Interpreting President Zelenskyy's address: A high-precision job
Some firsts are celebrated with great fanfare, and others are so tragic that they can't be celebrated. This was the case with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy's address to Canadian parliamentarians in March.
It was the first virtual joint address by a foreign head of state to the House of Commons to be held in the temporary West Block chamber.
Interpreting this high-profile address was a unique challenge for Public Services and Procurement Canada's Translation Bureau team, which had less than a week to prepare. It was a race against time for the 5 interpreters and 2 coordinators assigned to the event.
“We tried to gather as much information as we could as quickly as possible to help the interpreters prepare,” said one of the coordinators, Joseph Song Chi, a senior interpreter with the Translation Bureau. “For example, the Translation Bureau's terminologists prepared a glossary of terms that might be used, and the interpreters consulted President Zelenskyy's recent speeches to the United Kingdom and European Union parliaments and to the Council of Europe to familiarize themselves with the way he speaks and the concepts he discusses.”
Meeting major challenges
This event certainly involved other special challenges. The interpreters had the daunting task of faithfully rendering President Zelenskyy's words when they were not sure they would be able to hear him well. The President was not only addressing Parliament via video conference, but also doing so from a war zone. Not to mention the fact that the interpreters would have to work in “relays,” with the first interpreter translating from Ukrainian to English and then a second interpreter from English to French.
Because there was no room for error, everyone was called upon to help, from Parliament's multimedia services to the clerks of both chambers, along with those responsible for protocol. “As you may have heard for yourselves, the President's sound wasn't great, but despite that, our interpreters were very successful in getting his message across to Canadians,” explained Joseph.
Managing the emotional load
In addition to the usual concentration required for their work, the interpreters had to show a great deal of composure to carry out their work without being overwhelmed by emotions.
According to Aimée Lavoie, who interpreted from English to French, the emotion could be felt in the room where the interpreters and their collaborators were gathered. “Everyone had tears in their eyes inside and outside the interpretation booths that day.”
Interpreting is a very demanding job that requires a balancing act: interpreters must combine professionalism, self-control and empathy. A challenge that was once again met with flying colours.
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