How do country leaders speak to each other?

How do country leaders speak to each other?

International dialogue keeps problems at bay. When stakes are high, it becomes relevant as ever.

It’s crazy different how today when political matters escalate, countries around the globe are quickly involved. Even if they are not neighbors. Even if they don’t share people or languages. Trade, communications, technology, and human rights, are all reasons for international dialogue.

Many times, spaces like those at the UN committee are enough. But many others, a tête-à-tête is required. Leaders need to talk.Conversations must happen in order to move on. And it is in these situations: creating an alliance, avoiding war, making tough choices, that interpreting is necessary. Impeccable interpreting.

How are talks mediated? What role do interpreters have in all of this?

What is the job about

It is impossible for national leaders to be fluent in all languages. The UN has plenty of interpretations going on for everyone to understand. But in an interview or any other scenario of the sort, interpretation must be chosen wisely.

Political interpreters need to be up to date with current affairs. They should be knowledgeable in order to not pick the wrong word or expression for what could be a very sensitive topic.

They have to do research before, go over documents, learn any relevant technical terms or expressions and attend the meeting wholly prepared. This is why being an excellent translator does not always translate to being a good political interpreter.Translators can take their time. Political interpreters must come up with the best possible translation at a very demanding pace. On the spot. (This is why research is important, all energy at that moment must be dedicated to choosing the right words).

And let’s not forget, this is politics. So being polite, charming, persuasive, and a firm is on the line. Even though interpreters should not convey gestures and emotions, translating, for example, humor, is quite the challenge. Jokes and punchlines can stir crowds. A badly translated tagline can damage a reputation or kill the mood.

Photo by Evangeline Shaw on Unsplash

Types of interpreting

How many situations can you think of? Political interpretation covers:

· Diplomatic settings such as the World Trade Organization (WTO

· Parliamentary sessions such as what the European Parliament is regularly holding

· Meetings of global leaders at overseas venues

· Official state visits of foreign leaders

· Town hall meetings with citizens who speak different languages, including new immigrants

· Live or prerecorded broadcasts of political events

· International speeches, press conferences, and other events that have effects beyond national borders

Amongst others. It could be a videoconference between leaders, a phone call, or face to face in a meeting room. And there are several ways  to get this done:

1.     Simultaneous interpreting: the interpreter translates while the content is being delivered by the speaker.

It’s commonly used for large presentations or lectures and often requires a team of interpreters working out of a soundproof booth or in a separate room using an audiovisual feed. In these cases, participants receive the interpreter’s speech using headsets and receivers. This is the type of interpreting used at the United Nations. Such as at the Convention on Climate Change that framed the Paris Agreement in 2015. One of the six languages is chosen as the main spoken language, while the others ( either English, Arabic, French, Chinese, Spanish, or Russian) are instantly translated into headsets.  

2.     Consecutive interpreting: the interpreter listens to the speaker and provides interpretation during natural breaks in speech or at the end of an idea or sentence.

Consecutive interpreters will usually stand or sit directly next to the person for whom they are interpreting. Commonly used with smaller group gatherings such as business meetings or one-on-one meetings. Or discussing important issues face to face. There are a few techniques for this we will see later on.

3.     Relay interpreting: it is less common, but can be used when events require interpretation into more than one language. 

If, for example, a Japanese speaker is giving a presentation to a room full of French and Spanish speakers, relay interpreters will translate content from Russian into a common language for their fellow interpreters and these will interpret from into the language of each of their audiences need. It’s mostly useful where there are rare language pairs.

Interpreting techniques

We have mentioned headsets and earpieces for simultaneous interpretation. But WIRED broke down real-time translation into an amazing explainer video. There, Barry Slaughter Olsen, Professor of Translation and Interpretation at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, explains what it’s like to be a professional interpreter. 

He mentions several techniques employed, which can be useful for almost any scenario. Except the courtroom setting because of its imperative need for accuracy. In this sense, legal interpreting is unique. 

For example, there are two main concerns: where will the interpreter be and how will they remember what is being said. 

For the latter, when it comes to consecutive interpretation it’s common to take notes. Usually, interpreters come up with their language (commonly beforehand) for when statements get too long. And then the other memory hack is timing. The further back the person starts interpreting, the more they will have to keep in the short-term memory. But if interpretation is too simultaneous, it’s easy to mess up grammar, syntax, and even phrase meaning because it changes as it evolves.  

It can be quite exhausting, so there are usually half an hour intervals that allow for a switch in interpreters. Muhamad Gaddafi’s interpreter once collapsed in the UN for the lack of pauses.

To what concerns location, the interpreter could be side by side, sitting behind or directly in another room with a headpiece. In the case they are side by side, the person could speak out loud in between pauses, or do what is called whispering. Which is no more than that, a simultaneous whisper as the other person speaks. 

Do you need more information or a language expert? You can count on LST. 


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