Interpreting politicians: The work of parliamentary polyglots

Interpreters booth in Brussels

Politics can be hard to make sense of at the best of times, but for parliamentary interpreters and translators it is a full-time job.

At the European Parliament, translation is a mammoth task. Since 2007, there have been 23 official languages spoken by the EU member states, each of which must be translated into the 22 other languages - a total of 506 possible combinations.

An army of 700 is employed to translate official documents such as agendas, draft reports, amendments, resolutions, written and oral questions, and minutes. Interpreting - which refers to oral translation - requires up to 1,000 interpreters to be on hand for plenary sessions of Parliament.

Daniel Pashley "I always felt very European," says Daniel Pashley.

One of those linguists is Yorkshire-born Daniel Pashley, who is 39, and translates from French, German, Swedish and Dutch into English.

Pashley did not come from a multilingual family, but fell in love with languages at school. He went on to study languages at King's College London and took a Master's at the University of Bradford. Throughout this time he says he did not realise that it could be a career for him.

"I assumed interpreters had to be bilingual (brought up speaking two languages), but when I read that was not the case I realised this was what I wanted to do. I had always felt very European and wanted a job where I could make the most of that."

Pashley insists that understanding politicians is no more difficult than understanding anyone else.

"There is a lot of technical language you have to learn, but on the whole politicians are easy to understand and rather predictable. They use fewer colloquialisms than you would hear, say, in a soap opera or in a conversation on the street."

LANGUAGE FACTS

  • There are an estimated 7,000 different languages spoken around the world.
  • 90% of these languages are used by fewer than 100,000 people.
  • More than a million people converse in 150 to 200 languages and 46 languages are thought to have just a single speaker.
  • The UN has six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian.
  • Each six-language meeting requires 14 interpreters: three per booth for Arabic and Chinese, and two each for English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Frustration can arise from the process of consistently giving voice to someone else's opinions, he says, and it can take a while to learn to have confidence in your judgment of words and phrases.

"I remember that once a delegate was complaining about a policy he felt was being protected unduly, calling it the equivalent of a sacred cow. I called it a 'holy cow' by mistake. Once I realised I had to fight a fit of the giggles, which is the very last thing you want to subject your listeners to."

'Puns and wordplay'

However, he says the job has its rewards. "When I hear someone laughing at a joke the speaker has made in a language they don't even speak, I know they're laughing because of me and because I've done my job properly."

But you don't have to go as far as Brussels to find politics in translation.

In the devolved legislatures, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh are all official languages. The Scottish Parliament passed an act in 2005 to ensure it is accessible to Gaelic speakers and employs an officer who deals with Gaelic-language enquiries.

Stormont has two members of staff whose job it is to ensure the official record - the Northern Ireland Assembly's equivalent of Hansard - is available in Gaelic.

But speeches at Stormont and Holyrood in Gaelic are rare, whereas at Cardiff Bay members frequently switch between Welsh and English in the chamber.

Sion Edwards Welsh interpreter Sion Edwards: "A desk job wasn't for me."

Sion Edwards, 39, is an interpreter for the National Assembly for Wales. Welsh is his first language and the language his parents spoke at home when he was growing up in Bangor, but he is Welsh-English bilingual.

Edwards explains, "I started my working life as a text translator but soon found that a 'desk job' wasn't for me. Many people, particularly those used to the meticulousness of text translation, find the prospect of live interpreting horrendous."

But Edwards says it is the immediacy of live interpreting that appeals to him. "The chance to play a central role in the political process is exciting."

He wishes politicians could keep it simple sometimes. "Puns and wordplay can be challenging and proverbs and literary and religious allusions are also a nightmare."

"A colleague who shall remain nameless once referred to the 'depraved' communities of the Welsh valleys. Of course, what he meant was 'deprived'. I think the assembly members understand if you slip up once in a while."

Plain English

There are those who believe the politicians at Westminster could do with some interpretation of their own.

The House of Commons is currently carrying out a pilot under which MPs have to provide explanations of any changes they propose to legislation, written in plain English.

The experiment was initiated by the Procedure Select Committee. The out-going chairman, Greg Knight MP, stresses that parliamentary jargon is there for a reason, but suggests there is room for improvement.

"Amendments have to be drafted in technical language to make sure legislation is precise, but it also needs to be transparent. Plain English is far more user-friendly, for both MPs and the public. Someone coming across Parliament for the first time will find it hard to grasp what is going on."

The select committee will seek responses on the pilot before deciding whether to take it further. In the meantime, spare a thought for those who spend their working lives trying to work out what politicians mean.

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