CBC News Federal Election


A simple matter of interpretation

In the 2005 film "The Interpreter," Nicole Kidman is a United Nations interpreter who accidentally learns of an assassination plot. Ottawa's interpreters usually deal with more mundane matters.

Ever wonder who's behind those disembodied voices you hear translating for the politicians during question period and at events like leaders debates?

A well-drilled team of interpreters who work for the Translation Bureau, a branch of Public Works and Government Services Canada, that's who.

The Translation Bureau was created in 1934 to translate government documents from English into French, and from French into English. Vocal interpretation services were added in 1959, partly as a result of a Diefenbaker campaign promise. Sign language interpretation was intriduced later, and the bureau now translates into and from many other languages, not just English and French. Its translators and interpreters are hired out to municipal and provincial governments as well as court systems, international groups and news broadcasters.

At the moment, 49 vocal interpreters are assigned to Parliament Hill, handling the House of Commons and the Senate, along with committee meetings and news conferences for both groups. Another 25 do voice translation for conferences and other events.

CBC.ca's Carolyn Ryan talked to two senior interpreters, Suzanne Defoy and Maja Siemienska.

What's the difference between a translator and an interpreter?
Defoy: A translator works from a written text, and his or her output is written. We work from speech. We take it, we analyze it, we process it mentally and we re-speak it in the other language.

How does someone become an interpreter handling, say, a debate among the leaders in a general election campaign?
Defoy: It used to be that you would start out as a translator, and move on to become a translator-interpreter, and then move on to become a full-time interpreter. Nowadays you become a Canadian government interpreter by taking a master's degree in conference interpretation, available only at the University of Ottawa. It's a one-year, very intensive program, after you've earned either a BA in translation or a degree in some other topic of interest. You have to have strong linguistic skills, of course.

The Translation Bureau basically hires all the graduates from the university for another one-year on-the-job training session. During that year, they have to come to the working level we require. That means four days a week of interpreting actual events, such as minor conferences and more private things, and one day of other training. We would never put the newbies on high-profile things.

Do interpreters specialize in putting French speeches into English, or English ones into French?
Defoy: Yes. Let's say my mother tongue is French. My specialty would be interpreting from English into French. You can be more eloquent in the language you end up speaking; you have more words and shades of meaning at your disposal.

That means you must have two different interpreters at an event where both official languages may be spoken. It's very rare that an interpreter would work alone. There are international standards governing that, but there is also the collective agreement. We put in two interpreters for a meeting that will not last more than four hours. For a meeting lasting up to six hours, it's three interpreters, and so on. Usually we work 20 to 30 minutes in the booth interpreting for a speaker, then take a break and the other person takes over.

For the leaders' debate, it's different. During the debate, you have to pay attention and focus closely for two hours without a break, so the same person is attached to each leader for the whole event. Not every interpreter wants to work on the debate because it's a high-stress situation.

What other languages are Canadian government interpreters called upon to provide interpretation for, during conferences and state visits, for example?
Defoy: We cover all the languages in the world. Of course, the greatest demand for our services is mostly in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese. These are languages spoken in the countries where Canada does a large amount of business.

Do you ever get advance copies of speaking notes, to make interpretation easier?
Siemienska: Sometimes we get the speech beforehand, and that's very useful. We read the speech beforehand and then set it aside and translate from what the person is actually saying, in case they depart from the written speech.

Are specific interpreters assigned to each of the party leaders, to get used to their speech patterns?
Defoy: No, we all interpret for all of the leaders over time. You can't schedule just one person to follow one leader. We choose people for the leaders' debates based partly on luck of the draw and partly on who wants to work, but some interpreters express a preference for handling a certain leader, and we try to pair skills with certain voices.

Do interpreters have to prove they're impartial?
Defoy: Oh yes, that comes with the job. All the interpreters are also cleared to top secret by CSIS; that's a requirement of the job too. By definition, interpreters do not tell what goes on in the meeting where they're working. We have a very good record on that. The Translation Bureau has never had a leak.

Are interpreters included in lockups for things like federal budgets?
Defoy: We don't go into the same kind of lockups that you [journalists] go into. But they do give us the speech ahead of time. There is a guard at the door making sure that we do not call anyone, that there is no release of information to any outside parties before the speech is given.

What happens when a speaker is going too fast for you to keep up with?
Defoy: You try never to skip whole sentences or passages, but you tend to summarize more. That's very difficult to do. If we cannot do that, we can send a message asking the speaker to slow down – at a conference, for example.

In general, Italian speakers tend to speak more quickly, and so do women. [Former Progressive Conservative prime minister] Kim Campbell was a very fast speaker. Her sentences were very dense and she would read them at top speed. That's not good for interpreters. It's usually not good if someone is reading. The pauses tend to be less natural, and the intonation of sentences, whereas if you have a really good speaker who knows what they want to say, that's much better for us.

Is there a school of thought that interpreters should or shouldn't try to mimic the emotion in the voice of the person you're translating for?
Defoy: You try to be as faithful to the message as possible. You do not want to overplay or underplay the message. It's a very difficult balance to keep. Most interpreters tend to tone down the interpretation. We're not in the acting business. We're in the communication business.
Siemienska: The interpreter is never supposed to be the star. The star is supposed to be the speaker.
Defoy: Yes, the content is what is important, not the wrapping.

Are you supposed to try to clean up the language of someone who's struggling with his or her second language?
Defoy: We don't clean up their speech. What we're told never to do is to correct something that is blatantly a mistake. If the speaker says, "Le capital des Etats-Unis est New York," we won't say, "The capital of the United States is New York � uh, Washington." We'll say it is New York, and leave it at that. We are a conduit.

Siemienska: If the grammar is bad but the message is clear, then we get the message across. We don't try to make our listeners' lives difficult by trying to be ungrammatical in the target language too. We try to have the target languages as clean as possible.

Are there times when you just have to stop translating because someone is making absolutely no sense?
Defoy: Yes. You hate it. You hope they will start making sense again soon. Most times you can tell generally what they're getting at. It's very rare that you get lost because they're not making sense.

What's the funniest thing that got lost in translation while you were working?
Siemienska: I was doing a conference of the judiciary, where there were a number of older judges. Someone said what I thought was "services aux juges âgés," and I translated it as "services for senior judges." It was actually a phrase that meant "user services."

Defoy: Mine is a bit politically incorrect. I was translating from English into French for a Japanese speaker at a conference on exports of meat and whatnot. A Japanese man was explaining to all the meatpackers and the people from Agriculture Canada: "In Japan, they do love pork groin." I was thinking, "This is so disgusting." I was almost puking. I kept elbowing my colleagues. At the end I realized it was not "pork groin" he was saying but "pork loin." Someone had given him an English text that was probably phonetically transcribed, which is very difficult to read. There I was thinking how very gross pork groin must be.

Is there anything new on the horizon for interpreters?
Defoy: Yes, remote interpretation. In this day and age of budget restraints, more and more people are meeting by phone teleconference and you're expected to provide interpretation. You can interpret a bit better when it's a videoconference, but when people are not in the same room as you are, you miss half of the message. Body language is very important.

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