Love’s labour’s lost

Interpreting recently suffered a black eye, and plenty of humiliation, in Austria when an interpreter for Greek was hired to provide simultaneous interpretation for a press conference of the Austrian chancellor and his Greek counterpart.

The interpretation, if that is what it was, was nothing more than the stammering of a three-year-old, repeating the same weird phrase over and over again (“winds are blowing”).

The interpreter later explained that the speed of the speech had been too much for him – a veteran court interpreter, no less.

Yes, sometimes speakers don’t know how to deliver a speech, reading it off their manuscript or a teleprompter at lightning speed. Something like this doesn’t even benefit those listening to the original language, let alone the ones who are forced to listen to the interpretation on headsets.

Still, every interpreter has been in that situation, but the ridiculous conduct of the interpreter in this story is the worst I have ever heard. Even students attempting a simultaneous interpretation for the first time usually manage at least a few coherent sentences. But this professional, and accredited by the courts, could not even get one whole sentence out.

Unfortunately, this lack of proper skills is rampant among grey-market interpreters. Grey market, because, quite frankly, they are not real interpreters, that is conference interpreters, but individuals who, on account of being immigrants or having acquired some language skills somehow ended up as court or community interpreters.

True, there are some conference interpreters who have also signed on as court interpreters, but most court interpreters aren’t conference interpreters, and may, in fact, never even have had any formal training or apprenticeship in interpreting techniques.

To my knowledge, that poor chap, a native speaker of Greek, never had any proper training in interpreting or translation (if it is the same one I am thinking of, he did, or maybe still does, teach classes in Greek as a foreign language).

That he ever managed to become accredited as a court interpreter speaks volumes about the system itself, and raises serious questions about the qualifications of his colleagues across the board.

Full disclosure: I never bothered with court interpreting, or any court-related work, because (a) it’s not really a domain for professional (conference) interpreters and (b) it pays next to nothing. (Alright, I’ll admit it, (b) is the main reason why I never got into that field.)

Within a few days of this disastrous press conference, it was revealed in the media that court translations in Austria are remunerated to the tune of EUR 20 – regardless of how many pages or words a document comprises. Ridiculous.

That the system over there in Austria has gotten away with it so far proves again that the majority of people accepting this kind of work aren’t real professionals, because the latter would never work for peanuts (and when you pay peanuts, what you get is monkeys, not interpreters or translators).

Legal translation work (translation, interpreting) requires genuine experts in both law and language, and there aren’t that many of us. Ideally, the legal translator/interpreter is a language professional first, with sound legal expertise. In my experience (almost 30 years, in business since 1987), lawyers who know a bit of a foreign language aren’t necessarily the best translators/interpreters – actually, 99% of the time, the very opposite is true.

Either way, people with this skill set are worth EUR 20 a minute, not EUR 20 a document. But language experts in Austria have traditionally been unloved and unappreciated – those with English in their language pair will be familiar with the standard putdown: “I don’t need a translator, because I can [sic] English.”

The other day I heard the recording that is played when a phone number you are trying to reach is out of service: “The number you are trying to reach is temporary [sic] out of service.” (One of the country’s major phone companies – is it any wonder that, according to a recent report, every business day 22 companies (and 38 individuals) file for bankruptcy in that tiny country?)

‘Nuff said, eh?

Nowadays of course, this kind of arrogance is seen right across Europe, with the EU institutions winning the gold medal in this particular discipline. I have yet to see a document translated by the official translators in Brussels that is not full of mistakes (and that includes their main laws, regulations and directives, mind you). Not surprising, though, because in Brussels the common belief is that anyone can be picked off the street and given a crash course in translation and/or interpreting.

Oh well, rotten to the core… like the whole nefarious EU project.