The interpreter is also human

A tragedy.

There is no other word to describe what is happening right now in Ukraine.

I have never been an obsessive news consumer, and I do not follow all our brave reporters’ briefings from the streets of Kiev and the squares of Kharkov, but it is hard to stay indifferent to the sight of a people going to war against a tremendous power in order to keep their homeland independent. As a people all too familiar with war, our hearts break at the sight of children torn from their warm homes in the midst of a freezing winter, and millions of refugees trying to flee the country. It’s also hard to ignore the presence of the young Ukrainian president, Vladimir Zelensky — quite a hunk, I might add, standing tall and encouraging his people not to give up their independence for any price. This man, who until two years ago was a stand-up comedian, has earned the world’s admiration and his powerful speeches, full of hope, are generating applause even from those most indifferent to the fate of the Ukrainian people.

I personally have never harbored any preference between Russians and Ukrainians. We work with both of them, but as someone who looks for the “translation” angle in every event, my heart skipped a beat when I saw President Zelensky’s speech to the European Union Committee. The simultaneous interpreter to English could not hide his emotions.

The man’s feelings simply got the best of him.

The guy choked up, and it was clear to everyone that he was struggling to speak through his tears. It didn’t take any special powers of perception to realize that the president’s words stirred up his emotions, which only added a layer of empathy to the speech itself, something that was clearly visible on the faces of the committee members present.

Something similar happened again at the press conference at which Zelensky spoke on German television. The interpreter into German could not go on translating and simply burst into tears.

And I, as the owner of a translation agency, asked myself if that’s sufficiently professional, and answered myself immediately, without hesitation: “Who cares?”

We’re not talking here about translating the chairman of the board of a microchip processing firm at an international cyber conference, with all due respect to microchip processing, or whatever. We’re talking about a heartrending event, and a homeland facing total destruction.

And the interpreter, believe it or not, is only human.

We teach the translators we work with that they are a pipeline for transmitting information from one language to another, we teach them to be absolutely neutral and not to take sides. But a translator, for whom in most cases the language he’s translating is the same one in which he played with children in nursery school, or whispered sweet nothings to a girl on a stormy first date, can’t always ignore cultural, social, and geographic contexts, even when he is at work. Even if it’s not entirely professional, sometimes the emotional element creeps into his words, and then it’s absolutely clear that the interpreter, who, as we said, is not a robot nor a machine, but flesh and blood, takes sides, even if not openly.

It could be that in a few years, machines or robots will perform simultaneous interpretation, just as many texts today are translated by Google, but I think that there is something beautiful in having someone sitting there who is a human being with feelings, that pop out sometimes. It makes the translation into something more warm and human.

Although quite different, I want to give you an example of a case where a translator of ours took a clear stand regarding a translation job that we asked her to do.

Not long ago, someone contacted us in an email written in biblical Hebrew.

Everything was handled via emails, and the client approved a sample by a translator from Hebrew to English, who came from a religious background, and knew how to deal with Torah-based language, and a text full of quotes from the sources.

As she worked, it became clear to her and us that under discussion was a document of the Lev Tahor (Pure Heart) cult, and their representative was in fact asking us to translate into English their statement of defense in one of the dozens of lawsuits that the cult was involved in.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Lev Tahor cult is a Hasidic community that sprang up in the 1980s in Jerusalem around the charismatic figure of a rabbi with extreme opinions. The community, which is considered a cult, migrated to Canada and after that to Guatemala, Mexico, Bosnia, and Montenegro, and everywhere it went, it ran into trouble with the local legal authorities. Mostly, the issues were abuse and neglect of children, forced marriage of minors, and much more. Not nice.

And then the question arose, what do we do? The English translator categorically refused to cooperate and continue the job. For her, it was a moral black flag. As she saw it, if she continued it would be as though she herself were committing those crimes.

And from my point of view? I saw no moral dilemma. We are performing the technical work of transmitting information from one language to another. In a democratic country, everyone is entitled to legal representation, even if he is the Devil himself.

We released the translator from this job and assigned another translator to finish the project.

Did we do the right thing? I think so, but of course, someone else might disagree. There’s no doubt that this is a controversial issue.

It’s clear to me that if one day robots take over the world of translation, this post, and the debate it raises, will be unnecessary. Until then, we will continue to employ interpreters with beating hearts, whose voices shake and choke up when they are stirred or shocked by the words they are translating.

And I, for one, hope and pray that this will not change.

פוסט זה זמין גם ב: Hebrew

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