In interpretation like elsewhere, error is human. Small comical blunder or epic nonsense, all interpreters have committed a faux-pas. Unfortunately, some have caused a lot of harm to the interpreter, to the speaker, to the delegation or to a people. 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 function 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 strikes at the moment you least expect it. Wrong meanings, meaning landslides, misunderstandings and misconceptions always manage to interfere with your return. It is essential to keep a professional attitude and acquire a skill which does not have a price: the ability of self-correction.
Let’s review some of the most epic interpretation errors in history.
It happens that the 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 in eagerness, 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. And in speaking about his aspirations for the future, who should have refrained from working to Polish spoke of lust.
Finally, at the height of the cold war, an American interpreter having not 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, this hypothesis is left to your personal consideration.
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 practicing a high- wire act, so let´s be forgiving!
And you, what is your most memorable incident?
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