Some of my best friends are interpreters…

Most mornings, I read Ryan Heath’s newsletter from Politico. I like it for a lot of reasons – there’s a very strong scattering of pan European news links for example, and the news is insular at a European level rather than at a local city level. These are good things as they broaden my horizons. He’s generally a good curator of stuff that interests me as well – at this point I would say that if you have any interest in Europe and European affairs, it is worth subscribing.

So what has this to do with interpreters and the sky over them? Well this morning, he pointed at this story in the EU Observer. It quotes Klaus Welle as follows:

Speak slowly, speak in your mother tongue. Those are the main elements which lead to a deterioration in quality,” he noted. “It drives them crazy”.

I do, as it happens, spend quite a bit of my time, listening to EU parliamentary committee meetings and parliamentary plenary sessions. I also know how to interpret. I just don’t do it for a living right now. I know what Klaus Welle is trying to achieve. I think it’s laudable, and I think it is necessary. I just wish he had…tried to do it differently.

Interpreting is a highly challenging activity mentally. We have a limited understanding of how people can even do it, but they do, and in so doing, they facilitate communications between many people who might not otherwise be able to communicate. In many respects, simultaneous interpreters are basically babelfish.

Their job is to facilitate communication and when you have a room of up to 600 people who speak, between them, up to 24 languages, that’s massively impressive. And for the most part, they are so good, we take it for granted.

European Parliament procedures bring some interesting challenges however, and a key one is that when you have limited speaking time – which is guaranteed to be the case in a plenary session – people, rather predictably, try to maximise it and carefully write speeches to get as much into their 1 or 2 allotted minutes. As a result, what people are confronted with is not so much a minute of spoken language, but a minute of densely packed written language, read out.

Now, it could be argued that the average MEP has the right to do this. When they do this, however, they make it harder for their audience, be that those who share their language, or those who need to find a way of rendering it into another language. Maybe they are not necessarily representing the interests of their constituents if they are not taking into account the best way of communicating their interests. Maybe it is just completely counterproductive.

In other words, if you are speaking in a chamber where what you are saying needs to be interpreted into 23 other languages, the likelihood is that you’ll be more successful if you take that fact into consideration, not just for the interpreters, but for your colleagues. Other MEPs. And especially, for the people you represent. This is not a question of preventing interpreters from going crazy. It is a question of helping them to help you get your message across. That is, after all, what they are there for.

As I mentioned, I listen to the European Parliament feeds when I have time. I have heard people switch language mid contribution. I have seen plenary contributions delivered at such high speed that they were very nearly incomprehensible. And I have heard chairs pleading with contributors to slow down and give the interpreting service a chance.

Against that, I have heard some clear, concise speakers who were a pleasure to listen to.

Railing against interpreters going crazy just because they are pleading for people to speak in a manner that makes it possible for them to be interpreted is missing the point. The speakers have a part to play in facilitating communication too. Otherwise, why speak?