Insomnia and Interpreters – Linguistic Aspects of the Greek negotiations

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

An interpreter at work during the EU - South Korea free trade agreementLast month, you may remember, while Mr Cameron was giving his views in the news on the crucial matter of fox hunting, Greece was on the brink of financial meltdown.

I was in Greece and with the banks closed and the prospect of worse to come, the sentence I kept hearing from friends and relatives was ‘I can’t sleep’. The local baker, who was lucky enough to be selling his bread to hotels, did not have the liquidity to pay his flour supplier, a small farmer. As a tourist, when you paid your bills with cash, people were abnormally grateful, though much too proud to say why. It seemed that a whole country was holding its breath while a roomful of people in Brussels decided their fate.

Such momentous decisions depend, like so much else in our lives, on language – on a group of people talking, in an airless conference room. How do their minds – and their meanings – meet? Sometimes with difficulty.

You need only read the pronouncements of the – now disgraced – Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, to realize how culturally inappropriate rhetoric can exacerbate a crisis. It was not so much Greek bravado in his case – though that was present too. His upfront Australian – trained braggadocio went down like the proverbial bag of sick with the Brussels bureaucrats.

He should perhaps have taken lessons in how to imply things without spelling them out in enormous capital letters from Christine Lagarde, who went on record for saying that the negotiations could only get anywhere if there were adults in the room. Hmmmm…

Relay interpreting

Greece-and-Austria-webSpare a thought also for the fact that these meetings would have been conducted with what is known as a ‘full regime’. This means that each country had interpretation from and into their own language – there are 23 languages.

So while some people would have been speaking and listening to, say, English, the majority would have been speaking another language and having their words translated into 22 languages. They would also, of course, have been listening to the words of the main protagonists through interpreters.

Furthermore, when there is no interpreter who is able to translate from Greek directly into, say, Italian, the Italian interpreter listens to, for example, the English interpreter, and then translates the English into Italian. This system is known as ‘relay interpreting’.

Occasionally, double relay has to be used: for example if the Dutch interpreter does not speak French, she or he has to listen to someone in another booth, say German, who is themselves getting the Greek translated by someone in the French booth. It does not take much imagination to appreciate the inevitable loss of accuracy, of nuance, and of metaphorical ‘tone of voice’ – three things which really matter in such delicate negotiations.

Cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosAs a former interpreter, I wonder how the interpreters coped with the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble telling the head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, that he was ‘not an idiot’. They would have been caught between the ostensible need to be accurate and the need to avoid being the cause of a diplomatic incident – the latter concern being part of their DNA, if not a specific part of their professional training.

And what of the order by the Head of the European Council, after 14 hours of unsuccessful talking, ‘Sorry, but there is no way you are leaving the room’. How did that come out in Finnish, in Slovakian, in Spanish, in Danish…and in Greek?

The cross-linguistic, cross-cultural talk in that room would truly be worthy of analysis – what a PhD that could make! For the time being though, I am just glad that the messages got across well enough, and tactfully enough, so that my baker can pay for his flour again.

Find out more

Read the BBC’s recent round-up of some of the greatest mistranslations throughout history

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One thought on “Insomnia and Interpreters – Linguistic Aspects of the Greek negotiations

  1. Great perspective on the recent negotiations, and all negotiations to come as we move forward in this crazy but necessary European project.

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