That’s My Interpretation

by David Sugarman

As someone who has made a living out of translation for more than 25 years ago, I have quite a high regard for interpreters. Let me explain. As a translator, I can spend half an hour, more sometimes, researching a single word. I can change my mind time and again fiddling with the order of words in a sentence. I can stop for a coffee whenever I want.

Not so an interpreter. No repetition, hesitation or deviation. No phoning a friend. No chance to say, “I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.” No leafing through dusty tomes, no googling. And certainly no question of strolling around the office for five minutes, looking out of the window, going to spend a penny or surreptitiously checking your Facebook page while waiting for inspiration to alight on your shoulder.

In short, it’s a totally different skill from translating, and one I’m perfectly happy to confess that I don’t possess. From my vantage point, it seems more difficult than the one I do possess, but that’s probably just my inferiority complex chiming in. Interpreters and translators try to do different things: interpreters focus on the moment, while a translator’s work is intended to last.

Matters relating to interpreting have caused me a bit of grief a time or two in the past. Round about 1990, it cost us a good customer, a very high-profile market research company specialising in car clinics (displays of new models or prototypes which hundreds of potential purchasers inspect and comment on, generating vast quantities of material to be translated). On one occasion, our customer was organising a focus group in Paris for a British car manufacturer and asked us to provide the foreign visitors with what’s known in the trade as “whispered” interpreting. “Sorry,” we said, “we don’t do interpreting.” “But you know all about the cars and you’re used to translating what people say about them,” said our soon-to-be-ex-customer. We were adamant and – in those days, at least – so very non-commercial. “No, interpreting and translating are quite different things. We can try to find an interpreter for you, though…” The by-now-firmly-ex-customer was unimpressed, and we never heard the sound of his voice again.

A year or two later, another customer, a small Paris-based communications agency, was organising a two-day international conference in Barcelona for senior managers of Elf. This time, the customer didn’t demur when we said we couldn’t do it ourselves, but could lay on specialists. So we set about recruiting teams of interpreters – probably three or four languages and two people per language. The customer asked me to fly out to Barcelona to liaise with the interpreters when they arrived. Which I did… but they didn’t. An hour or so before the event began, the customer, whose placid and laid-back attitude I had until then admired, turned on me: precisely what did I intend to do about it? Frankly, I thought my best course of action at that point was to do a runner. Let’s just say there was no one more relieved than me when a couple of taxis drew up. Flight delays and problems getting their equipment through customs, I think. Elf’s senior managers remained unaware of how close they had come to having simultaneous interpretation supplied by me in three languages, only one of which I speak.

Fortunately, many years passed with no more nasty moments of this type. (Of other types, yes, but that’s not the subject here.) But ten years or so ago, I had one more brush with my inadequacies in this field. I heard that the former England cricket captain Adam Hollioake was planning to walk, sail and cycle from Edinburgh to Tangiers to raise money for charity. The route would bring him through Dieppe, which is close to where I live. I called the organisers and asked if I could help, and they said why not organise a civic reception for Adam and his team. Why not, indeed? So I made a few phone calls, pulled the odd string, and sure enough, the event duly took place the evening after they arrived, attended by the mayor of Dieppe and various other local dignitaries. Came the time for speeches. Adam Hollioake spoke briefly, explaining why he had committed to this fund-raising venture, and I stood there and translated into French. Then the mayor spoke, saying that Dieppe was proud to be associated with the venture, and I translated it into English. So far, so good. But then, somehow, a sort of public dialogue broke out between the two speakers. After two minutes, my circuits got muddled and I found myself translating the French into French and the English into English. Not my greatest moment as a linguist!