A Good Interpreter Is Not Enough

By George Gedda Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON CC For Steven Seymour, it looked like a plum assignment when he accompanied President Carter to Poland in December 1977 as the official interpreter.

But he spoke Polish with a Russian accent and many Poles were offended. The result: large headlines over unflattering stories.

Sean Lam can identify with Seymour.

Lam, a native of Vietnam who migrated to the United States 30 years ago, accompanied President Clinton to Vietnam earlier this month as his interpreter. Among other assignments, he was asked to translate the president's speech at Vietnam National University in Hanoi on Nov. 17.

For Lam, it was a nightmarish experience that ended with his replacement the following day by Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger.

Normally, the work of interpreters is taken for granted. It is only when things go wrong that people take notice. Seymour's problem was his accent. In Lam's case, the difficulty apparently was logistics and, U.S. Embassy officials said, Lam's southern accent, which can be confusing to northerners, who dominated Clinton's audience.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave this account of what ensued:

Lam, who had been boning up on a prepared text of the president's speech, was handed a new version just minutes before Clinton strode to the podium.

This was a clear setback, but he had the help of another interpreter, Thanh Vuong, who was at his side in the booth as Clinton was speaking. His task was to call attention to areas in the new text that differed from the previous draft.

In the middle of the speech, a White House aide ordered Thanh to leave the booth so he could be available to help Clinton with post-speech small talk with the audience.

Almost simultaneously, news reporters, having been assigned to use the booth as a workplace, made a noisy arrival. The decibel level was accentuated by the absence of soundproofing.

"He lost his concentration," the official said.

Lam had an especially difficult time hearing the president's comments on human rights but felt his attempt at paraphrasing was adequate.

An unofficial translation suggests that Clinton's listeners were shortchanged.

A White House transcript quotes the president as saying as one point: "In our experience, guaranteeing the right to religious worship and the right to political dissent does not threaten the stability of a society."

Lam's translation: "In our experience, allowing the right to religious worship does not affect the institutions. Instead it makes our institutions better."

Clinton: "Vietnam has agreed it will subject important decisions to the rule of law and the international trading system, increase the flow of information to its people, and accelerate the rise of a free economy and the private sector."

The translation got as far as "international trading system." The rest of the sentence was omitted.

The embassy received at least three telephone calls from Vietnamese who complained about the translation, and some in the audience gave up and took off their translation headsets.

The State Department official said Clinton compounded Lam's problems by speeding up his delivery during the human rights section of his speech. In addition, all of the material in that section had not appeared in the earlier draft and thus was all new to Lam, the official said.

Virtually all of these problems would not have occurred if the White House had not waited until the last minute to clear the text. State Department officials say the French, Germans, Chinese and others all have speeches C and translations C of the top leadership ready to go with ample lead time.

Though Berger relieved Lam of his duties after the speech, the State Department does not hold him responsible for the gaffes and plans to offer him new assignments.

As for Seymour, he rebounded smartly from that low point in Warsaw 23 years ago. He is an interpreter at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and is considered an ace of the staff there.


Interpretation and Translation Service

Information on Becoming an Interpreter/Translator

Firstly it is important to distinguish between interpreting and translation. Translation relates to translating text from one language to another. Generally this is done at home, by post, fax or e-mail. Translators will usually work alone deciphering text into their chosen language or back into English. A high level of confidentiality must be maintained as the Translator may be dealing with sensitive information regarding a patient or client. Translators are generally paid on the amount of words they are translating.

Skills needed to be a good Translator:

Be fluent in and have a good understanding of the English language

Be fluent in at least one other language and be able to interpret correctly

Have a level of professionalism in your work

Be able to work to strict deadlines

It is also useful to have a personal computer with a word-processing program which contains your chosen language if translating from English. Access to e-mail is also useful in quick processing of translations. Translating qualifications are available though you will generally need to travel as often these are found in London colleges or further. See our links for more details.

Becoming An Interpreter

Interpreting is much more than converting one language into another. An Interpreter plays an important role to bridge the communication gap between the service provider and the client. An Interpreter facilitates communications with appropriate sensitivity. It is important to learn procedures and good practice in an interpreting situation. Interpreters often deal with sensitive issues relating to clients receiving treatment to dealing with police issues. A good Interpreter is one that has a professional manner and a confident and sympathetic nature towards both client and consultant/officer. One that is seen to be a good Interpreter is more likely to be referred more work.

There are various ways of interpreting:

Simultaneous or Whispered Interpreting

This is when the Interpreter is repeating what the Officer is saying a pace behind them. So basically the Interpreter is talking at the same time. This is difficult to master as the Interpreter needs to be able to understand what the Officer is saying in order to repeat in the client's language, taking into account local dialect and jargon. This way is more commonly used in public speaking, in conferences

Consecutive Interpreting

The Interpreter will listen to the Officer, taking notes if necessary, and relay the conversation in sections. This is more useful in one-to-one situations where the Interpreter can stop and confirm that what they are relaying is correct. It is important that the client understands the conversation and the Interpreter and Officer need to check that this is so.

As an Interpreter you must have a good sense of organisation, many Interpreters are freelance and organise their bookings in their own diaries. The Interpretation and Translation Team organise bookings made through Buckinghamshire County Council though it is the responsibility of the Interpreter that they know when and where they are due.

Quality Chinese Interpreter, Beijing or any other city of China