Presidents Bachelet and Fischer
and their interpreter. Photo credit: Peter Lechner/HBF
Have you ever wondered what it's like to interpret at a high diplomatic level? Read on for Dagy's report on yesterday's assignment in Vienna, Austria.
As I stood in the courtyard of the Vienna Imperial Palace on a cold and windy morning, somebody grabbed my hand and asked if I too had cold hands. I did, and the person asking was the President of Austria, Heinz Fischer. Stupidly, all I managed to say was “yes.” That was one of my rare moments of speechlessness this year.
Heinz Fischer, his entourage and I were waiting for President Michelle Bachelet and her delegation to arrive to kick off an official working visit and I was to be one of their interpreters. While I had been hired by the Chilean embassy, the Austrian delegation had hired two other interpreters, one of whom I knew well. It was to be a first for me, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The day had gotten underway with a meeting that included the three interpreters and the head of protocol for the Austrian presidency. The preparation phase had been slightly unorganized and confusing and things turned out very different than expected. I had prepared for consecutive and a bit of simultaneous for German-Spanish and vice versa, but ended up doing mostly whispering from English into Spanish. Flexibility is key, in high-profile settings and just about everywhere else.
We received detailed instructions on what to do, where to stand, etc. One of us was to volunteer to go downstairs with the Austrian President to welcome the Chilean President, and that was me. Good thing I had bought a nice and warm coat in Chicago last year during the ATA conference. I was told to spring into action just in case President Bachelet greeted President Fischer in Spanish. They spoke English, so I quickly got out of the way as I’d been instructed, but before that, one of the press photographers took the picture above. It even made it to the Austrian President’s website!
After that, things moved fast: quick photo session between the two presidents, a 10-minute one-on-one conversation without interpretation, followed by a working meeting. Initially, there was to be no interpreting because it would be held in English, but I learned at the last minute that one of the Chilean ministers would need interpreting into Spanish. Which is how I ended up whispering to her for 45 minutes, interpreting everything Michelle Bachelet and Heinz Fischer said from English into Spanish. “My” minister was lovely, she gave me her water and tried to feed me some of the delicious-looking Christmas cookies.
Before and after that meeting, I interpreted short conversations between her and her Austrian counterpart, the Minister of Education and Women’s Affairs (German<->Spanish). What struck me was that while the setting was very formal, all people involved very lovely, very relaxed and approachable. ->
After that, there was a very short press conference, where my two colleagues provided simultaneous interpreting. Michelle Bachelet summarized their meeting in Spanish, while Heinz Fischer did the same in German. Strangely enough, the two booths weren’t even in the same room, but upstairs. There were no technical glitches, but I was standing by for consecutive interpreting just in case.
At the lunch that followed, I did chuchotage for “my” minister during the toasts. Since she sat next to a member of the Austrian delegation who spoke excellent Spanish, I did nothing for the rest of the meal, sitting behind her, waiting to spring to action if she needed me. As usual, the interpreter got no food and watched the others eat, but that’s just the way it is. Which didn’t keep the Chilean minister from feeling sorry for me. Coffee and tea were served in another beautiful room, I did some more interpreting for her during short conversations she had, including with the vice-president of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Time flew, and before I knew it, I received hugs and kisses from the Chilean delegation before they hurried off to their afternoon meetings.
Bottom line: my first high-profile political interpreting assignments was great, I loved the anticipation, the formal ambience, the nice people, everything. As I walked back to the subway, my hands cold again, I felt the pressure slipping away and slight exhaustion taking its place. After an invigorating nap, I was ready to do this again!