Finland’s third EU Presidency is coming to an end. Our interpreters have interpreted at dozens of EU Presidency conferences, meetings and conventions. We have had the chance to contribute to seamless communication among the participants.
Karin Walker and Leonie Wagener interpret from German into English and from English into German. They interpreted at a conference organised by the Ministry of Education and Culture in July, which was one of the first events of Finland’s EU Presidency. Both are experienced conference interpreters who are used to interpreting politicians and other speakers. We asked Walker and Wagener what politicians are like as speakers and what it was like to interpret during Finland’s EU Presidency. We also got an overview of what goes on in an interpreting booth.
International politics with different accents
Wagener has worked as an interpreter since 2011 and Walker since 2002, so both of them have interesting experiences of various interpreting situations. However, for both of them, this was the first interpreting assignment in Finland. According to Walker, it is sometimes challenging to interpret politicians because their speeches are usually carefully planned and written in advance and, as a result, they do not speak freely and naturally. Wagener agrees and adds that both national and EU conferences are not only about sharing information. In these situations, it is often a question of broader matters such as international context, relations and sharing history. This makes the speeches and how to interpret them different from other occasions.
The fact that the use of English has become more common has introduced new challenges for interpreters. Nowadays, conferences often use English as the primary language even if few speakers use it as their first language. Walker says that nearly all of the speeches at the conference on the day of the interview were in English despite there only being a handful of native English speakers present. “Some speakers have a noticeable accent and it takes a few minutes for the interpreter’s ear to get used to the accent and intonation,” notes Walker. However, she says that this is starting to become the normal situation when interpreting from English and the occasions to interpret native English speakers are rare. Walker thinks this is a pity as native speakers use a wide range of rhetorical devices, which makes interpreting them interesting and challenging. Non-native speakers have a more limited vocabulary and, as a result, their speeches are not as versatile. The number of languages interpreted has also decreased. Walker estimates that at the event organised on the day of the interview, there could have been interpreting booths for up to ten different languages instead of the three that were used.
What happens in the interpreting booth?
In an interpreting booth, there are usually two interpreters per language. Interpreting is extremely demanding and requires total concentration. Consequently, it should be done in turns. Wagener and Walker have often interpreted together and say that usually they agree on turns in advance and then interpret approximately 20–30 minutes at a time. “In such a demanding situation, you cannot maintain a high level of concentration for more than 30 minutes at a time, and sometimes you don’t notice the effects yourself, but your interpreting partner certainly does,” comments Wagener. Walker adds that if the speech is particularly complicated and contains a lot of numbers and the speaker has a strong accent, after half an hour one really notices that a break is needed. Good preparation and communication are crucial factors and they reduce stress in the interpreting booth.
Furthermore, one may need to spend several hours in a small space with the booth partner, so there needs to be a certain kind of chemistry. According to Wagener, the key is trusting each other. It is great if you know the partner in advance and can agree on things. “If you don’t know your interpreting partner in advance, you’ll certainly learn to know them during the assignment,” notes Walker. In 2020, it will be Germany’s turn to take over the EU Presidency for six months so it is likely that similar tasks will keep Walker and Wagener busy next year, too.
An interpreter must be a professional and work diligently. At the conference on the day of the interview, we heard a couple of speeches in German. “At that point, the members of the audience grabbed their headphones and started to listen to the interpreting. They really needed us,” says Wagener at the end of the conference day. Delingua’s Interpreting Services Manager Anneli Waris Moreno says that the EU Presidency has been in many ways a challenging and interesting period. “We’ve again learnt new things but, first and foremost, this busy interpreting season strengthened our belief that a persistent, positive and hardworking attitude yields excellent results,” Waris Moreno goes on to say. Finland’s EU Presidency will soon end, but we are already looking forward to new interpreting projects in the spring.