GCB consulting
Technology and innovation
09 Nov 2015

Intercultural expertise – an essential skill for every conference interpreter

If you think interpreting means translating every single word of a speech from one language into another – think again! You have overlooked the many thought processes, which an interpreter has to master instinctively. To avoid confusion, an interpreter must know something of the background of the speaker and audience. For example, a “public school” in America is a state run school open to all. In England, it is a private boarding school. In Portugal, “rapariga” is the word for a girl while in Brazil it means prostitute. To translate a word correctly, it is sometimes important to know the nationality of the speaker.

Here is an example from the Arab world: an English politician and his Arab counterpart had just concluded some unsuccessful negotiations. The Englishman was disappointed that he had not achieved his aims. “I feel like a beaten dog,” he said. “I’m going home with my tail between my legs.” For an Arab, it is unthinkable to describe oneself or anyone else as a “dog”. It is an intolerable insult. The interpreter found an Arabic word, which communicated the same meaning but excluded dogs or other animals and was aesthetically acceptable to the Arab politician.

Interpreters often filter expressions – without altering the meaning – in order to soften the edges and take account of the rules of etiquette in both cultures. Italian, for example, is spiked with swear words and insults, which may sound very nice but are entirely below the belt. They have lost their true meaning and are only intended to add emphasis. The interpreter must remember this when finding a suitable German formulation. He must adequately communicate the content in such a way that the German and Italian interlocutors can understand each other perfectly – both linguistically and culturally.

At a meeting of the supervisory board of a major German company, tempers flared when the CEO drew a guest’s attention to an unpaid sum of approx. € 1 million although the discussion was about a sum in the billions. The guest was a high ranking Arab politician, who commented casually, “That’s OK”. Once again, the CEO asked whether he could assume that the country would pay. The guest lost his temper. The interpreter had to pour oil on troubled waters, expressing the feelings of the furious guest – but with greater courtesy, diplomacy and avoiding any insult. He also had to make the CEO understand “that’s OK” implied an absolute guarantee of payment!

Gestures, too, have different meanings in different cultures. One interpreter visited an Indian lady in hospital. The staff told her that the lady always shook her head when offered tea or water! Fortunately, the interpreter knew that shaking the head is the Indian way of showing agreement.
These are just a few examples of the challenges interpreters can face every day. It is an exhilarating, multi-faceted job. Cultural differences mean that interpreters must always be prepared and expect the unexpected!

When carefully preparing for a job, any support they find is all the more welcome.


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