Eu debate 2014: when interpreters steal the show

Article published on April 30, 2014
Article published on April 30, 2014

Although yesterday’s first debate between the European Commission candidates was neither thrilling nor revelationary, it has shed a light on the issue of conference interpreting in the European institutions, which is often perceived as being of secondary importance. Houston, I think we have a problem.

I wish I had a chance to watch yes­ter­day’s de­bate in Eng­lish, be­cause the mas­tery of this lan­guage is, for me, a fac­tor on which I would judge the can­di­dates. Un­for­tu­nately, I haven’t been given this chance, be­cause I live in France, where al­most every­thing is voiced-over in French. As such, I could not re­ally hear what the can­di­dates were say­ing in Eng­lish, but in­stead, I could closely ob­serve the job the in­ter­preters were doing.

And I must say that they did a re­ally good job.

But de­spite this very good job, they made me laugh so much I couldn’t prop­erly con­cen­trate on the con­tent of the de­bate.

The rea­son for this is very sim­ple: how can you con­cen­trate on what young, en­er­getic, fresh Ska Keller is say­ing if in­stead of her voice you hear the voice of a bour­geois, rather aged man? How can you con­cen­trate when you see a woman who prob­a­bly starts her day off with a jog and fresh fruit for break­fast on a sunny ter­race and in­stead of her voice you hear the voice of a man who you imag­ine de­light­ing every evening in a Cas­tle Lafite Roth­schild Pauil­lac 1996 while a green table lamp on his desk bathes moun­tains of saga­cious vol­umes with its gen­tle light? It’s a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence to lis­ten­ing to a granny read­ing Trainspot­ting to lull her five year-old grand­daugh­ter to sleep.

No country for young men

There was not just one in­ter­preter. If I am not mis­taken, there were five of them – four men and one woman. And al­though I wouldn’t bet my life on it, none of them was younger than forty years old. How about jobs for young ed­u­cated Eu­ro­peans? When I chose to study trans­la­tion and in­ter­pret­ing in 2007 they told us that job op­por­tu­ni­ties were re­ally plen­ti­ful in this do­main in Eu­rope. Re­ally plen­ti­ful. They didn’t tell us that being young is a dis­ad­van­tage in this case, though.

I couldn’t dis­miss the fact that yes­ter­day the in­ter­preters were not neu­tral. At one mo­ment I asked my­self if I would per­ceive the can­di­dates dif­fer­ently if I was blind and I could only rely on the in­ter­preted con­tent. I re­al­ized that I would in­deed, be­cause there were mo­ments when the in­ter­preters in­flu­enced the speeches with their in­to­na­tion and the pitch of their voice. It worked in the favour of the phleg­matic Jean Claude Juncker, but com­pletely changed the per­cep­tion of Ska Keller’s per­for­mance. When Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt ges­tic­u­lated (and he did a lot of that), a sen­si­tive per­son would have a heart at­tack, be­cause the in­ter­preter raised the pitch of his voice so high that mir­rors would break. Is con­fer­ence in­ter­pret­ing a one-man show which has the right to exist in­de­pen­dently of the orig­i­nal speech? What if the par­al­lel lin­guis­tic re­al­i­ties (the one cre­ated by the speaker and the one cre­ated by the in­ter­preter) come to be con­tra­dic­tory be­cause of the in­ter­preter’s tone of voice alone? 

This is not our show

Yes, I am maybe in­dulging my­self with a lit­tle bit of in­no­cent provo­ca­tion here, but I feel that things are un­fair on the Eu­ro­pean job mar­ket. I stud­ied in­ter­pret­ing at uni­ver­sity and the pro­fes­sors made a tremen­dous ef­fort to teach us that we need to be, first and fore­most, neu­tral. That no mat­ter how ego­cen­tric we are, this.​is.​not.​our.​show. That we take re­spon­si­bil­ity for what is in­ter­preted, not only on the level of ac­tual words, but at the level of prosody, in­to­na­tion and lex­i­cal stress as well. 

The ques­tion which I asked at the be­gin­ning re-emerges here: why not em­ploy young in­ter­preters, who nowa­days spend more time search­ing for a job than on ac­tual pro­fes­sional ac­tiv­ity? Maybe it’s time for a change of guard?