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October 29, 2018
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Sub-Saharan Africa: Don’t Get Lost in Translation


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Photo by Martin Barraud/OJO Images/Getty Images

Recently, the BRICS Summit in Sandton, and its adjacent events around South Africa, were hosted to great aplomb. Event organisers and their teams had to consider how to accommodate such large-scale international delegations, and, for the most part, did an admirable job of this. As South Africa grows as an eventing destination, interpreters and translators will most likely continue to become more in-demand – particularly for languages spoken by the rest of the BRICS alliance. We spoke to two language professionals: Mike Lin, of Chinese Conference Interpreters, and Tatiana Kaliazina, a Russian-English interpreter and translator based in Cape Town, to find out more about their industry.

Firstly, what is the difference between translation and interpretation? “Generally translation refers to ‘written’ while interpretation is ‘verbal’. Some people see these two terms as interchangeable, thus they will call an interpreter ‘a translator’ and vice versa,” Lin says. But the field can be broken up even further. “Interpretation can be consecutive (verbal, no equipment used) or simultaneous (conference equipment used like booths, mikes, headphones, etc.),” says Kaliazina.

The skill sets required for translation and interpretation overlap, but are not identical. “The skills required for both types of interpretation include, first and foremost, excellent knowledge and fluency both in source and target languages, as well as good education, intelligence, broad general knowledge, quick thinking, and IT skills,” explains Kaliazina. Most language professionals engage in both forms of work – they translate and interpret, as required by the client.

However, written translations particularly are not all born equal – sworn translators are required for all official documentation. “Certified translations are done by sworn translators, who translate documents from the source language into the target language and certify with their stamp and signature that the document is a true translation,” Kaliazina says. “Those translations would then be accepted by various authorities like Home Affairs, immigration companies, embassies and consulates.”

Special Certification

In Kaliazina’s experience, dealing with the Russian-English language pairing, BRICS interpreters have only been highly in-demand when South Africa chairs the summit. Kaliazina was an interpreter at the BRICS Heads of State Summit, which she found to be a challenging and exciting event, but such opportunities are rare; they come around once in five years. “We almost never deal with end-clients directly. We are hired by translation agencies or companies organising conferences and events for the clients,” she says. This means that having additional certifications – such as a High Court Sworn Translator Certificate – can be a major advantage for language practitioners, particularly those dealing with rarer languages.

“Only sworn translators may interpret in courts and take part in various legal procedures,” Kaliazina says. “To become a sworn translator of High Court, one needs to obtain a High Court Sworn Translator Certificate on the basis of a sworn affidavit from another sworn translator confirming his

skills and proficiency in the language or submit a diploma or any other reliable document confirming his qualifications from a credible tertiary institution or language college.”

Obtaining such a Certificate can be challenging for certain language combinations. Speaking as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, Lin explains: “In South Africa, there is little emphasis on formal training. Also there are only a handful of schools or colleges offering courses on translation and interpreting.” While this is not necessarily the case for all language pairs, it has certainly been a challenge for Lin: “As a Chinese/English interpreter, I really struggle finding suitable training courses here. Maybe this is not a problem for other interpreters, say French or Portuguese interpreters. In my case, I believe educational background, practical experience, and ongoing learning are what makes a good and successful interpreter.”

Rising Above Challenges

So what should translators and interpreters do, given the lack of formal courses and programmes in South Africa, particularly for so-called ‘unusual’ languages? “I welcome formal training in translation and interpreting. But if it is not available, there are also other means of training that one can use,” says Lin. “These days there are a lot of good materials on the internet. Of course, each person is different, so you really have to think about what you want to achieve and find the right resources that will help you get there.”

It is also vital to understand the ‘lay of the land’ – and to know what to expect as a translator or interpreter. “My advice to beginners would be first to make sure you are ready for this job, that you know the language very well, your general knowledge is good, you read a lot, you are up to date with local and international social and political life, and familiar with the challenges this job entails,” says Kaliazina. Interpreting at events is an extraordinarily stressful and oftentimes challenging job – and not one to take on lightly, or simply because one speaks the required language.

For Lin, the stresses of interpreting stem from being attentive to several things all at once. “This requires a lot of brainpower. You have to listen, understand, and interpret almost spontaneously and this is very exhausting. You also have to cope with your own nerves.”

“There were three teams of interpreters at this congress and we could see each other through the side windows that separate each booth. While I was interpreting, I realised the presenter started using the various scientific terms of the organisms in his research paper. I stopped and looked to the other teams, and I just saw them throwing their hands up in the air out of despair! The presentation continued but none of the interpreters dared to turn on the mic and interpret… That’s simultaneous interpreting for you! You can do as much preparation as you can, but there is always the unexpected.” Kaliazina agrees with this assessment – and finds that as an interpreter, you can often learn a lot yourself at an event, especially given the odd topics for many of the conferences and events hosted in SA.

Planning for an Event

Given the inability to anticipate every possible issue, what does the planning for a conference even look like, from the interpreter’s side? Lin gives a brief rundown of his process: “For a typical international conference, I will first ask the client for the programme and any materials available. I

will then go through it to familiarise myself with the conference itself, i.e. who the speakers are, and whether there are panel discussions or breakaway meetings, etc. Sometimes the client is able to provide PowerPoint presentations and speeches. If so, I will go through them to make sure I understand the subject matter/idea/topic. I will also note any special terms and learn them. After I have gone through the materials provided by the client, I will then go and visit the official website for the conference. All my preparations will be compiled into an electronic document in an orderly and clear manner. I find this especially useful and effective when you are working under pressure.”

Organisers should never underestimate the challenges faced by the interpreters. “Interpreting is difficult, stressful and exhaustive work as interpreters are the last people clients and participants of various events would normally think of or care about,” bemoans Kaliazina. Even international conferences do not always allow for much preparation – even conferences with obscure topics. “The topics of conferences may vary from TB, HIV, politics, and sheep breeding, to nuclear physics, aviation, trade, mining, finance, law and more. Sometimes we learn about the topic of the conference when we arrive at the venue!”

This means that issues like Lin’s at the WCET congress arise frequently. Oftentimes, this is the direct result of a lack of planning from the conference organisers. “Despite all the efforts of our agencies, clients quiet often fail to provide any papers, presentations, speeches, programmes or lists of participants in advance for interpreters to familiarise themselves with the terminology or topic of the event. Conference interpreting is a team work and you, to a great extent, depend on professionalism and good preparation of your booth partner and fellow-interpreters in other languages for quality relays. The interpreters have to deal with various accents and fast-speakers, and have to quickly switch from one language to another,” says Kaliazina.

And, despite the difficulties and challenges regularly faced by the teams of interpreters, they are often forgotten by the organising team. This can, of course, be demoralising for teams of language professionals.

Lin believes this might be because organisers simply don’t understand the complex skillset required for the job. “To me the biggest challenge is that most people don’t seem to understand what we do or the role we play. They may think interpreting just happens naturally,” he laughs. This might be due to the multilingual nature of South Africa – but when dealing with unusual, foreign languages, the assumption that this is easy simply cannot be made. Moreover, when dealing with obscure topics, most language professional require time for preparation and research.

There are also additional structural problems, which result due to this misunderstanding of interpreters’ worth. Organisers provide very little or no information to the interpreters, which makes preparation very difficult. Sometimes the hardware is also problematic. For example, the interpreters’ booth is too far from the stage, or has poor visibility… Basically little attention is given to the interpreters, which means we have to put in extra effort to make sure we have what we need for the work we are expected to do,” Lin tells us.

Additionally, due to many event professionals failing to fully recognise the extreme skill required for interpretation, charlatans offer up their services and push true professionals’ rates down. “There is a problem of low rates due to severe competition between service providers and unprofessional people claiming to be interpreters or translators,” says Kaliazina. “Unfortunately,

clients do not always understand that not everyone who is prepared to accept very low rates is able to do translations or interpreting professionally!”

The Last Word

Perhaps interpretation at events should go the way of the High Court – with formal qualifications being required in order to offer your services. This will ensure that those offering their professional skills, sharing their knowledge, and constantly upskilling, are fairly compensated. Until then, it is worth putting in a bigger effort to appreciate and notice the interpreters working at your event; to include interpreters in the planning stage; and to ensure interpreters’ hardware requirements are fully met. After all, language professionals are indispensable in international eventing. If they weren’t there, half of your guests and participants wouldn’t understand what was happening. If South Africa is to grow even further as a world-class MICE destination, working conditions for language professionals needs to improve.


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