In­ter­preters: Cru­cial be­hind-the-scenes ac­tors in ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Greece and the eu­ro­zone

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY IOANNA FOTIADI

Dozens of in­ter­preters roamed the Euro­pean Coun­cil’s cor­ri­dors in Brus­sels along­side frus­trated, ex­hausted po­lit­i­cal lead­ers un­til the early hours of July 13, as one of the tough­est ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Greek gov­ern­ment and the coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional lenders for a new bailout deal dragged on. If it weren’t for these pro­fes­sion­als dili­gently search­ing for the right words among such a host of lan­guages be­ing used, how else could the politi­cians from 19 dif­fer­ent coun­tries com­mu­ni­cate?

“The bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity is huge,” said Vangelis Pana­gio­tatos, who of­ten trans­lates An­gela Merkel and Wolf­gang Schauble’s state­ments for Greek state broad­caster ERT. “Our big­gest en­emy is fa­tigue,” said Pana­gio­tatos, who dur­ing that week­end’s marathon ne­go­ti­a­tions re­mained in the stu­dio at ERT’s Aghia Parak­sevi head­quar­ters in north­ern Athens for 30 hours, an­tic­i­pat­ing (as was the rest of the coun­try) an agree­ment be­tween the two sides.

In the runup to those crunch talks, in­ter­preters from all fields were re­cruited: three for ev­ery lan­guage in each Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tion’s des­ig­nated booth, some in broad­cast­ing stu­dios car­ry­ing out di­rect trans­la­tions and oth­ers at­tend­ing dis­cus­sions be­tween three or four par­ties, whis­per­ing into their as­signed lead­ers’ ears. Ad­di­tion­ally, there are in­ter­preters who con­trib­ute to lead­ers’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion via phone.

“The in­ter­preter is in­formed ahead of time. He’s on standby, over a phone, tak­ing notes and trans­lat­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” said one pro­fes­sional who asked not to be named. Dis­cre­tion, in this case, is an in­vi­o­late rule.

The fo­cus on is­sues per­tain­ing to po­lit­i­cal econ­omy has forced in­ter­preters to spe­cial­ize in its ter­mi­nol­ogy. “I strug­gled to find the pre­cise trans­la­tion for the So­cial Sol­i­dar­ity Ben­e­fit for Pen­sion­ers, zero deficit cost and Euro­pean Fi­nan­cial Sta­bil­ity Mech­a­nism,” said An­ge­los Kak­la­ma­nis, who trans­lates from English to French and vice versa for TV broad­cast­ers. “The big­gest chal­lenge of course is for us to trans­late the Greek word Me­tapo­litefsi, as there is no equiv­a­lent con­cept in other lan­guages. Con­se­quently, I some­times trans­late it as ‘af­ter the restora­tion of democ­racy’ and other times as ‘af­ter the dic­ta­tor­ship pe­riod.’”

Eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal terms aside, the ex­perts have con­cluded that all sorts of knowl­edge can come in use­ful.

“I ad­vise my fe­male stu­dents to keep up to date with sports, es­pe­cially when there is a World Cup or Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship go­ing on,” said Athana­sios Tsi­fis, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­pre­ta­tion at Johannes Guten­berg Univer­sity of Mainz/Ge­mer­sheim. “Match re­sults are com­mon ground in meet­ings be­tween po­lit­i­cal lead­ers so it’s good to know what is what,” he added.

The ac­cent, slip-ups and flu­ency of ev­ery politi­cian pose a chal­lenge of their own. The Lat­vian Euro­pean com­mis­sioner, Valdis Dom­brovskis, for ex­am­ple, is of­ten con­fus­ing given that he has a ba­sic knowl­edge of English. On the other hand, Eurogroup chief Jeroen Di­js­sel­bloem’s English is flu­ent but heav­ily in­fused with com­pli­cated eco­nomic terms.

An in­ter­preter’s job, how­ever, is not lim­ited to just get­ting the mean­ing across. “There are two schools of thought,” said trans­la­tor and in­ter­preter An­dreas Akratos. “One sug­gests that we trans­late in an un­col­ored fash­ion and the other that we con­vey the speaker’s pas­sion. Younger in­ter­preters fol­low the lat­ter.”

“Dur­ing [US Pres­i­dent Barack] Obama’s in­au­gu­ra­tion speech, it was sim­ply im­pos­si­ble for me not to con­vey the at­mos­phere,” said Kak­la­ma­nis.

“Act­ing is a qual­ity ev­ery in­ter­preter should pos­sess in or­der to con­vinc­ingly put across the speaker’s mean­ing to the au­di­ence,” added Tsi­fis. “When trans­lat­ing, the in­ter­preter must put his per­sonal opin­ion aside and sim­ply be the speaker’s mouth.”

The pro­fes­sion’s code of ethics, how­ever, states that if you strongly dis­agree with what you pre­sume will come up in a dis­cus­sion, you should turn down the job. This has hap­pened with in­ter­preters asked to trans­late for Greek far-right party Golden Dawn.

An in­ter­preter fre­quently as­sumes the du­ties of a mod­er­a­tor as well.

“You are of­ten called to bridge the ed­u­ca­tional gap be­tween two par­ties,” said in­ter­preter Mi­randa Pa­padopoulou. “Some­times you have to al­ter the vo­cab­u­lary when speak­ing to ado­les­cents for ex­am­ple, or the tone in which you trans­late if the au­di­ence is get­ting an­gry.”

When only two par­ties are in­volved, es­pe­cially in cor­po­rate af­fairs, the com­pany’s agents will ask for the in­ter­preter’s opin­ion. “They ask whether I be­lieve the other side has been con­vinced or not. Some­times they’ll ask me to tell the other party I made a mis­take when trans­lat­ing so that they can mod­ify their state­ments,” another re­called.

“Our pro­fes­sion also has a bright side,” said Pana­gio­tatos as he gazes on an abun­dance of photos where he ap­pears along­side po­lit­i­cal lead­ers: There’s va­ri­ety.

On the other hand, how­ever, the job comes with a lot of stress and anx­i­ety. “We fought hard to im­prove the work­ing con­di­tions in the booth,” said Akratos, who is also one of the found­ing mem­bers of the Hel­lenic As­so­ci­a­tion of Con­fer­ence In­ter­preters.

“They wouldn’t even bring us a glass of wa­ter,” said Akratos. “Co­ex­is­tence in the cabin is sim­i­lar to the army. You need to de­velop a good re­la­tion­ship with your col­leagues in or­der to sur­vive.”

For in­ter­preters around the world, ‘the bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity is huge,’ said Vangelis Pana­gio­tatos, who of­ten trans­lates An­gela Merkel’s and Wolf­gang Schauble’s state­ments for Greek state broad­caster ERT.

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