Cannes Festival Red carpet Interpreter

“The most important thing an interpreter needs to have is a sixth sense of how and what to research”

With the 72nd Cannes Film Festival underway, specialized interpreter Nadia Martín talks about how to work with films and international stars.

The Cannes Film Festival opens its doors for the 72nd time, at which a eminent selection of 21 films will compete for its prestigious Palme d’Or. The red carpet will welcome both experience and youth, with internationally renowned figures in attendance including Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodóvar, Ladj Ly, Diao Yinan and Marco Bellocchio. Cannes is rightly considered one of the three most important film festivals in the world accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations, together with the Venice and Berlin festivals.

Its reputation as an A-list festival demands that it maintains a high standard not only in its choice of films and jury, but also in terms of organization and communications. Every year, the Cannes Film Festival holds a host of events in parallel with the main event, attended by so many artists and audiences that it can bring the Côte d’Azur grinding to a halt.

What role do interpreters play in artistic festivals of this magnitude? Nadia Martín (Salamanca, 1982), a professional interpreter with experience in the film industry, sees them as a cog in a giant machine that has to work perfectly, even when there’s an occasional wrench in the works.

Freelancer by choice, Nadia initially entered the world of film on the recommendation of a colleague. She participates in all kinds of film festivals, lending her voice in Spanish, French or English to whichever directors, actors, and members of the press might need it. Her most important work might be that which she performs at the San Sebastián Film Festival, in Spain, on par with Cannes.

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– What types of interpreting work do you do at the San Sebastián festival?

– The festival has two parts: the official interpretation department, which is a very large team of interpreters managed by one person. It’s also common for producers and distributors to bring along their own interpreters to promote their films. I began working for producers and distributors in 2014, and was part of the Festival’s official team for the first time in 2018. Working with producers and distributors basically means a marathon of interviews and everything else that comes with the release of a new film. As part of the official interpretation team, you might end up interpreting at the various film industry events held in parallel with the festival, at discussions on film marketing, media events, galas … pretty much anything and everything organized by the Festival.

– Besides the variety of official activities, do you tend to get assigned a certain kind of interpretation work in particular?

– You might be assigned anything. Interviews for producers and distributors all follow the same pattern, with one film per day, or at most one film in the morning and another in the afternoon. You’re required to have watched the film and be as prepared as possible, especially because the director wants the interpreter to be knowledgeable and show interest because it’s their baby, their most precious creation. Typically, interviews are interpreted consecutively, but sometimes, to save time, they might hand you a recorder to simultaneously interpret while the artist is speaking, and speed things up that way. When working directly for the Festival, a lot of unexpected things can come up, and things can get delayed, so you have to stay flexible because you might suddenly have to improvise. So that’s why you need to take along any previous work done for the various departments, films, or members of the jury. For example, you might be suddenly called on to interpret a discussion because a director said that after their film is screened they want to make an unscheduled appearance at the theatre to talk to the audience.  In that case, the Festival managers have to pick an interpreter, and even though you might not have seen the film because you were somewhere else, you have to have the necessary resources to do a good job.

– What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to interpreting at a film festival?

– The biggest challenge is actually the large volume of cinematographic information that you have to have learned on your own, because the world of film is huge, and all those working in this universe have a lot of work that falls on their shoulders. The reporters belong to the Culture or Film departments of their respective media, so they’re extremely knowledgeable and can ask questions about all kinds of things. At the presentation of a movie that was released that year, a reporter might ask whether it was inspired by Hitchcock because it has echoes of one of his films from the ’50s. You have to have a lot of cultural background knowledge because they could deviate from the planned script at any time.

When working directly for the Festival a lot of unexpected things can come up, and things can get delayed, so you have to stay flexible.

– How does the unpredictability and need for accuracy at those times change the way you work?

– The two methods of interpreting are in fact quite distinct. While with simultaneous interpretation there isn’t much room to go off script, the same can’t be said for consecutive interpretation, and the latter is the most common method during interviews. With consecutive interpretation, you have to be very much in tune with the speaker at every moment. You find that there are people who like to talk in long sentences and don’t pause to give you space to jump in, and then there are others who aren’t so comfortable with that and prefer to talk in short sentences so you can intervene, and yet others who talk and look at you, expecting you to tell them when to pause. You can get into a nice flow, but you really have to have the ability to adapt. For example, if you find yourself used to consecutive translation using short sentences and you haven’t exercised your memory muscles much, you’re going to have a difficult time working with some speakers.

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– What’s the interaction with the speakers like?

– Usually it’s very good. Some actors and directors are more approachable than others. With the media, you end up getting to know each other from festival to festival. An interpreter has to know “how to be”, know their place, and be available without getting in the way. At certain moments, while the interview is going on they’re also taking photos or filming. Over the years you accumulate a lot of experience in knowing the right behavior to adopt, when it’s best to step a little further aside and how far, what you can and can’t say, etc. To create a pleasant atmosphere, I always make sure they are the ones who take the initiative in our interactions.

The biggest challenge is the large volume of cinematographic information that you have to have learned on your own.

– Have you ever participated in a talk where there was interaction with the public? Was that difficult?

– Yes, I’ve had to do that sometimes, and yes, it is difficult because it can be unpredictable. The public asks all kinds of questions, and the more informal the occasion, the greater the chance that someone will end up cracking jokes, which is every interpreter’s greatest fear. You don’t know what last names, numbers, or untranslatable jokes might pop up. A lot depends on the culture. Also, I’ve sometimes have had to translate a joke and I didn’t get the joke despite understanding all the words that were spoken, and of course, you still have to say something. You know that the audience isn’t going to get the joke since you didn’t get it yourself, but you also don’t want to make the person who told the joke look bad. So you have to find an elegant way to fix the situation, such as “Would you mind telling it again?” “That’s a cultural thing so it won’t be understood, but what I think you mean to say is …”.

– Is the work at these A-list festivals different from that at the more minor ones?

– The demands are the same, and I don’t make a distinction between clients of one category or another. I make exactly the same preparations either way. As far as the types of movies that are shown, as well as the organization and number of events held in parallel, yes there’s a difference. But it’s not like one is more difficult than the other.

– Did you face any particular challenge at San Sebastián that taught you something?

– The first year, what stood out to me the most is that you have to be very flexible. You have to be prepared for absolutely anything, including when it comes to how you’re dressed. You have to be in an A-list environment, be aware that you’re going to be there for many hours, that you’ll be standing most of that time, and that you’ll be going back and forth from indoors to outdoors. With other types of interpreting you’re more following a script and there is little possibility of deviating from it. But at a film festival of this magnitude, an interpreter has to be very flexible and can’t miss a drop of information, because the actors and directors are putting a lot on the line to bring their movie to certain festivals. So everything has to fit together just right, and the interpreter is one more gear in this big machine. There’s only one shot, and everything has to come out perfectly. The work is pretty intense, but it’s fantastic. Being able to accompany an actor or director for a full day allows you to meet artists who you would otherwise never be able to get that close to. They were able to create a film, to tell a story, and now they’re right there, and you have the chance learn about everything having to do with their creation, personal anecdotes, their sources of inspiration, and so on. It gives you a much fuller picture of everything, which is a privilege.

An interpreter has to know “how to be”, know their place, and be available without getting in the way.

– Has there been any interpretation work that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

– Yes. On several occasions I’ve been able to work with Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who have directed various French comedies that are very popular in Spain. They are the directors of the film “Intocable”. It wasn’t their first film, but this film in particular unexpectedly became extremely popular in Spain. That began the forming of a special relationship with the Spanish public. The pair have released two comedies since then, and I had the opportunity to participate in their promotion. Since I’ve met them so many times, not only at the San Sebastián Film Festival, it’s always nice to work with them. They’re lovely! Besides, they always ask us, “What did you think of the film?”, “How were the jokes?”, “Are they funny in Spain?” It’s great to be able to see a director up close like that, and watch their work evolve from one year to the next.

– What advice would you give an interpreter to prepare for a job interpreting at Cannes or San Sebastián?

– What has stuck with me is a piece of advice that our professor gave us while in college. She said that the best translator is not one who knows the language, nor who is the most detailed or who knows everything, but the one who has the right intuition, a sixth sense, about what they need to research. She called it the suspicion hunch. “Is this number really right?” “Are penguins birds or fowls?” I’ve learned that the most important thing for a professional interpreter is to have a sixth sense of how and what to research, what type of information may be useful in preparation for each different task. Also, obviously, the topic needs to be at least a little interesting to you, because if its torture, then you’re not going to be in the right frame of mind to be able to pull it off. When working with producers and distributors, it helps to have watched the movie, so you can do more research on the things that you think are likely to come up, such as the technical sheet, previous work by the directors and actors, things that your instinct tells you a reporter might be interested in knowing.

Translation into English: Sean Mullen

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This article has been written by Gonzalo Olaberría

Before starting as a Digital Content Manager at Cultures Connection, he worked in Argentina as a journalist for national newspapers and magazines, and as a consultant in political and corporate communication.