Sunday, April 22, 2012

Diplomatic Interpreters

It's a rule on this blog not to digress about Professional Interpreting. However, a highly topical photo has come my way which is so outstandingly clear, instructive and symbolic that I feel I must share it with you.

A fair amount has been written about diplomatic interpreting, and much more remains to be written. For one classic that's still in print, see References below. But I must stick to this photo.

It shows British Prime Minister David Cameron in formal conversation with Chinese Communist Party official Li Changchun at 10 Downing Street last week. If you've been following the news, you know at least one hot topic that must have been on the agenda; anyway it's in the article referenced. The ladies on either side are of course the interpreters. Though they both look Chinese, the one on Cameron's side must in fact be British. We know this because it's a long-standing convention in formal diplomatic interpreting that each side brings its own interpreter, usually of its own nationality. This has advantages:
* Confidence and confidentiality: each side feels it can trust its interpreter to work in its best interest and not divulge confidential information
* Each interpreter can monitor the translation of the other interpreter and warn of any discrepancies
* The division of work between two interpreters provides some relief if the meeting is prolonged.
Each interpreter translates only when her own side is speaking, therefore the interpretation is one way. The interpreters in the photo are seated in the standard position, next to but slightly behind the speakers. There they can hear and be heard well without seeming intrusive. They are dressed formally, with a culture difference showing perhaps in the more severe style of the Chinese interpreter.

Apart from the importance of the occasion, there's something that tells us in a flash that they're Expert Interpreters: the notepads at the ready. The modus operandi is consecutive interpreting, so the interpreters take notes to aid their recall of what is said. Note-taking forms part of the training of Expert Interpreters. There's no equipment besides notepads and pens; it's a form of interpreting that's remained unaffected by technology.

An experienced interpreter at the United Nations in New York once told me he found this kind of work more interesting even than interpreting at high-profile conferences like the UN Assembly. Because in the Assembly, the heads of state or government make propaganda speeches that are often just blah-blah; but it's in tête-à-tête meetings like these that one feels the really important negotiations are taking place.

Adrienne Mong. China's political scandal embroils Britain. Behind the Wall, CBC News, 2012. For the article, click here.

Ruth A. Roland. Interpreters as Diplomats: A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics. Introduction by Jean Delisle, who had the good idea of republishing this book that had almost been forgotten. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999. There's a review of it here.

An excellent photo by Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images


  1. Good article but I disagree with one point - having a notepad doesn't make you a professional interpreter. Some amateurs will use it as well because it's simply practical.