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.

Petr Pogrebennyk, with headphones, seen from the side sitting in a glass cubicle and looking at a computer screen.
Petr Pogrebennyk, contractor, interpreted from Ukrainian to English and from English to Ukrainian.

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.

Vasili Kosenko, with headphones, seen from the side sitting in a glass cubicle and holding documents.
Vasili Kosenko, contractor, interpreted from English to Ukrainian.
Marie-Ève Racette, with headphones, seen from behind sitting in a glass cubicle in front of computer screens.
Marie-Ève Racette, from the Translation Bureau, interpreted from English to French.
Anton-Emmanuel Demarchi, with headphones, seen from the front sitting in a glass cubicle in front of several computer screens.
Anton-Emmanuel Demarchi, from the Translation Bureau, interpreted from French to English.

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

Aimée Lavoie, with headphones, seen from behind sitting in a glass cubicle in front of computer screens and a sign saying “Français
Aimée Lavoie, from the Translation Bureau.

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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