t(w)ogether — Speechwriters and Interpreters

t(w)ogether — Speechwriters and Interpreters

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In late March, I had the privilege of attending the 2017 Conference of the European Speechwriters’ Network at Magdalen College, Oxford. You can read a written version of my talk here (check against delivery). Kudos to Emma Anbeek and Thomas Hart for suggesting Medium for an “enriched publication”.


Ladies and gentlemen,
Fellow communicators,

First off, I wanted to thank Brian Jenner for inviting me to attend this wonderful event.

I had a very nice phone call with Leonoor last week and she told me not to worry and that speechwriters are a great audience. I really hope she’s right!

Leonoor also told me that some speechwriters are terrified of public speaking. Especially when it involves speaking in front of a room full of speechwriters. So being a speechwriter and having to talk to a bunch of speechwriters is something I imagine to be somewhat like interpreting for a conference of interpreters and/or translators which I’ve done several times. It is a very “special” experience indeed.

If you were wondering just now whether “interpreter” and “translator” are the same thing or not — they’re not! Translators deal with written texts, interpreters deal with the spoken word. I’m sorry, but this is the eternal pet peeve of every interpreter in the world. Those of you who attended the 2013 conference in London will have had the pleasure of getting a pep talk from my Spanish colleague José Iturri. He does a lot of workshops in the European Commission for officials who have to speak in multilingual meetings with interpreting. What’s neat about this is that he puts those poor fellows into an interpreting booth and then gives two different speeches or delivers the same speech in two completely different ways. One of them is well articulated, not too quick, with an effort at communicating well. The other one is mumbled, far too quick, he clicks with his pen all the time, you get the idea. And just so you can see José in action, here is the debriefing after the bad speech. He asks the participants about what was bad:

Just to explain quickly:

  • Simultaneous is when we sit in glass boxes at the end of the room with headphones on, rendering what the speaker says more or less in real time into another language. Tip: Give your manuscript to the interpreters beforehand, even if it’s not the final version.
  • Consecutive is when we’re in the middle of the action, taking notes (using a highly personal system) and taking turns with the speaker. Think: dinner speech. Tip: You can help your speaker AND the interpreter by structuring the speech into sensible segments of a few minutes each. Natural flow is better than the interpreter having to interrupt the speaker.
  • And then there’s chuchotage, French for whispering. You will all have seen this when two high-level politicians sit down in chairs opposite each other with one or two remarkably unremarkable people sitting in the middle. Those are the interpreters!
  • In my line of work (EU institutions), there are lots of languages (23 official ones). Not all interpreters can master all languages, so we have to use something called “relay interpreting” to get from, say, Maltese to English to German.

If you already knew all of this, well, I apologise. But you should be proud of yourselves. You are one of the few people in the world, outside the interpreting profession, who understand what interpreters do. Because overall, the job of the interpreter is not very well understood.

In my personal and maybe incorrect understanding, there are quite a few commonalities between speechwriters and interpreters.

  • Both are concerned, maybe even obsessed with language.
  • Both prepare a lot, even if it is just for a short speech.
  • Both will do their utmost to do the speaker justice.

One difference: you take words and put them in other people’s mouth, while we take words and put them in other people’s ears. Well, and then there’s the teeny-tiny detail of crossing language borders… Another difference: Interpreters marry the meaning, not the words. Words aren’t everything, we also look at gestures or body language.

As I just mentioned, interpreters are VERY passionate about language. We love languages so much, we cannot stop learning new ones. And the ones we learn, we pour our hearts and souls into. We spend time away from friends and family to really immerse ourselves in a foreign language and, by extension, its culture and people. When we learn a language, we don’t stop digging into it until we feel we could interpret a presidential speech without any preparation and without flinching.

Interpreters usually train at universities but we tend to consider ourselves craftsmen. As language and culture experts we take pride in what we create. Often out of thin air. Or hot air, rather. Some translators and interpreters go as far as putting their lives on the line when enabling communication between people, cultures, and countries. Because we care about successful communication across language borders. We care, not because we like to feel indispensable, quite the contrary, but because we get a kick out of successful communication.

Successful communication, however, presupposes that people actually wantto communicate! My wonderful colleague Roderick Jones, an interpreter from the UK, wrote a great piece a couple of years ago: “Interpreting: A communication profession in a world of non-communication”. As he points out, many of the interactions we witness show a sometimes shocking lack of interest in communication. I cannot recommend Roderick’s paper enough, and I really encourage you to read it. For now, though, I’ll borrow some of his points to make some of my own.

Ceremonies aside, Roderick says that the bulk of contributions at the meetings we work in are made to either provide information or to argue for a given standpoint. There’s less arguing going on nowadays, simply because of the sheer number of member states. And, as much as it pains me to say this, the bulk of contributions are also bad and hence ineffective, or even pointless.

But wait, there’s more! Now, I don’t know what the speechwriters’ consensus on PowerPoint is, but if the software’s reputation in your profession is at all comparable with its reputation among interpreters, then it’s probably abysmal. And it’s true that in too many cases, PowerPoint is not used, but misused, or even abused. Instead of being a visual aid that helps get the point across, it serves:

  • as a manuscript for the speaker (who may have no idea what they’re talking about or who is so stuck in the details of the topic that he cannot see the wood for all the trees). Slides are not your manuscript! Don’t turn your back on your audience, and don’t turn away from the microphone.
  • A visual “aid” to overwhelm the audience with information and silly graphics. For the love of God, no clipart, please! Use images that underline your message.
  • A terrible replacement for a handout or meeting report. Slides are not a written report. Go easy on the text.

My son, he’s 9 years old now, had to make a PowerPoint just last week, not for the first time. When he came home and said, “Dad, we have to make a PowerPoint presentation!”, I wanted to scream. Anyway, I’m trying to at least give him some advice. As interpreters we do make use of slides, especially when it comes to proper names, figures, statistics etc. And yes we like to have them beforehand.

Is it any wonder audiences are often just as uninterested in communicating as the speaker? What’s the point of having a meeting to work on something when the participants do little more than read out instructions from their superiors or blast out pre-written statements to be “noted down in the minutes”? What’s the point of having people travel halfway around the globe for a conference only to tell them after countless boring speeches that “unfortunately, there’s no time left for discussion”? No wonder people drag out the coffee and lunch breaks to get their money’s worth at an event!

The big problem is the unhealthy entanglement of written and oral communication. Delegates read out highly technical instructions from their experts (that are sometimes intended as background knowledge, sometimes not); ministers read out speeches they see for the first time, parliamentarians read out their statement just to get it into the minutes. The list goes on.

Now, we also need to talk about English. Although there is no such thing as one English.

“Everybody speaks English.” Well… My colleague Alexander Smith has entire notebooks full of mispronunciations and unintelligible things said by non-native speakers. Binders full of blunders. Here’s a best-of:

Roderick Jones calls it “Lego English”:

Speakers take some basic building blocks — buzzwords, jargon, the appropriate technical terminology — then link them with various connecting phrases to try to build concepts, and produce a result which is as close to real English as a child’s Lego house is to the buildings we live in.

A good speech by a good speechwriter will be more than just LEGO. Or if I were to use a culinary metaphor, it’s not just leftovers thrown together for a quick dinner, but instead a really good meal. For a really good meal, you want flavour. And that flavour comes from going beyond content, beyond the “issues”. It means using language properly — not to show off, but to bring the message across. To captivate, to convince or to provoke. A good interpreter will recognise cultural references and know how to carry them across the language barrier without breaking them.

And that is the point I have been trying to make:

When good speechwriting and good interpreting come together, magic can happen.

And you know magic is happening, as a speechwriter, when people in the audience stop checking their phones and really start listening. You know magic is happening, as an interpreter, when you get into a state of flow. It’s rare, but it’s amazing when it happens. Everything is effortless. The right words come to you immediately, you start using your hands out of passion, not out of desperation, you are almost literally on the same wavelength with the speaker. It’s about as close to magic as it can be.

Preparing a video speech

Preparing a video speech

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