Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Interpreter's Voice(s) - 2

This post is the conclusion of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.

The last post gave a round-up of the voice registers that an Expert Interpreter should master and told a couple of stories to illustrate them. Here's one final anecdote.

I once took a small party of my students to visit the United Nations in New York and meet some interpreters. It's an experience all North American conference interpretation students should have, and actually it's quite easy to arrange through the Office of Conference Services. At full strength they have about 120 interpreters. We listened in for half a day to a committee meeting. Afterwards there was a question and answer session with a training officer, Remco Kraft. In the course of it, one of the students asked an undiplomatic question:
I'd like to be able to interpret like those interpreters some day, but there's one thing that worries me. Why do they sound so bored?
Here, paraphrased, is his answer.
The general public is only aware of the most dramatic events at the UN, like the Security Council meetings. But our mos important work is done away from the spotlight, and the most interesting part of it is done in small, private negotiations, usually in consecutive. (For which reason, don't forget your consecutive.) What the public gets to hear in meetings like this morning's is mostly what we interpreters call blah-blah. We get to sound bored because we are bored.
The moral of the story is that interpreters should beware of letting their voices be affected by the material they are translating or by fatigue. If they do, listeners will soon notice it.

In the heyday of radio, there used to be an occasional course for announcers in North America, for instance the one offered by the National Institute of Broadcasting in Canada. Today, the same level of microphone voice is needed for the burgeoning industry of voice-over, though interpreters lack ‘drama‘ and actors are preferred. Nevertheless, writings on the subject are few and far between in the large literature on interpreting. As for practical training, the only dedícated course I know of is the one that used to be given by Ailsa Gudgeon, a British professional voice coach, in the late and much lamented programme at the University of Westminster (see References). And how about even less documented languages like Arabic or Chinese?

Strange, isn’t it, that such an important skill as voice production should receive so little attention? Every interpreter training programme should include a module on it.

Ailsa Gudgeon. 'Voice coaching for interpreters'. AIIC
, 2009.



  1. As always, a very interesting read. Thank you.

  2. One of the course objectives in our interpreter training classes at the American University in Cairo was 'overcoming mike fright', and we also provided voice training and training in microphone techniques. I quite agree; if the microphone is to be an integral part of one's professional equipment, one should be given proper training in its use.

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