Lost in Translation

Back in the mists of the 1990s, I was involved for a while in negotiations in Geneva, where everything you said was translated into several languages as you spoke.  Here’s a little piece I wrote at Holmfirth Writers a while back, about how simultaneous translation might not always be a good thing …

Words cannot express the pride and hope that I felt as I first entered the parliament chamber. To be the representative, the voice of my district in the national assembly; to have the opportunity to raise the issues that the people who elected me care about; to be their advocate, their champion – this is what I had devoted my whole life to. Everything else I had ever done had been merely preparation.

I was among the last of the representatives to arrive, and there was a polite ripple of applause as I took my seat. As soon as I had done so, a functionary approached me.

“Excuse me, sir. Here are your headphones, and this is your microphone. Please press the red button when you wish to speak.”

“Is this really necessary? My hearing is good.”

“It is for the simultaneous translation, sir. The interpreters” – she pointed out a booth at the back of the chamber where a line of people could be seen – “will translate as you speak.”

“But I speak the same language as everybody else.”

“There are some minority languages, sir. Simultaneous translation enables everyone to hear what is said clearly, without misunderstanding.” Sure enough, I could see all the other representatives putting on their headphones. Meekly, I followed suit.

After some preliminaries, it was to be my turn to speak, as a debutant. The Chairman of the Party spoke my name and extended his hand in my direction. This was the moment I had waited years for! I must not waste it.

“Colleagues and compatriots,” I said, “it is a great honour to be here today.” I was about to continue when I saw the red light on my microphone go off. I was struggling to get it back on again when a female voice sounded in my ear. “Colleagues and compatriots, it is a great honour to be here today.” Then, magically, the light went on again. I continued.

“I represent a group of people who for many decades have struggled against tremendous hardship and injustice. I see it as my duty to do everything in my power to alleviate that hardship, to rectify that injustice.” The red light went off, and the woman’s voice resumed.

“I represent a group of people who for many decades have struggled against tremendous hardship. I see it as my duty to do everything in my power to alleviate that hardship.”

Something did not seem quite right, but I carried on.

“I hope that the friendliness and respect that you have shown me today will continue, even when I have to speak harsh truths and to demand change.”

Again, the voice filled my headphones. “I hope that the friendliness and respect you have shown me today will continue.”

“No, this is not right! The translators have not repeated everything I said.”

The voice resumed, bland and reassuring. “I believe there is a problem with my microphone.”

I was angry now. “Is this not supposed to be a parliament, the place where the voices of the people can be heard. Why are my words not being repeated?”

A few seconds later, the voice came back.

“I pledge my undying support to the Chairman of the Party.” I was furious, but the red light was off, and nothing I could do could get it back on.

The Chairman of the Party congratulated me on my maiden speech, and the representatives gave me a standing ovation.

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