17 tips on how to prepare for interpreting assignment in diplomacy, Part 1
In my previous posts, I wrote about diplomatic meetings and visits between two countries. Now one can wonder why? Why should I bother to remember all those formalities and courtesies if I am not even a politician, only an interpreter? Well, we all know that interpreters have to have a thorough knowledge of international affairs. They have to keep up with the latest news, understand what is going on in the word. However, they also have to familiarise themselves with diplomatic protocol as well if they don’t want to make any faux pas. Actually, knowledge of diplomatic protocol is a prerequisite to performing interpreter’s duties. While bilateral visits usually serve to strengthen mutual relations they also help to break the deadlock or, on the contrary, to launch new cooperation in various sectors. So it’s also interpreter’s role to support those activities to the best of his or her ability. Here are some tips on how to prepare for diplomatic interpreting.
1. Remember history
It’s usually the culture of particular countries that most practitioners mention if asked what one should be aware of while interpreting during the diplomatic visit or conference. Well, I would also add country’s history to the list. Diplomatic visits, apart from negotiations and bilateral agreements that reflect current affairs, are all about gestures, symbolic words and memorial places. So it’s simply not enough to be familiar with popular customs of a country. You also have to know its history. Both of which, of course, are closely related. Think about famous statues, tombs, academic buildings etc. and find out why they are so important to the language users of the country where the visit takes place.
2. Be aware of cultural practises and differences
Culture is probably the most important thing to remember during bilateral or international meetings or visits. Not all countries are the same and what is true to one, is not exactly the same for another. Take the colours, for example. In Poland, black symbolises death and is used during funerals, while in China, on the other hand, white is the colour of mourning. The level of difficulty, of course, is high if we have to do with two totally different countries and one has to adapt quickly to convey the exact message of an interlocutor. Here I always mention the following anecdote:
During the visit of former Polish President Lech Wałęsa to Japan Witold Skowroński, internationally renowned presidential interpreter, had a hard nut to crack. Namely, the Polish president wanted to make his interlocutors laugh and ended his story by saying that the Polish communists were like radishes – red outside but white inside. He did not know that in Japan radishes are white both inside and outside and the interpreter quickly changed ‘radishes’ into ‘prawns’ to make the whole punch line understandable to listeners.
3. Know the difference between various diplomatic visits
The type of a diplomatic visit is very important. Why? Because it gives you the outline of what will actually happen, who can you expect to meet and what kind of speeches, if any, the politicians will deliver and what topics they will contain. Find out where the visit or meeting will take place, on what occasion, who is invited and who has already accepted the invitation. If possible, ask for additional documents like speeches, visit programme, agenda etc. to better prepare for your assignment. Politicians like to quote sometimes so if you know the text beforehand you can prepare or find the proper translation earlier. Also, diplomats usually refer to the previous visits, speeches or agreements. Find those and you will feel more confident while interpreting.
4. Find out mutual relations
While preparing for your interpreting assignment during a diplomatic visit think about mutual relations between both or several countries. What they have in common, are they in the same organisations (NATO, ONZ etc.) and what agreements are they bound with? This will help you with your assignment and pursue better conversations.
5. Consecutive or simultaneous?
Consecutive interpreting is a traditional method of interpreting during diplomatic visits. However, simultaneous interpretation is often used instead for practical reasons. So first of all, familiarise yourself with such terms as a state visit, working visit, official visit, transit visit and find out which one requires consecutive interpreting and when and you will know what to do next.
6. Know who is who
If you already know the attendants of the meeting or visit during which you are going to interpret, learn how to pronounce their names and how to address them properly according to the accepted diplomatic protocol. For example, you can’t address political leaders and diplomatic representatives by their first names, rather by official names or courtesy titles: Mr./Madam ambassador, Mr./Madam (Vice) President etc.
7. Prepare your own terminology list
Do you know what charges d’affaires, lounge or bush shirt mean? Or how to translate State Coach into your mother tongue (hint for Polish interpreters: not as ‘kareta’)? Do you know the names of all official buildings, places and events in both source and target language? As obvious as it may seem, preparing a proper terminology list is a must of every interpreting assignment. Doing it right will save you unnecessary stress and help you find the right word exactly when you need it. Of course, it does not mean that you have to bring your dictionary with you to the visit because this is the time when all terms should be already in your head. So prepare it in advance. Organise terminology into topics, categories etc. Prepare a list of keywords and related terms. Anticipate little bit – try to guess what will the main topic of the event be according to current relations between two or more countries. What they try to achieve or present? You are half way there if you have any transcripts of speeches, but they are not enough as there will be more meetings, conversations and talks.
8. Read between the lines
It’s so important to know the people you work for – their style, specific humour or terminology that they use. If you know all that it makes the task a lot easier and eventually you may find yourself interpreting not just words but conveying the whole message, which is much more important. Everybody has their own style, experiences, knowledge, they have different backgrounds – you have to keep it in mind while interpreting as sometimes the situation requires you to explain what one tried to say and what his or her intentions were.
There are many examples of misunderstandings in diplomacy, especially in Polish one. When Polish president Bronisław Komorowski visited President Barack Obama, he compared the relations between the USA and Poland to marriage and said ‘you have to trust your wife, but you should also check if she is faithful’. Of course, he did not mean to refer specifically to US First Lady Michelle Obama, but that’s how it could be understood, especially when the interpreter used possessive pronoun ‘your’ instead of more general ‘one’. She should have been more tactful and not interpreted everything literally, but tried to explain or even paraphrase Mr. Komorowski’s words. Of course Poland’s president was the first to blame because he should not have made such an off-colour joke to his American counterpart in the first place. But he did and the interpreter, who was the last hope of the Polish delegation then, instead of finding a way from this embarrassing situation made it even worse.
Image courtesy of stil.amu.edu.pl/index.php/witold-skowronski
Hanna Gembus is a professional Polish English and Polish German translator and communication specialist based in the United Kingdom providing translation, content, interpreting and market research services to small, medium-sized and large companies and organisations. She specialises in business, marketing and e-commerce, using linguistic and cultural knowledge to help both start-ups and established companies improve their presence on the market and increase sales. http://langoa.eu