At a meeting of diplomats, a few minutes before a dignitary from a foreign country delivers his speech, a discreet figure walks up to him and whispers in his ear, “Your speech would require 30 minutes of interpretation. Could you make it shorter, so it would come up to 15 minutes?” He has been accompanying the diplomat for two days and by now, knows a lot about what is in store.

Information is crucial, be it at a political convention, a meeting of businessmen or a presentation by an engineer who speaks a foreign language.

And masters of this tricky field are interpreters who facilitate communication between people separated by not just language but by culture and whole range of other issues.

“It is not just the fact that officials of both sides depend on us as also our own keenness on being vigilant, alert and crisp that keeps us going,” says Nirmala Bhaskar, a Japanese interpreter with ABK - AOTS Dosokai.

Gamut of fields

Interpreters serve in a gamut of fields with ministers, diplomats, corporate chieftains and even lay tourists benefitting from their services in the city.

However, high-level diplomacy or business deals are rare since Delhi and Mumbai often take the lion's share of the two.

Most interpreters are paid anything between Rs.5,000 to Rs.7,000 a session.

From the Germans' strict adherence of protocol on being addressed by family name or the emphasis by Japanese on courtesy and timelines, to the odten point-by-point conversation of the Chinese and even some Italians' obsession with changing their plates after every dish - interpreters ensure guests feel at home while being of great help to their hosts.

Bilingualism is only the first requirement, says Ms. Bhaskar. Scientific or technical interpretation is miles away from the interpretation of literary or political conversations.

“For instance a software would break ‘Entrities' (a disease) into two words into words that mean ‘duck writes' in German. You can imagine the embarrassment then,” says Leela Sasidharan, a German interpreter.

An interpreter for almost 30 years now, Vijayalaksmi Srinivasan's love for archaeology and Italy's abundant riches in the field were what prompted her to take to mastering Italian at the age of 45. “Interpreting for tourists keeps me updated about the changes in the spoken language now. As interpreters, you realise you can enrich the conversation so much, especially if know which word fits perfectly,” she says. She also recommends visiting the country, interacting with natives and buying books by the dozen to familiarise oneself with finer details.

Demand for Korean, Chinese interpreters

The demand for Korean and Chinese interpreters is on the rise.

Lots of Chinese businessmen need interpreters, especially for deals done over the phone. “A key element here is to know that Chinese have various levels of bargaining, and their final offer is rarely ‘final',” says Arun Gugor, of the Chinese Institute - Chennai.

Embarrassment is part of this profession, like Ms Bhaskar says,

“Often, delegates plainly refuse to actually address the question even as the audience is confounded as I say thing irrelevant to what was asked. I have to frequently point out that I am merely translating.”

Working together

But, diplomats do understand when we ask them to reduce the length of their speeches for they know we need to work together, says P. Thangappan, a Russian interpreter with the Russian Consulate who fondly recalls how the Russians kept asking what ‘Muthal Mariyadai' meant.

“They kept asking me how respect can be first or second,” says Mr. Thangappan who is adept at working with Tamil, English and Russian.

And even when one is prepared, things can definitely go wrong.

“In a prestigious meeting of South Indian film delegates some years ago, I was aghast to see a group from Hyderabad which started speaking in Telugu. Thankfully, Sivaji Ganesan sir offered to translate it for me. And that memory reminds me how we are important to important people,”

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012