Dozens of assiduous interpreters roamed around the European Council's halls alongside frustrated, exhausted political leaders until the early hours of Monday, July 13, as one of the toughest negotiations between the Greek government and the country's international lenders for a new bailout deal dragged on for hours. If it weren't for these professionals diligently searching for the right words among such a host of languages being used, how else could the politicians from 19 different countries communicate with one another?
“The burden of responsibility is huge,” said Vangelis Panagiotatos, who often translates Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble's statements on behalf of the Greek state broadcaster ERT. “Our biggest enemy is fatigue,” said Panagiotatos, who during that weekend's marathon negotiations, remained in the studio at the Aghia Paraksevi headquarters in northern Athens for 30 hours, anticipating (as was the rest of the country) an agreement between the two sides.
In the last few weeks in the run-up to those crunch talks, interpreters from all fields were recruited: three for every language in each European Institution's designated booth, some in broadcasting studios carrying out direct translations and others attending discussions between three or four parties, whispering into their assigned leaders' ear. Additionally, interpreters who contribute to leaders' communication via phone are a case of their own.
“The interpreter is informed ahead of time. He's on standby, at a desk, over a phone, taking notes and translating in a sequential manner,” said one professional who asked not to be named. Discretion, in this case, is an inviolate rule.
The focus on issues pertaining to political economy has forced interpreters to specialize in its terminology. “I struggled to find the precise translation for the Social Solidarity Benefit for Pensioners, zero deficit cost and European Financial Stability Mechanism (EFSM),” said Angelos Kaklamanis, who translates from English to French, and vice versa, on behalf of TV broadcasters. “The biggest challenge, of course, is for us to translate the Greek word ‘metapolitefsi,’ as there is no equivalent concept in other languages. Consequently, I sometimes translate it as ‘after the restoration of democracy’ and other times as ‘after the period of dictatorship.’”
Economic and political terms aside, the field's experts have concluded that all sorts of knowledge can come in use.
“I advise my female students to keep up to date with sports, especially when there is a World Cup or European Championship going on,” said Athanasios Tsifis, professor of interpretation at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz/Gemersheim. “Match results are common ground in meetings among political leaders so it's good to stay up to date,” said Tsifis.
The accent, slip-ups and eloquence of every politician pose a challenge of their own. The Latvian European Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, for example, is often confusing given that he has a basic knowledge of English. On the other hand, Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem's English is fluent but heavily infused with complicated economic terms.
An interpreter's job, however, is not limited to just getting the meaning across. “There are two schools of thought,” said Andreas Akratos. “One suggests that we translate in an uncolored fashion and the other that we also convey the speaker's passion. The younger interpreters follow the latter.”
“During Obama's inauguration speech, it was simply impossible for me not to convey the atmosphere,” said Kaklamanis.
“Acting is a quality every interpreter should possess in order to convincingly convey the speaker's meaning to the audience,” added Tsifis. “When translating, the interpreter must put his personal opinion aside and simply be the speaker's mouth.”
The profession's code of ethics, however, states that if you strongly disagree with what you presume will come up in a discussion, you should turn down the job. This has happened several times with interpreters being called up to translate on behalf of Greek far-right party Golden Dawn.
An interpreter frequently assumes the duties of a moderator as well.
“You are often called to bridge the educational gap between two parties,” said Miranda Papadopoulou. “Sometimes you have to alter the vocabulary when speaking to adolescents for example, or the tone in which you translate if the audience is getting angry.”
When only two parties are involved, especially in corporate affairs, the company's agents will ask for the interpreter's opinion. “They ask whether I believe the other side has been convinced or not. Sometimes they'll ask me to tell the other party I made a mistake when translating so that they can modify their statements,” another interpreter recalls.
“Our profession also has a bright side,” says Panagiotatos as he gazes upon an abundance of photos were he appears alongside political leaders. There's variety to the interpreter's experience.
“I'll never forget working with the special forces when they were training after the attacks of 2004,” said Papadopoulos.
On the other hand, however, the job comes with a lot of stress and anxiety. “We fought hard to improve the working conditions in the booth,” said Akratos, who is also one of the founding members of the Hellenic Association of Conference Interpreters.
“They wouldn't even bring us a glass of water,” said Akratos. “Co-existence in the cabin is similar to the army. You need to develop a good relationship with your colleagues in order to survive.”