Walking a fine line as a
Our sole master is the integrity of the message
By Maya Khankhoje
They say of our trade: traduttore traditore. This means that if you are faithful to the source language, you might betray the target language and vice versa. Either way you have to walk a fine line. One of the tasks of a simultaneous interpreter is to betray neither whilst maintaining the decorum of the institution you are working for. Our sole master is the integrity of the message.
Being an interpreter in ICAO is pretty straightforward: maintain your cruising speed but don’t lose your bearings. For this you must be well prepared at all times and not lose your cool under stormy weather. But ICAO is not only about making planes not fall off the sky. It is also about making them land safely, a skill which is very much needed during diplomatic negotiations.
They say of our trade: traduttore traditore. This means that if you are faithful to the source language, you might betray the target language and vice versa.
On one such occasion a very passionate delegate from a Spanish-speaking country stated in no uncertain terms that he was willing to “abide by” the decision of the President of the Council but that he basically disagreed with him. The British interpreter in the English booth toned down the message with characteristic British understatement. The delegate was not amused and ramped up his tone. The interpreter repeated his polite version. The President then decided to break the impasse with a short recess after which the meeting resumed. The delegate took the floor again, pointed at me sitting in the Spanish booth and asked me to interpret him into English. I did it with the right dose of Latin American verve and the day was saved.
Negotiating diplomatic language is one thing, but dealing with off-colour language is another. What do you do when the speaker uses four-letter words that have no place in your professional lexicon? You tone down the offensive word a notch or you resort to humour. Once a Dutch-speaking chairman let off some Dutch curse words and then tried to laugh it off by claiming nobody would understand him. I didn’t want to let this recidivist off the hook so I turned on my mike and announced that our Belgian colleague would be very happy to interpret his expletives. That silenced him for a while but not for long.
At another meeting of a panel of technical experts this same chairman made a crude misogynist joke which I had certainly no intention of interpreting. My version: “Please laugh, the chairman has just indulged in a sexist joke”. That brought the house down. By the way, I was never reprimanded for breaking professional protocol by contributing with my two bits, perhaps because ICAO espouses, at least formally, a gender equality policy.
‘Negotiating diplomatic language is one thing, but dealing with off-colour language is another. What do you do when the speaker uses four-letter words that have no place in your professional lexicon?’
What happens when a delegate misuses words in a language he does not speak very fluently? An interpreter must use her judgement to read the subtext correctly. A deep knowledge of the subject and at least a passing familiarity with the speaker’s speech patterns help. Many years ago an elderly technical expert wanted to explain his motivations in suggesting a certain course of action. “Mr. President, permit me to expose myself…” To this day, I have visions of that old-fashioned gentleman opening his gabardine to the world!
And what about mispronunciations? The following story, which I witnessed, is now part of ICAO lore. It involves yet another fiery Spanish-speaking delegate who had vehemently objected to a position paper under discussion. “I object to this piss of paper!” Once again, a coffee break was declared to cool tempers. A fellow interpreter approached the delegate and tried to coach him on the proper way to pronounce the long “ee” sound in English. He also advised him to use another word if he found the task too difficult. When the session resumed, the delegate once again asked for the floor and very wisely chose another word. “I object to this shit of paper!” he said triumphantly. Forgive him for he knew not what he said. Or did he?
I’ve spoken about the peccadilloes of the delegates, but interpreters can and do make mistakes. By the way, when an interpreter up there in a hidden booth goofs up the delegates often turn around and realize that we are not androids but humans and they might even be inclined to make our task easier by slowing down, or e-nun-cia-ting or even avoiding untranslatable colloquialisms. It is no secret that Americans love comparing apples and oranges, an expression often lost in translation.
‘… when an interpreter up there in a hidden booth goofs up the delegates often turn around and realize that we are not androids but humans…’
On one such occasion, when the US expert did not think the Russian expert’s proposal was such a good idea, he chided him for comparing apples and oranges. The Russian interpreter must have translated that as “making a fruit salad out of it” because the Russian delegate riposted: “It might be a fruit salad but let’s hope it’s tasty”. When the English interpreter heard the word “tasty”, in a strange episode of synesthesia, she could not remember its English equivalent because her mind was flooded with the heady scent of delicious meat-filled pierogis, so she improvised: “It might be a fruit salad but let’s hope it’s fruitful”. All parties applauded her felicitous mistake.
A mistake that I shall never live down involves the relations between another international organization and ICAO. Let me say from the outset that these two organizations are sister organizations and complement each other’s work. But occasionally there can be minor misunderstandings to which I contributed unwittingly. While discussing some very important entente in a closed-door meeting, one of the national representatives said: “If we can’t beat them, join them”. My version: “If we can’t join them, beat them”. Nobody noticed my gaffe until I decided to correct it (hint: when stock phrases are mishandled the brain tends to hear the correct version). A few days later as I was walking down Montreal’s main avenue, a member of the sister organization stopped me. “So you want to beat us, do you?” Obviously the closed doors were not shut very tight, but it was all in good fun.
As a former staff member I am proud to say that ICAO antedates the United Nations by two years. Its original mandate was to allow planes to fly safely in and out of a world with uncertain borders. Diplomacy continues to be a very important part of its mission but all countries agree that planes must be kept aloft regardless of political or economic considerations. It takes refined diplomatic skills to make this a reality.
‘Very often interpreters feel like butlers in a lofty household. We are privy to dirty secrets, we witness human follies, we discover dark and devious truths but we must remain silent. Unlike children, we must be heard and not seen.’
Once ICAO sent a small team on a fact-finding mission to a country involved in a dispute with another country. The dispute involved planes, of course. At the end of our mission we were invited to have dinner with the Head of State. Once business talks were over, we sat down at a long table with five of us on one side and five of them on the other side. The Head of State suggested that I be allowed to enjoy my meal in peace but his official interpreter gently overrode that decision. “Maya and I have decided on how to split our work”. True, I went hungry and so did my colleague. But I did get a chance to stop feeling invisible and start feeling like a real part of the team. Our gracious host had encouraged a lowly interpreter to participate in the conversation like a full-fledged member of the team. It was a rare luxury to have my colleague interpret what I had to say. As if my opinions matter.
But they do. My opinions and yours, and those of all staff members of UN agencies matter. Very often interpreters feel like butlers in a lofty household. We are privy to dirty secrets, we witness human follies, we discover dark and devious truths but we must remain silent. Unlike children, we must be heard and not seen. We are often accused of being cynical and elitist. There is some truth to that, at least to the cynical part. If we, like other UN staff members, are likely to be critical, it is because we love what the UN represents and mourn its loss of prestige in the world at large.
How can we help improve the UN and its agencies? By continuing to be good citizens in our sunset years. By putting our knowledge and experience to good use. By critiquing when we must, and praising when we can. By remembering that we have been part of a unique historical adventure that is undergoing a radical transformation. By being part of the change we want to see.
Maya Khankhoje worked for ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, as an interpreter/translator in the Spanish and English sections from 1978 until her retirement in 2003. Prior to that she freelanced in New Delhi, Mexico City and at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. She is currently co-editor of montrealserai.com