When speakers and interpreters do not understand

When a speaker and an interpreter don’t understand, small comical blunders or epic nonsense can arise, but some misunderstandings can cause a lot of problems.

In interpretation like elsewhere, error is human. Whether they be small comical blunders or epic nonsense, all interpreters have committed a faux-pas at one point or another. Unfortunately, some have caused a lot of harm to the interpreter, to the speaker, to the delegation or to the public. If these discrepancies are rarely penalized, according to Stephen Sekel, the former head of the English translation service at the United Nations, it is because they often have no other affect than causing general giggling from the audience.

In order to avoid an embarrassing situation, check first of all that you always have control of your microphone, that it is only on when the speaker speaks, off when they don’t say anything and keep your comments for the coffee break. This way you will avoid any mishaps which could damage your reputation, or even cost you your job. Remember the incident during the General Assembly of the United Nations during which the member states were voting on 9 resolutions to Palestine, which one interpreter found “a little too much”. Also, as far as possible, be sure to know the name and role of all speakers as well as all those present at the assembly. It will save you the stress of having to repeat a foreign incomprehensible name phonetically and lose your footing for the rest of the speech.

Despite this basic advice, errors always strike at the moment that you least expect them. Wrong meanings, meaning landslides, misunderstandings and misconceptions always manage to make an appearance. It is essential to keep a professional attitude and acquirepriceless skill: the ability of self-correction.

Let’s review some of the most epic interpretation errors in history.

In some cases, an interpreter may be fired on the spot, as was the case for an interpreter who confused “estar constipado” with “being constipated” when the Spanish delegation took the words specifying that she had caught a cold. If the assembly is bent with laughter, the humiliation is much worse for the unfortunate.

Worse still than dismissal, these errors can have fatal consequences. In 1980, when the young Willie Ramirez was admitted to hospital for poisoning, the word “intoxicado” in Spanish, had been translated literally as “intoxicated”, drugged. Having not received the appropriate treatment, the boy died.

On a funnier note, in 1977, during the mandate of President Carter, on an official visit to Poland, a Russian interpreter with little skill in Polish caused hilarity in the national media when he declared that the President had abandoned – and not left – the United States. Furthermore, while speaking about his aspirations for the future, the interpreter, who should have refrained from working into Polish, spoke of lust.

Finally, at the height of the cold war, an American interpreter that hadn’t understood a phrase whispered by Nikita Khrushchev interpreted it as “we will bury you” instead of “we will live longer than you”, thus causing … a chill. Speaking of war, some people believe that the bombing of Hiroshima was partly the result of an interpretation error. Nonetheless, it’s up to you whether or not you believe that rumour.

Speaking of a lack of professionalism, remember the young man who pretended to be the sign language interpreter during the tribute to Nelson Mandela in December 2013.

That plays into the hands of those who are suspicious of interpretation services and prefer to speak in broken English or listen to the original speech, even if they are not familiar with the language. It should be noted that even if certain errors are funny, they sometimes could have been avoided if the interpreter’s working conditions had been respected.

Therefore, do not let your employer follow the example of Muammar Gaddafi, who kept the microphone for more than 75 minutes, whereupon his interpreter, who was working alone, fainted in the booth. Remember that all interpreters remain professionally qualified while practicing a high-wire act, so let’s be forgiving!

What is your most memorable incident?

Translation into English: Chloe Findlay

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This article has been written by Gaelle Hardy

Graduated from the University of Liège (Belgium) in interpretation, Gaëlle completed her internship at Cultures Connection in Argentina.