Simanaitis Says

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IT IS difficult to imagine a more nerve-wracking job than real-time translation. A person prattles on in one language while the audience wearing headphones awaits your interpretation in another.


Headquarters of the United Nations, New York City, New York. Image from

This was described in Lynn Visson’s “UN Nightmare,” a Diary essay in The London Review of Books, November 7, 2013. What’s more, the article encouraged others to recount similar tales in the magazine’s subsequent Letters columns.

I share several of these tales here.


Image from

Writes Ms. Visson, who worked at the UN for 25 years, “It’s happening again. The chairman has called on the distinguished representative of France. But what I’m hearing through a thick curtain of electrical hiss and crackle in the headphones sounds vaguely like Dutch. Can’t make out a single word. Total panic. My hands grasp the microphone stem. It’s oddly soft and squishy. That’s because it’s not a microphone. Clutching the pillow, I wake up with a start from this classic simultaneous interpreter nightmare.”

The UN has six official languages, English, French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Visson’s specialities were translating French or Russian into English. She notes there’s also an informal linguistic Esperanto, a collection of tricks interpreters use to ease their toil.

Says Visson, “We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied.”


Even having prepared text can be trouble: What if it’s not followed? Image from

Visson explains that listening, processing and speaking are the three basic stages of interpretation. But, she observes, “How, in the four to six seconds that make up the average lag between speaker and interpreter, do you translate a sentence when you don’t have a subject? Or a verb? French syntax is fairly close to English, but Russian (like German) can keep either the verb or the subject a dark secret until the very end of a phrase.”

Steven Hudson writes later in the Letters column: “The story goes that as a German speaker grew steadily more impassioned, the English translation suddenly stopped. The seconds ticked by and all over the auditorium the English speakers began to fiddle with their headphones—to no avail. After what seemed an age, an anguished voice called out, ‘For God’s sake, man, give me a verb.’ ”

Observes Visson, “When the interpreter has absolutely no idea of the meaning of a sentence, the solution is, short of shutting off the microphone and bursting into tears, to stay neutral. Most people tend to repeat themselves, and there is a good chance that in the next sentence the speaker will repeat the idea in a more intelligible manner.”

However, idioms can be a problem: “Sometimes, the interpreter does well to say: ‘And in my country we have a proverb appropriate to this occasion.’ ”

Or a joke, as related by Clive Rainbow in a subsequent Letters column: A British Air Marshal was addressing a NATO meeting with a speech originally given at the RAF Staff College . The speech contained a cricket joke, something that only a Brit would understand, but the Air Marshall insisted on retaining it.

The interpreters responded by saying “The Air Marshall is about to tell a joke. It cannot be translated. In the interests of NATO solidarity, please laugh when we say ‘Laugh.’ ”

On the way back to England, the Air Marshall said, “Didn’t the joke go well. I told you it would.” ds


  1. Álvaro Degives-Más
    February 11, 2014

    It’s a craft that takes quite a few years to master. I’ve done some conference work but honestly, not even the better pay gives the same gratification of working for the direct benefit not of the distinguished representatives but those who are represented by the distinguished delegates. Fortunately the specialized profession of medical interpreters is basking in mushrooming interest from the healthcare industry – arguably somewhat prompted also by liability concerns and skyrocketing insurance premiums – so that’s good to see, next to us as already more established court interpreters. But there’s still a bit of a distance to go to attract sufficient numbers of linguistically talented young people to cover the disproportional growing demand, which in the longer run puts a more practical and manageable spin on a diverse society, moreover: makes its constituents better prepared to fully participate in a world where understanding each other means doing better and more robust business. We’re just facilitators plying our craft but if we’re not called in more often, it’s easy to remain stuck shouting at each other in idle frustration.

    • simanaitissays
      February 11, 2014

      Thank you for giving us a real inside look at this profession.

  2. cat health red line on gums
    February 19, 2014

    It’ѕ downright joy to read this.

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