Friday, March 2, 2012

Interpreting in the Limelight

Interpreting for TV is a specialisation within what is more generally called media interpreting. There are two kinds of interpreters for television. One's the kind who are present only as a 'voice off' and may actually be working at some distance from the TV studio (distance or remote interpreting). If the interpreter receives a video feed, it's similar to doing conference interpreting from a closed booth and it bestows anonymity. The other kind is the interpreter who takes part in the proceedings on screen. Then it's 'interpreting in the limelight'.

And Interpreting in the limelight is precisely the title of a very interesting article in the latest edition of The Linguist magazine. It's by someone who's had a lot of experience at it, Susie Valerio. It's much more akin to liaison interpreting. I won't say more here about the techniques and satisfactions of the work itself, because Susie is a Professional Expert Interpreter and as such what she says about it is beyond the scope of this blog. She sums it up as working in a "high-pressure environment." However, she gives a good deal of subsidiary information that is of concern to us.

First the reasons why TV programme makers do not favour using regular Professional Interpreters.

1. Money.
"The hourly rate of an agency interpreter... is higher that that of most assistant producers, and an interpreter on full rate for a whole day can easily be more expensive than the director. So it will come as no surprise that [professional] interpreters and translators are used very sparingly."
To me that did come as a surprise, because I had no idea that TV production staff were paid so little. But perhaps it explains something that used to puzzle me: Why did the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation employ inexperienced interpreters when Expert Interpreters would have been available? However, there are other reasons...

"Programme makers have major problems finding linguists who understand the technical aspects of the TV-making craft... The extremely fast-paced environment means that they cannot afford to waste time explaining technicalities."
3. This is a type of interpreting where the interpreter is sometimes not required to say, disinterestedly, exactly what the speaker said - contrary, for instance, to court interpreting.
"The interpreter is frequently called on to act as mediator, often prompted by producers and interviewees to 'guide' the story they are covering by slightly adapting questions and answers in order to fit a particular brief."
4. Again like liaison interpreting, the work often involves the interpreter in other functions.
"There tend to be many additions to the original job description. Interpreters are...expected to help with whatever language support is needed * from consecutive interpreting to helping with the accreditation of foreign journalists... On football assignments, interpreters are often called in to assist the club's press officer with queries from foreign journalists. They may be asked to do stadium announcements or even to help with security issues involving foreign fans."
Then there's the description of how Susie herself drifted into TV interpreting. She had no interpreter training.
"I began working as a media interpreter... after finishing a BA in Drama, Film and Television Studies. A friend who worked as a producer for a big television company asked me to translate some interviews for an international football show, aired in more than 100 countries. I was concerned that I was not a trained interpreter but was told that my knowledge of programme making was much more important than any linguistic knowledge."
In other words, the TV people didn't doubt that if she could speak the languages and knew the extralinguistic environment, she could translate.

Susie Valerio. Interpreting in the limelight. The Linguist, February/March, 2012, pp. 14-15.
The Linguist has gone digital. For more, access the website of the Chartered Institute of Linguists by clicking here.

Source: CIOL


  1. Hi, it's Susie here!

    Many thanks for taking time to write your article. I love your blog and I am glad that you found my topic interesting! :)

    I was thinking about the points you made about money, and came to the conclusion that the main issue with translation costs, in terms of production, is not the actual hourly rate paid to translators. What makes a translator so budget heavy is the fact that most his/her work will not be used in the actual programme being made!!!

    We always shoot tons more than what is ever aired, so it is very usual for someone to translate several hours worth of interviews for only one minute to be used in the final cut! Right now, for example, I am working on a two hour interview to possibly extract a hand full of 30 second quotes, which means that several hours of my work will be absolutely useless to anyone....

    Obviously, we could argue that the unused material might serve as background information for the director and so on, but ultimately it is the ratio of hours worked versus work actually used that makes a translator such a "salty" budget item.

    Hope that enlightens things a little further!..

    All the best,


  2. Glad you like my blog, Susie. Your explanation is indeed very enlightening. People don't realise how much 'ends up on the cutting room floor', as they used to say.

    Best regards.