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The case of the speaker who uses a foreign language

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It is part of the interpreter’s specific duty to understand unintelligible speeches. In a room where many countries are represented, most of the speakers use what is to them a foreign language. Often they speak it badly with a strong accent, bad grammar and an unhappy choice of words. They stutter and hesitate, so much so that sometimes their colleagues whose own language they speak understand them imperfectly or not at all. It is easy to follow English as spoken by a British diplomat, French by a Parisian professor, German by a Rhineland-engineer; but French as spoken by a Portuguese statistician, English by a Japanese admiral, German or Russian by a Czechoslovak lawyer, may raise quite another type of difficulty. And in that case the Assembly quite naturally turns to the interpreter. His translation may even be listened to by some delegates who normally rely on a different language and have only a very poor knowledge of the one which he speaks: he should then slow down and speak out with the greatest possible clarity. If he feels that in spite of his efforts some members who take a great interest in what was said have not understood it properly, he may turn to the Chairman and suggest that for some perfectly imaginary reason, such as noise in the room, the original speech was not properly heard, and he might give a summary of it in the original language. The likelihood is that everybody will pretend to believe him and will be grateful for such timely help.

In the technical training of an interpreter, considerable attention should be paid to such cases. The speeches which the student is given to interpret should in a very large proportion of cases be improvised, ill-pronounced, ill-expressed, given at an irregular speed, and should contain a variety of mistakes. The grotesque aping of a foreign accent and the accumulation of intentional mistakes cannot of course serve that purpose, but in interpretation schools it should be easy to have the speeches made by students with only a very imperfect knowledge of the language required – incidentally, this will also be excellent practice for such students!


Even speakers who use their own mother tongue sometimes have local peculiarities of accent or vocabulary, for which the interpreter should be prepared. Fluent intercourse with friends of the upper classes in London, Paris or Madrid does not make it certain that one can easily follow what is said by workers’ representatives from Yorkshire or the Middle-West, from Quebec or the Jura mountain districts, from Barcelona or Peru.

Appropriate preparation can hardly be expected from a school, hut the aspirant interpreter may grasp all opportunities which offer, not only in the course of travels but also in his own town, to talk with a variety of people having the worst possible accents, so that he may grow familiar with them.

One point of detail which is not without importance is the pronunciation of Latin, which varies considerably as between different countries. The English interpreter should not only be able to recognize standard phrases such as a priori, de jure, etc. when they are pronounced as taught in Louvain or Heidelberg; he should also be able to recognize expressions far more infrequent when pronounced in a way different from his own, such as botanical or pharmaceutical names, lines of Horace or Ovid, elementary aphorisms of Roman law, etc. Were it only with this end in view, a few years of Latin would prove most valuable.

The ear should also grow accustomed to the way in which speakers from certain countries pronounce proper names. An unprepared Englishman may not recognize a Chinese name which he knows quite well, when that name is spoken by a Chinese or a Russian or a Frenchman. Fortunately, practice gives one a special sense of phonetic transposition which often helps one to guess. If this should fail, the interpreter may have to ask the speaker kindly to write down the name for him – a service which is gladly rendered.

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