Conference interpreters love speakers who submit statements in advance

Conference Interpreters love speakers who submit statements in advance
by Javier del Pino, published in OSCE magazine, 3/12, pp. 21-22
Relatively little is known about how conference interpreters work, even among those who use their services. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.
How many foreign languages is an interpreter proficient in?
Good interpreters always have an excellent command of the language they translate into, but they may not speak the languages they translate from (their passive languages), or speak them poorly. Interpreters employed at international organizations typically work from three passive languages into their active language, which is usually their mother tongue.
What does an interpreter’s training consist of?
A Bachelor’s degree in interpretation lasts four to five years. Topics such as law, economics, history, art and philosophy are just as important as intensive training in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation and sight-translation. There are also one-year Master’s programmes for university graduates who already have a good of knowledge of foreign languages.
How do interpreters prepare for a conference?
The work of a good interpreter is not limited to the time spent in the booth. Being well prepared for meetings entails being abreast of current affairs and well acquainted with the subject matter to be discussed. In the OSCE context, interpreters read the relevant OSCE decisions and documents in their active language and compile lists of terms and abbreviations.
Interpreters frequently arrive long before the meeting starts, to have time to study written statements submitted by speakers in advance and any other papers circulated among the delegations for that session. Interpreters usually work in rotation with their colleague for approximately half an hour at a time. While one colleague is working, the other prepares the statements that are to be read out subsequently, or follows the discussions.
Why do interpreters request written statements?
Successful interpretation is a collaborative exercise. When the speaker provides the text of statements or other materials such as slides or keywords in advance, it is easier for the interpreter to understand his or her intentions and be faithful to these.
When written material is not made available, the interpreter tires more quickly due to the more complex nature of written language, compounded by the speed at which delegates tend to read prepared speeches since they don’t have to reflect on their wording on the spot.
An interpreter cannot be expected to provide, in tenths of a second, a perfectly accurate rendition equal in quality to a paper prepared before hand by an expert who has had all the time in the world to choose his or her words. That is why interpreters request that they be given written statements in advance.
What are some difficulties encountered in interpreting?
One might imagine specialized terminology to be a problem, but for a good interpreter this is as good as never the case – unless a statement contains a neologism not listed in any dictionary.
Once in a while, linguistic difficulties occur. Speakers not using their mother tongue may make errors in pronunciation, semantics or syntax. Poems, proverbs, figures of speech such as puns or humour unique to the speaker’s culture can be hard to translate.
The most frequent difficulties are due simply to bad acoustics – interference from speakers’ mobile phones; bad sound quality when a delegate does not speak directly into the microphone; background noise when several microphones are switched on at the same time; acoustic feedback from earphones placed near a microphone; the speaker being too close to the microphone; noise in the interpreter’s booth.
Do interpreters make mistakes?
Occasionally (primarily when written statements are not provided in advance!) an interpreter might come across a word he or she does not know. If this happens, the interpreter’s colleague sometimes knows the word and jots it down. Sometimes, its meaning can be inferred from the context. And sometimes, but that is left to the reader’s imagination…
Relay translation, a practice akin to the party game “Chinese whispers”, is an invitation to error and is discouraged by all interpreters’ associations. In relay translation, an interpreter who does not know the speaker’s language listens to a colleague’s rendition and interprets that. It should never be necessary in the OSCE, where two interpreters with the appropriate language combination can cover all six official languages.
Why do interpreters work for half an hour at a time? Why is it necessary to limit the duration of meetings with interpretation to three hours? 
Interpretation requires extreme concentration. Scientific studies have proven that after half an hour’s work, concentration wanes and the quality of interpretation suffers. An interpreter can develop a severe headache after working for more than 30 minutes at a stretch or after meetings than run over three hours. The three-hour duration for working sessions is standard practice not only at the OSCE, but also at the United Nations and all other international organizations.
What rules should speakers at international conferences observe in order to ensure that their messages are properly conveyed?
Speakers should: switch on their microphones and make sure they work before they start speaking. They should speak directly into the microphone, without getting too close or too far away; speak at a reasonable speed; place their earphones far from the microphone so as to avoid whistling and other feedback noise; and switch off their mobile phones or put them on silent or vibrating mode. They should try, whenever possible, to speak spontaneously and not read out prepared statements. Should the latter be the case, they should hand in a copy in advance to the document distribution or interpretation services.
Are interpreters indispensable? Are the costs of interpretation justified?
In a foreign language, you say what you can; in your mother tongue, you say what you want.
Can one do without interpreters and make savings in times of crisis? Of course one can. One could likewise do without members of any other profession, but then the world would not be what it is today.
Loreto Bravo recounts that when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where he was head of Conference Services for many years, was created in The Hague in 1997, his superior, a diplomat, told him that delegations felt the cost of interpretation was too high and asked him what he thought about the suggestion of one of the delegates to hire student interpreters to reduce costs. Loreto told him that it seemed to him to be a great idea, as long as the delegations of the States Parties would also integrate students of diplomacy among their ranks.
Obviously, when the message was transmitted to delegations, the idea was abandoned. In the European Union, a study conducted on the cost of its translation and interpretation services came to the conclusion that, given the11,000 plus meetings held during the year, the annual cost of its interpretation services, which are the largest in the world, amount to € 0.21 per EU citizen*.

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