Extreme interpreting: telephone calls between world leaders

By Stefano Marrone - twitter: @s_Marrone

Why is interpreting a telephone call between world leaders an ‘extreme’ professional situation? There are no rapids, no sheets of ice, no fierce animals and yet, in the rarefied atmosphere of institutional buildings, the interpreter is literally surrounded by danger.

There can be no prior preparation: the interpreter learns at the very last minute which leader is going to be on the phone, is not provided with background information and has not taken part in long briefing sessions with advisors where every word and every option are carefully weighed. Translating sentences out of context is like treading on ice: a treacherous, slippery experience.

Then the phone call begins and you cannot interpret in simultaneous or consecutive mode, with note-taking – you end up having to do a bit of both, following the flow, keeping alive a three-way conversation, signalling when there’s a pause for reflection, speeding up the pace of translation:  white water rafting is a much safer bet.

And you are never alone but invariably surrounded by a crowd of advisors, ready to spot any mistake, worried that you – the leader’s voice – might use a clumsy expression and thus unravel their carefully woven diplomatic web. And you, the interpreter, must carry on smiling and speaking confidently.

By Alessandra Bonatti Harabin

When the President of the United States called the President of Cuba the first time, in an historic move to attempt to normalize relations between the two countries after over 50 years, I found myself in the Situation Room at the White House not knowing exactly who the call was for and what the content of it would be. This of course is understandable given the delicacy of the issue and the fact that no one, and particularly, not the media, knew that this was going to take place. National Security is vigilant and must at all times protect the President and the country's interests.

Fortunately, I was given a short summary of the topics to be discussed a few minutes before the phone call took place and was told who the recipient of the call would be. I don't believe I have ever felt the excitement, trepidation and sense of throwing myself from a cliff that I did that historic day.

"Sang froid" as the French would say, the knowledge that 30 years of professional experience aren't all for naught and constant study and dedication to the profession are essential.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "Extreme interpreting: telephone calls between world leaders". aiic-italia.it January 20, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2020. <http://aiic-italia.it/p/7853>.