Awkward Moments in Interpretation

I came across this article this morning in my feed reader about the trial of Floyd Landis and his 2006 victory in the Tour de France, which has now been tarnished with his alleged testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Because the testing was all done in France many of the lab technicians etc. who are involved in the case speak only French, so it has been necessary to have a courtroom interpreter.

From everything I know, it’s pretty safe to say Interpretation is a tough job on a good day. So, I can’t imagine just how tough it gets interpreting live in front of a courtroom where your slightest slip-up can have a big impact on someone’s life if the mistake isn’t caught. In this case bonus difficulty points are awarded for interpreting medical testimony.

Unfortunately in this case, all didn’t go as well as one would hope:

A significant part of the morning was wasted, though, when the testimony given by Belgium-born Mongongu was frequently interrupted because of an unclear translation of her replies in French.

At one point, her translator incorrectly interpreted Mongongu as saying it took one-and-a-half hours instead of one-and-a-half days to prepare an ‘A’ sample for IRMS (carbon-isotope ratio testing) analysis.

Landis’s attorney Maurice Suh intervened, asking whether there might be a better way to proceed. Lead arbitrator Patrice Brunet, who speaks fluent French, then called for a 90-minute recess so that a replacement translator could be summoned.

Yikes – I can imagine that after the first mistake it’s only something that gets worse too. Interpretation takes a lot of focus and concentration as you try and listen in one language, translate it in your head and speak the translation in the other language, so I’m guessing the added distraction of “Oh god, I hope I don’t screw up again” cycling through your head doesn’t help.

Awkward indeed.

  • Patrick

    It IS pretty tough. I haven’t done court interpreting, but I’ve done it for the police and in other settings and formats.

    I’ve tried to analyze what goes on in my head through the process, and I haven’t been able to come to a final conclusion.

    My best guess is this: it’s not a “switch”… you don’t switch to English, listen, switch to Spanish, speak… it’s more like “two” switches – one for listening, one for speaking -, or rather no switches at all, where your mind is generating thoughts/visuals/etc of what you hear and your mouth is just expressing those thoughts in the target language.

    The process itself could be quite stressful, especially if you’re not an expert in the field or if there are additional distractions (like the pressure of being in a courtroom or the fact that lives/futures depend on your interpretation). It’s especially stressful, though, if you can’t understand the speaker because of their accent.

    One time I was interpreting for someone who said “we need a new bus”, but because of his accent, I interpreted it as “we need a new boss” (and his boss was sitting in front of him!).

    In terms of mistakes, interpreters, especially experienced ones, will easily acknowledge, correct and move on when they make mistakes. Interpreters, in my experience, will rarely forget a mistake, but they will not dwell on it at least until the job is done.

    One final comment… interpreters, especially liaison or consecutive interpreters (and especially in a court setting where there’s so much at stake), have the opportunity (and responsibility) to ask for clarification if something was not understood properly, as what matters the most is that the message is relayed accurately.

    Sorry about the long comments. :)