We all watched President Donald Trump being greeted in Spanish by the Argentinian President Mauricio Macri at the G20 Summit. Mr. Trump then tossing the mobile interpreting system on the floor while commenting that he understood him in Spanish better than when using the interpretation. Before commenting on this from the perspective of the interpreter, I would like to first explain how such a system works.
Infoport, bidule, or tour guiding system are all names used for the mobile interpreting system that made the news. In the simultaneous mode of interpreting, the usual setting is that the interpreters sit in their booths and each booth has a designated channel that transmits a specific language. The channels are usually numbered so that it is easy to locate the channel one needs. This is also announced to the delegates at the beginning of the meeting; for example, if you need English, switch to channel 1, for French, channel 2, and so on. The delegates needing interpretation listen through headsets after selecting the relevant channel. However, such a setting is not always possible, for instance during press conferences, guided tours, or official visits. In such settings, a mobile interpreting system is used to allow simultaneous interpreting to reach those who need it. The system consists of two parts: transmitters and receivers. They are connected wirelessly. The interpreter would use the transmitter and the audience would use the receiver to listen to the interpretation. Again, both must be adjusted to the same channel. So, if English is on channel 1 and you are listening to channel 2, you will get French, not English.
As an interpreter, I am quite tuned in to such issues and from experience, I can always tell if a delegate has an issue with the mobile interpreting system. If I am using that system, I always turn it on before handing it to the delegates and I quickly explain to them how to turn the volume up and which channel I will be using. Still, it happens that delegates try to turn the volume up, but they end up changing channels instead! When I was watching Mr Trump fiddling with the mobile interpreting piece handed to him, then saw the expression on his face, I was almost sure that he changed the channel instead of turning the volume up. This was later confirmed by the statement issued by the AIIC representative in Argentina.
When delegates are high-level officials, they may not always admit to not understanding how this piece of technology works. This is what Mr Trump did; he blamed it on the interpreter instead of seeking help with the technology. It is not uncommon to blame something external to save face. It is simply human nature. However, interpreting is teamwork and for it to achieve its mission of enabling communication, it requires the humble cooperation of all participants, the audience, the speakers, the organizers, the technicians, and the interpreters, every step of the way.
Maha El-Metwally is a conference interpreter who works for a wide range of international organisations, including the European Institutions and the United Nations. She is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), The Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and the American Translators Association (ATA). She is also a Board member and member of the Admissions Committee of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI).
Maha is interested in technology for the field of interpreting which she incorporates in her daily work. She has an MA in interpreter training from the University of Geneva where she wrote her thesis on conference preparation with tablets. She is associated with a number of universities both in the UK and abroad where she gives professionalization talks.
Photos courtesy of Flávia Lima