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Eu debate 2014: when interpreters steal the show

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Although yesterday’s first debate between the European Commission candidates was neither thrilling nor revelationary, it has shed a light on the issue of conference interpreting in the European institutions, which is often perceived as being of secondary importance. Houston, I think we have a problem.

I wish I had a chance to watch yes­ter­day’s de­bate in Eng­lish, be­cause the mas­tery of this lan­guage is, for me, a fac­tor on which I would judge the can­di­dates. Un­for­tu­nately, I haven’t been given this chance, be­cause I live in France, where al­most every­thing is voiced-over in French. As such, I could not re­ally hear what the can­di­dates were say­ing in Eng­lish, but in­stead, I could closely ob­serve the job the in­ter­preters were doing.

And I must say that they did a re­ally good job.

But de­spite this very good job, they made me laugh so much I couldn’t prop­erly con­cen­trate on the con­tent of the de­bate.

The rea­son for this is very sim­ple: how can you con­cen­trate on what young, en­er­getic, fresh Ska Keller is say­ing if in­stead of her voice you hear the voice of a bour­geois, rather aged man? How can you con­cen­trate when you see a woman who prob­a­bly starts her day off with a jog and fresh fruit for break­fast on a sunny ter­race and in­stead of her voice you hear the voice of a man who you imag­ine de­light­ing every evening in a Cas­tle Lafite Roth­schild Pauil­lac 1996 while a green table lamp on his desk bathes moun­tains of saga­cious vol­umes with its gen­tle light? It’s a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence to lis­ten­ing to a granny read­ing Trainspot­ting to lull her five year-old grand­daugh­ter to sleep.

No country for young men

There was not just one in­ter­preter. If I am not mis­taken, there were five of them – four men and one woman. And al­though I wouldn’t bet my life on it, none of them was younger than forty years old. How about jobs for young ed­u­cated Eu­ro­peans? When I chose to study trans­la­tion and in­ter­pret­ing in 2007 they told us that job op­por­tu­ni­ties were re­ally plen­ti­ful in this do­main in Eu­rope. Re­ally plen­ti­ful. They didn’t tell us that being young is a dis­ad­van­tage in this case, though.

I couldn’t dis­miss the fact that yes­ter­day the in­ter­preters were not neu­tral. At one mo­ment I asked my­self if I would per­ceive the can­di­dates dif­fer­ently if I was blind and I could only rely on the in­ter­preted con­tent. I re­al­ized that I would in­deed, be­cause there were mo­ments when the in­ter­preters in­flu­enced the speeches with their in­to­na­tion and the pitch of their voice. It worked in the favour of the phleg­matic Jean Claude Juncker, but com­pletely changed the per­cep­tion of Ska Keller’s per­for­mance. When Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt ges­tic­u­lated (and he did a lot of that), a sen­si­tive per­son would have a heart at­tack, be­cause the in­ter­preter raised the pitch of his voice so high that mir­rors would break. Is con­fer­ence in­ter­pret­ing a one-man show which has the right to exist in­de­pen­dently of the orig­i­nal speech? What if the par­al­lel lin­guis­tic re­al­i­ties (the one cre­ated by the speaker and the one cre­ated by the in­ter­preter) come to be con­tra­dic­tory be­cause of the in­ter­preter’s tone of voice alone? 

This is not our show

Yes, I am maybe in­dulging my­self with a lit­tle bit of in­no­cent provo­ca­tion here, but I feel that things are un­fair on the Eu­ro­pean job mar­ket. I stud­ied in­ter­pret­ing at uni­ver­sity and the pro­fes­sors made a tremen­dous ef­fort to teach us that we need to be, first and fore­most, neu­tral. That no mat­ter how ego­cen­tric we are, this.​is.​not.​our.​show. That we take re­spon­si­bil­ity for what is in­ter­preted, not only on the level of ac­tual words, but at the level of prosody, in­to­na­tion and lex­i­cal stress as well. 

The ques­tion which I asked at the be­gin­ning re-emerges here: why not em­ploy young in­ter­preters, who nowa­days spend more time search­ing for a job than on ac­tual pro­fes­sional ac­tiv­ity? Maybe it’s time for a change of guard?