The Interpreting Slam: Interpreting under the microscope

Anastasios Ioannidis and The Language Project organized on 21 January 2017 at City Unity College in Athens the first Interpreting Slam or, in other words, the first battle between interpreters. The interpreters Faye Magkouti and Maria Drosou crossed swords. However, the goal of this “confrontation” was not to pick winners and losers, but to familiarize a wider audience, who might have known little about interpreting until then, with the theoretical and practical aspects of the profession.

The idea comes from the field of translation and the corresponding project of Translation Slam. Two translators, who have translated the same original text without knowing in advance the choices of each other, are called upon to present their translations and to defend or revise their approaches in real time and in front of the audience. Likewise, the interpreters at the Interpreting Slam are asked to face the same original spoken text, this time. Or, to be more precise, the interpreters in our case were asked to face two original texts, two oral speeches in English: one on Thanksgiving in the United States of America and another one on the favorite habit of the British, tea. The choice of these topics, of which our two interpreters were aware in advance, although they did not know their exact content, was not made randomly.

The first of the two speeches was delivered a few days before the event at a private meeting of the interpreters with our speaker. She was reading her speech, while our interpreters, each one in her booth, were carrying out their work: interpret. And we recorded everyone. Then, the recorded files were presented to the audience on the day of the event in the context of a comparative analysis of the two approaches, providing the basis for a wide and open debate around interpreting. The dialogue between the interpreters on the panel and the audience who expressed their questions and comments was revealing. But we couldn’t have stopped without offering a true picture of interpreters in action. So, we placed special interpreting booths in the room, we gave our listeners the relevant receivers, and we invited another English native speaker to present the speech about the second topic we had chosen, namely tea consumption in Britain. Then, we challenged our interpreters to “confront” each other again, this time live in front of the audience, who were able to listen whichever interpreter they wanted. In addition, two courageous listeners from the audience escorted the interpreters in the booths and had the opportunity to watch them at work.

The purpose of this double exhibition in interpreting (the recorded and the live version) was to provide the public with a realistic picture of interpreting. The topics of the speeches had particular difficulties, such as historical and cultural figures, dates and names, while the rotation of speakers with different accent and speed heightened the sense of authenticity. Many conclusions were drawn from this process and several issues were brought up and discussed: the different working environments of interpreters, the special abilities required by the profession, how they prepare themselves for their duties, manage their mistakes and apply different interpreting techniques, when for example the speaker’s speed is not helpful. Among other things, we have found that interpreting is much more than the possession of a foreign language. It is knowledge of culture and general education, constant updating, perfect possession of the mother tongue, stress management and voice stability. We have found also that if the microphones are switched off due to an unforeseeable technical error, the interpreters can get out of the “protection” of their booth, knock at the glass and make others aware of the technical problem and themselves (Yes! This happened during our recordings.) And finally, we learned some new interpreting terms, such as co-cabine, decalage and relais!

We would like to thank the people of City Unity College who embraced our idea and helped us to realize it, our interpreters who accepted the invitation, Sylvia Kouvelis and Jo Lees, who portrayed perfectly the role of the speaker, and, finally, all those who shared their interest and their thoughts with us.

Anastasios Ioannidis

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