One spring afternoon at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna in 2004, freelance interpreter Adela Burelli-Kinsky was suddenly pulled out of the Spanish booth by her boss. He briefed her on the situation as they walked briskly through the corridors and down to the parking garage.
The driver helped her into the car as he swept a portable blue siren onto the hood. Reaching the venue within minutes, she was escorted through the crowds to the entrance, then physically lifted over the turnstiles. She was greeted by the secretary with elation and relief, then brought to a room. Bewildered and breathless, she found herself standing in a room alone with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was waiting to meet with the president of Bolivia for a spontaneous meeting.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” Burelli-Kinsky recalled. “These kinds of things don’t necessarily happen often, but when they do, you have to be ready.”
Not often, perhaps but also not uncommon among interpreters, who all seem to find themselves in unforeseeable circumstances at one point or another in their careers. Depending on the field, location, situation or language requirements, the need for simultaneous or sequential translation comes up in a broad spectrum of contexts.
The UN is one of the few remaining organizations in Vienna that has an official interpretation department with in-house interpreters. The six official working languages are English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. German is not included, as the UN was established in the wake of World War II, and Germany was considered the “problem.” Arabic was not one of the original five languages of the charter but added in 1973.
Most of the interpretation done at the UN is simultaneous, trailing the speaker spontaneously as they are speaking. At the UN, this is delivered through a system of microphones and earphones from interpretation booths – each covering separate languages – that occupy a floor of their own and look down on the assembly.
Because there are only six working languages, the interpretation team must coordinate a “relay system,” in which certain speeches may have to be interpreted in succession. For example, Arabic – one of the more “difficult” languages – may be translated into English first and then into Spanish.
Being a good interpreter involves much more than multilingualism. It also requires a range and depth of knowledge of international, political, social and cultural affairs that equips the interpreter to handle any context or concept that might come up.
Melvina Slim, head of the Arabic section at the UN, emphasizes that even when they are not interpreting, interpreters are in a constant state of preparation.
“All our free time is devoted to knowing what our subjects are about, and every day you might be dealing with a different subject,” she said.
According to Friedrike Schlegl, chief linguist at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who manages a pool of 100 freelance interpreters, a good interpreter “has to be ready for anything from a proverb, a quotation from a work of literature, to a rare geographical name.”
Fast and Curious
A major challenge is stress management. Because simultaneous interpreters work on such high levels of adrenaline, they must be switched out every half hour, and even during “breaks” they’re often assisting their speaking colleague with figures or documents.
Sylvie Rennert, a professor of interpretation at the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Vienna, also emphasizes the cognitive strain interpreters undergo.
“There are so many processes going on at the same time,” she said. “It’s always im- portant to be analyzing what you’re hearing and not just parroting it.”
This takes multitasking to new levels. To listen, understand, translate and speak simultaneously involves brain processes thought to be so complex that several scientific studies have been undertaken to try to unravel them.
These can best be understood by the surprising ways in which a simultaneous interpreter’s job can be complicated. As Slim explained, even though speakerssometimes provide speeches in advance, the act of reading them, especially if they’re not necessarily in perfect English, while interpreting can even be a distraction.
“Seeing and reading something – in addition to listening, processing and churning it out in your own language – can actually just be an additional stream that you need to try and understand,” she explained. “Sometimes even the font or spacing can throw you off!”
In the Room and in the Field
While simultaneous interpreting at international organizations occurs in glass booths well removed from the main action, in consecutive interpreting, interpreters note what’s said in dialogues between two parties while each person is speaking. Here the interpreter is right in the thick of the action, such as bilateral meetings, such as the previously mentioned Annan event.
Consecutive interpretation has both the advantage and disadvantage of taking more time. Having to wait for the interpreter to deliver their interpretation allows each party to consider their next words. On the other hand, in order to save time and with more than two parties, sometimes special portable equipment – wireless earphones and highly sensitive microphones called a “bidule” system – can be used to allow for more simultaneous interpretation “on location.”
The bidule (literally “thingy” or “gadget” in French) system also allows for greater mobility. Interpreters can use it in challenging locations outside or underway. Interpreters can find themselves not only in boardrooms or behind closed doors, but also in factories, deserts, and wheat or oil fields – all mentioned by the interviewees for this article.
Regardless of the location, whether simultaneous or consecutive, with equipment or without, all interpreters face a similar conundrum. While the old rule was that good children should be “seen but not heard,” good interpreters should be heard but not seen – a tricky balance between presence and non-presence.
Burelli-Kinsky likens the experience to feeling like a human “standing lamp.”
“They want you to be there but not visible; you are like a non-entity but you are necessary,” she said, searching for the appropriate words. “You’re not a protagonist, but you’re indispensable.”
Julia Oslansky, who works at the translation service of MA 53, the City of Vienna Press and Information Services, recalled an interesting incident on a freelance job she was on before joining the department.
“Interpretation booths had been ordered for a conference, and it was assumed they would be supplied with the interpreters themselves inside them!”
The organizers were surprised to learn that the interpreters had to be booked separately.
The translation service of MA 53 is an interesting representation of the current permutations of the interpretation field. What was once a much larger department that was part of the mayor’s office is now a “little hub of expertise,” as Oslansky describes it, with just three employees who themselves cover German, English and French. A roster of trained and experienced freelancers is referred to for other language needs. Oslansky is the only in-house interpreter.
The department does still occasionally support the mayor with visiting heads of state or dignitaries, but more often than not, due to what Oslansky calls “generational shifts,” she finds herself present “as a matter of courtesy and just in case of misunderstandings.”
“English just ends up being the common denominator,” she said, “even between the mayor of Vienna and the mayor of Paris.”
What has become far more important than diplomatic interpreting nowadays is what Oslansky calls “community interpreting” – meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population in Vienna. The Vienna Child and Youth Welfare Service (MA 11) even organizes its own interpretation services to overcome language barriers in this field.
But even though MA 53 and MA 11 have access to hundreds of freelance interpreters, finding ones that are qualified to cover languages like Turkish and Slovenian is still difficult.“Back in 2015 during the refugee situation, if I could have learned a language overnight, it would have been Arabic,” Oslansky mused.
Even though conditions and demands have shifted over the years, experienced and qualified interpreters are still very much appreciated in Vienna, and, Schlegl said, the OSCE and the UN try to organize a “diversity of job opportunities” for their pools of freelancers.
“If they don’t get enough work, they may leave Vienna for more lucrative destinations,” she feared.
Taking All Sides
Indeed, the true conviction of dedicated, qualified interpreters cannot be underestimated. Having to convey the emotions, opinions and mindsets of their “interpretees” requires an almost uncanny juxtaposition of flexibility yet commitment.
As Rennert puts it, “As an interpreter, you’re neither neutral nor impartial – you’re multipartial. You’re on everyone’s side.” And you have to be there, Slim emphasized, ready to show up each and every time: “You always have to be passionate about what you’re doing and do it as if it’s the most im- portant thing in life.”
It’s about attitude, Burelli-Kinsky says, recalling the tenet of her favorite professor at interpretation school:
“He used to say, ‘No matter what you say, you have to sound like the voice of God.