Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Ekvall, Old Mac, Emotional Nuance and Whispering

If you look at the comments on this blog's post about Panmunjom (enter panmunjom in the Search box on the right) you will see there an exchange between me and Ron McKinney, aka Old Mack, who was actually at the Geneva conference in 1954 that ended the Vietnam War. An unexpected link with the past after 60 years! In those days Ron was a US Marine security guard. There he got to know Robert Ekvall, the Chinese/English military-cum-diplomatic interpreter for the American delegation. Later Ekvall published a classic autobiography about interpreting that is essential reading for the history of Professional Expert interpretation, not least because the Geneva conference was one of the last major international conferences that was conducted entirely in consecutive interpretation and whispering The book has long been out of print but now it's available free on the internet (see Reference). Ekvall remarked to Ron that it was important for the interpreter to render not only the meaning of the words of the source speech but also its "emotional nuance". Yes, that is one of the several not-so-obvious things that an Expert Interpreter should be capable of doing. Yet examiners at interpreter examinations are rarely asked, "Did the candidate render all the emotional nuance?" Ekvall was thinking of diplomatic interpreting, but it's also important in religious interpreting, theatre interpreting, even court interpreting, and so on.

On the subject of whispering, it's something else that is neglected in interpreter training, Ambassador Arthur H. Dean, who wrote the foreword to Ekvall's book, remarks:
"The system of not having simultaneous translation is not quite as time wasting as is often supposed. While the Chinese tirade went on, Colonel Ekvall used to whisper to me its general nature and purport so I could begin to write out my reply and pass it back to Colonel Ekvall and Lieutenant Campen, my Korean interpreter, so that they in turn could begin to put my reply into the Chinese and Korean languages."
Whispering is one of the most basic and most natural modes of interpreting, though it's not easy to do it well. For more about it, enter whispering in the Search box.

Colonel Robert B. Ekvall (US Army Retired) (1898-1983). Faithful Echo. New York:Twayne. 1960. Available free on the internet: click here or go to;view=1up;seq=8.

Ron McKinney. Old Mac's Tales. Blog. Click here or go to
It's good reading.

The Geneva Conference in session. Source: US Army photograph.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.


  1. Looking at the book, it is interesting that right at the start of proceedings, after Colonel Odren announced that he had a Chinese interpreter, that (Ekvall writes): ‘Underwood, the United Nations Command English-Korean interpreter, echoed the statement in Korean, and I finally caught my cue and announced in Chinese the same foolish fact, for it did seem foolish to speak of myself in the third person.’

    That was right back in 1953. There are interpreting courses to this day that insist on the 3rd person pronoun, despite how foolish it feels to the speaker and sounds to the listener. It could be conjectured that an untrained natural interpreter might not fall foul of this dogma, but interpret in a much more natural way.

    1. The teachings governing the use of first and third persons in conventional interpreter training are just social conventions.
      By the time of Panmunjom and Geneva, Ekvall was recognised as an Expert Interpreter, a Professional in the pay of the US Army. However, he had started in childhood as a Natural Translator interpreting – as he tells it – for his Chinese playmates, and he honed his skill by practice in the field, "untrained" as you say and not by taking courses. So I think he avoided being indoctrinated and was aware of anything 'unnatural' .
      One could have no better example than Ekvall of the advantage of early bilingualism.

  2. Here, to save you looking for it, is what Ekvall says about his beginnings as a Natural Interpreter:

    The basic causes, the more remote sequence of events that took me to Panmunjom, extended far back in time
    and were laid in distant places. They derived from my birth and childhood on the Sino-Tibetan border, where I learned to speak Chinese as a second mother tongue.
    That early natural childhood use of words had nothing to do with interpreting. I spoke Chinese when appropriate because I thought in Chinese when appropriate. It was somewhat like throwing a mental switch and moving to another track: the switch was thrown automatically
    whenever I heard Chinese spoken.

    "Yet somewhere in that happy bilingual state of semantic innocence, the problem of interpretation, as such, did
    arise. I remember, somewhat vaguely, my first experience in the search for semantic equivalents as I explained
    Robinson Crusoe, page by page and scene by scene, to my Chinese playmates, after which we staged, with the help of imagination and a packing case, a shipwreck in the back yard." (p. 24)

    Ekvall's parents were missionaries.