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Conference Interpretation: A Small Section with a Big Mission

Maja Siemienska-Vachali
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 4, 2006, page 14)

In the great organization chart of the Translation Bureau, you will find, within the Interpretation and Parliamentary Translation Directorate, a small section called Conference Interpretation Services, which is divided into three subsections: Official, Foreign and Visual Languages. All told, we are 30 staff interpreters and 16 administrative personnel.

Though we are few in number, we make up for it in visibility. We provide simultaneous and consecutive interpretation for popes, queens, kings, presidents, prime ministers, ministers and less exalted officials on a daily basis.

The anonymous person between the Prime Minister and the President of Country X in official photographs is an interpreter. The voice you hear in the other official language on television, when one of our political luminaries is speaking, is an interpreter’s. The sound coming out of the little earpiece stuck in a conference delegate’s ear is the voice of an interpreter. We are everywhere our government is present, be it in Ottawa, in the provinces or abroad.

Interpretation is not an easy task. Our job is to convey the speaker’s message in another language. But in order to do justice to a speaker, an interpreter must know at least two languages very well, understand the source language with all its nuances and idioms and have sufficient command of the target language to deliver the speaker’s message using proper grammar, syntax, register and tone. The interpreter must be mindful not to overplay or underplay the interpretation, closely monitoring the delivery to ensure that personal views or opinions do not taint the original message. The information that is edited out in the interest of conciseness and speed must never undermine the integrity of the message.

Interpretation is not word-for-word translation. We are required to convey the gist of the message to assist in the communication process. It is not possible to convey every single word, given that the interpreter must hear, analyse, process and deliver the message in another language while the delegate continues speaking. To edit intelligently, in addition to having excellent language skills, an interpreter must have good judgment and a broad cultural background.

Stress levels run high. Speakers may read or speak very fast; the subject matter may be highly technical or of a sensitive nature; the speaker may not be coherent or may have a heavy accent or the sound equipment may not be adequate.

Additional sources of stress stem from the daily changes of venue, clients, subjects and colleagues. One day the assignment may be a NATO meeting in Ottawa, the next, a televised constitutional conference in Québec, followed by an international fisheries conference in St. John’s or a Team Canada mission to Moscow or Beijing.

So why do we do it?

  • Because we love it.
  • Because we are curious by nature.
  • Because our work is varied and interesting.
  • Because we love learning something new each day.
  • Because our colleagues are interesting and well-read.
  • Because we have excellent administrative staff who provide us with assignments and documents and make all our travel arrangements.
  • Because our bosses trust us to do our job responsibly and well!

We must be doing something right because 97% of our clients are satisfied with our services!