administrator " shall speak as a professional interpreter now in charge of administering an "nterpretation 4ectionat the UN. ow m#ch of my eperience can be ade=#ately etrapolated to other recr#iters,within and witho#t the United Nations system and the whole realm of international organi%ations," do not know, b#t " s#spect there is more convergence than there are divergences.2rom a strictly administrative view point, my ob is to provide the most service for theleast money. >y bottom-line financial fig#re is the unit cost * the average amo#nt myOrgani%ation has to pay in order to have a body in the booth for a day. Unless there is a h#ge poolof locally available freelancers with the right lang#age combinations Bwhich, in the case of the UNlang#ages, is tr#e only in +eneva and 8arisC, or a large body of staff interpreters Bwhich is not thecase in ViennaC, an interpreter can cost more than he gets. The #nit cost will be lower if, besidesavoiding non-local recr#itment, " can plan my reso#rces in s#ch a way as to obtain maim#m prod#ctivity. This, in t#rn depends on organi%ers being able to state their needs acc#rately, whichis not always the case. The recruiter as interpreter 2or administrative, financial and statistical p#rposes, my interpreters are b#t fig#res in the b#dgetand names on the assignment sheets. (#t we all know that not all interpreters are e=#al. Now my permanent interpreters " am saddled with, it is my freelancers " can choose. &et me tell yo#, then,on what basis. The three main criteria are ua!it" , #ersati!it" , and o#era!! pro$essiona!ism . %ua!it"  is more than a sheerly ling#istic concept* &et me start with the most obvio#s.>any an interpreter knows his lang#ages inside and o#t, misses nothing, makes no serio#smistakes, and yet does not =#ite s#cceed in interpreting altogether satisfactorily. The main problem is too m#ch of an obsession with words and not eno#gh attention to sense. " can alwaystell when an interpreter is too m#ch in thrall to words* he is the one talking too m#ch, too fast,and more monotono#sly' the one whose speech reeks so m#ch of translationese that " can g#essin no time what lang#age he is interpreting from. " prefer professionals who are prone to talk less 3  and say what really co#nts, idiomatically, with elegance, precision, nat#ral intonation and poise. "find it diffic#lt to p#t #p with practitioners who so#nd bored and boring, or have a haltingdelivery, or scarcely pa#se to take breath and then at the wrong places. "n that, " am irritated bythe same things that irk any listener in any speaker. " want my interpreters to be top-notchcomm#nicators. &ersati!it"  is also important. " try to avoid relay at all costs. Other things being e=#al,the first interpreters to get the offers are those with more relevant passive lang#ages. e who has both passive 4panish and 5#ssian in the 7nglish or 2rench booth, the few 4panish russifiants , thefew 5#ssian hispanisants , $rabic and !hinese interpreters with both 7nglish and 2rench, and,whenever possible, 4panish. !olleag#es e=#ally at ease in two booths come net.The third cr#cial consideration is pro$essiona!ism . This in t#rn involves several series of factors, having to do respectively with the interpreter<s attit#de towards his audience , his co!!ea'ues , and me ." shall start with the interpreter<s professional attit#de towards his a#dience. $ decisivefactor is, of co#rse, thorou'h preparation for a meeting. Then, " seek honest" * if the interpreter has not #nderstood something or is not s#re abo#t anything he deems essential, " want him to sayso over the microphone and let his a#dience decide whether they want to stop the speaker andask him to repeat. Net " treas#re a user($riend!"  professional' someone who is constantlymindf#l of his a#dience<s specific needs, who will strive to find o#t what they are and then tailor his approach accordingly. $ professional who will ascertain, for instance, whether his clients wantthe amendments translated, verbatim , or both' re=#ire help from the booth with their ownamendments, or can #se a gloss.$s to the interpreter<s )ooth manners , let me stress punctua!it" , constant presence inthe )ooth , and he!p$u!ness to*ards his co!!ea'ues , especially when working with a beginner or someone with no previo#s eperience with a specific meeting. >ore decisive than most o#tsidersmake it is persona! h"'iene . &astly, " look for a sociable persona!it" . O#rs is a small team, and people work better and more happily when they like and tr#st each other* emmerdeurs  are low onmy priority list. 4ome interpreters have added responsibilities. The 7nglish booth, in partic#lar, which isnormally in direct contact with both !hairman and 4ecretary of a meeting m#st be mindf#l of any problems their colleag#es in other booths may enco#nter. "t sho#ld constantly monitor the proceedings and take prompt action whenever necessary, for instance, asking the chairman toslow down a r#naway speaker or provide a missing doc#ment. (#t the main pillars of a team are  pivots  - in partic#lar $rabic and !hinese interpreters. (esides his inherent responsibility towardhis a#dience, the  pivot   has a special responsibility vis-à-vis  his colleag#es, who are, after all, hismost v#lnerable #sers* " seek nat#ral, idiomatic, rhetorically and comm#nicatively competent retour  . 5egardless of the diffic#lties he may have with the srcinal, it is the  pivot  <s responsibilityto ens#re that his colleag#es will be spared a halting, incoherent speech. $  pivot   who does notinterpret with those who m#st relay from him primarily in mind is wanting both as an interpreter  and  as a colleag#e. &astly, " want my people to be good to me . !r#cially, " seek interpreters who will beready to make an etra effort and help me o#t when " am #p a tree, even --or rather especially-- if it is thro#gh my own fa#lt. $ll this, of co#rse, m#st be weighed against costs. Will " hire a local who is not as good asa non-local #st to save money6 "f the difference in =#ality is less than the difference in money,yes. The recruiter as de$ender o$ the $aith What do " and those of my co#nterparts " know offer in ret#rn for =#ality, professionalism andsolidarity6 The most #ncompromising #pholding of the $""!D!!$E $greement governing theworking conditions of freelancers and a fierce defence of any legitimate right or demand on their  4  0 part, be it vis-à-vis  the $dministration, committee secretaries or the delegates themselves. "nVienna, for one, interpreters are not only allowed b#t enco#raged to stop a meeting if the relevantdoc#mentation is not available in the booths, as well as to proceed to trim or, if the worst comesto the worst, even stop interpreting altogether if an interpretation of tr#ly professional =#ality becomes impossible. This, " s#bmit, is essential* $ physician wo#ld ref#se to operate if some basicconditions are not met' mutatis mutandis , the same applies to any professional, and there isabsol#tely no reason for interpreters to be an eception. THE INTERPRETATION +AR,ET The UN system has probably ceased to be the biggest recr#iter of interpreters' thathono#r falls now to the 7U and the 7#ropean 8arliament, with their demential lang#agere=#irements. The UN system market is, alas, shrinking. There are three main reasons for this*one is political, another financial, and a third one academical. $fter the first crisis, in 1?FF,recr#itment of freelance interpreters by the United Nations Office at +eneva, for instance, pl#mmeted from some F,0;; days a year to below 0,;;; and it has never picked #p since.$nother financial earth=#ake occ#rred in 4eptember 1??@, b#t this time aro#nd, and contrary to pop#lar belief, the root ca#ses were entirely political* With the collapse of the U445 o#r worldhas become #nipolar. Once one of the poles holding the rope of m#ltilateralism we were allwalking is all b#t gone, the rope cannot b#t slacken. The U4 has withdrawn its s#pport from theUN, and with it most of its money - the money with which interpreters are paid. Goes it meanthat interpretation --or, for that matter, translation-- are no longer needed, that people no longer need to #nderstand each other despite their different lang#ages and c#lt#res6 Not at all. (#t thosewho really need #s are, for all practical p#rposes, in no position to call the shots - let alone pay.This, of co#rse, is not the place, nor am " the person, to critici%e the way >ember 4tates of theUnited Nations view and p#rs#e their interests, b#t one wo#ld be blind not to see theconse=#ences of the present sit#ation for the interpretation market, and with it for the profession."t is no secret that the UN reg#lar b#dget is owed HIJ0 million in #npaid assessed contrib#tions,IJK of it from the U4 alone. $dministrators have been instr#cted to make an overall H10Jmillion savings. $ltho#gh it is still not clear how this is going to be achieved in each area, it isobvio#s that a good ch#nk is going to come from c#tting temporary assistance for meetings, andespecially interpretation.(#t even witho#t this basic and deplorable sit#ation, there is, to my mind, a third factor contrib#ting to the sat#ration of the interpretation market, especially for some booths andDor lang#age combinations* the proliferation of interpreter schools, some ecellent, prod#cing manyo#tstanding yo#ng professionals with the same combination* 7nglishD2renchD4panish, and$rabicD2renchD7nglish with retour   into 2rench. >any of these yo#ngsters are incomparably better  prepared and motivated than many self-made old-timers s#ch as myself, who see their traditionalslice of the market disappear from beneath their feet. On their part, many novices find itincreasingly diffic#lt to find a place in an overcrowded market. "t is not an ind#lgent place for those who have nothing to sell b#t their ability to work, o#r new market. (#t that<s the way the#nipolar cookie cr#mbles.Witness the ferocio#s drive towards liberali%ation and economic efficiency at the cost of h#man needs, as if the economy sho#ld have as its goal anything other than ministering, precisely,to h#man needs. Now $""! is being s#ed by the 2T! for <monopolistic practices<, not financial,mind yo#, b#t strictly professional. 2ie, for eample, the interpreter who demands to have a booth-mate, or ade=#ate working conditions* let he who is ready to work alone in a c#bicle in acorridor o#tside the conference room for any length of time s#rvive, while the profession goesdown the drain, and professional dignity, pride and =#ality with it. AIIC-S ROLE This brings me to $""!, its role and its crisis. The importance of $""! as the only international 5
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