Miss Universe 2009: Beauty and the Interpreter

Yes, we admit it: we occassionally watch Miss Universe (at the gym, while running). This year, Judy had an incentive, as she has two friends working at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, who put on the event (great job, guys!). When it came time for the dreadful final question phase (we won't get into the merit of the answers here), several contestants required an interpreter. First of all: our hats are off to an interpreter who's willing to stand in front of millions of people at a live TV show and interpret while being distracted by gorgeous women. It's very scary, and there aren't that many linguists who wouldn't panic at the thought (we would). That said, the interpreter had some noteable mishaps, but he held his own with remarkable self-assurance.

The interpreter struggles with his interpretation for Miss Dominican Republic, and he certainly made an ethically incorrect decision by not interpreting the contestant's mistake (she meant to say "descuido" -- mistake -- but said "cuidado" -- care), but correcting it for her in his English interpretation. Part of the judge's question was: "According to the World Health Organization, there is an urgent need for HIV testing across the globe." Interpretation: "La Organización Mundial de la Salud exige que alrededor de todo el mundo se hagan pruebas para descubrir si la persona padece de SIDA o no." Translating back the interpreter: "The World Health Organization demands that AIDS testing is done all around the world to determine if the person has AIDS or not." The WHO does not demand such a thing, nor did the judge say that. And the testing is for HIV (VIH in Spanish), not for AIDS (SIDA in Spanish). This interpretation mistake would certainly have been disastrous at an international conference, but how serious is it here? What do you think? As professionals, we say that it certainly matters, but that mistakes happen, especially in high-performance situations. Was it good enough? And what's your stance on the interpreter not following the rules of his profession and correcting the contestant's mistake, to her benefit? We'd love to hear your thoughts on the interpreter's performance. On another note, we are still wondering why Miss Puerto Rico, who is from a country with two official languages (English and Spanish), needs an English<->Spanish interpreter.

Watch the video. Warning: the quality of the video is very poor:


Vannah said...

On another note, we are still wondering why Miss Puerto Rico, who is from a country with two official languages (English and Spanish), needs an English<->Spanish interpreter.

Are the contestants required to know both official languages of their countries? I know I sound condescending but I don't mean to be -- I'm just curious.
For what it's worth, I live in Canada, whose two official languages at the federal level are English and French. However, that doesn't mean everyone speaks both languages. Almost everyone I know in my anglophone province would need an interpreter if they had to correspond with someone speaking French.

Site Translations on August 24, 2009 at 8:55 AM said...

Interpreters are there to translate, not to give their own opinion, to change the language, to give their own interpretation.

Anonymous said...

She needs it to *buy* herself some more time to think about her answer. Pretty understandable, I think, I wouldn’t scold anyone for using this tactic.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 24, 2009 at 12:54 PM said...

@Vannah: Good point. I think Canada, because of its vast expansion and clearly divided French- and English-speaking regions, is definitely an exception, and it makes sense that you shouldn't have to know both languages. From what we have heard from Puerto Rican colleagues, P.R. teaches both languages in school, but we are not certain on that. We'd love to learn more about the (potentially) bilingual education system there from boricuas. The interpretation aspect here brings up another interesting issue: are the contestants who need an interpreter in a weaker position, as their answer time is cut in half? Shouldn't they get twice the time to answer to allow for the interpretation? That would level the playing field. In the current situation, the non-English speaker is at a disadvantage, and that certainly shouldn't be. Thanks for reading and commenting -- this is an interesting conversation.

@Site Translations: We couldn't agree more. It's not the interpreter's job to change what is being said.

@Johanka: Yes, these surely are high-pressure situations, and trying to buy time makes sense.

Thomas Gruber on August 25, 2009 at 12:21 AM said...

"Shouldn't they get twice the time to answer to allow for the interpretation? That would level the playing field. In the current situation, the non-English speaker is at a disadvantage, and that certainly shouldn't be."

But the non-English speaker are most of the time prettier and thats the only thing that matters in this case ;-) The less time you have the less changes to appear as dumbnut.

Guija Matías on August 25, 2009 at 4:08 AM said...

Confusing HIV with AIDS must have been really embarassing later for the interpreter, indeed.

On a related note, here in Brazil the press said that it would be impossible for the country representative to win DUE TO HER SPOKEN ENGLISH skills. I saw her testimonial last night; believe me, it couldn't get worse than that.

Ah, actually, I found that there are already even videos making fun of it on Youtube already (and claiming the poor girl can only be Joel Santana's —Brazilian coach for the South Africa national soccer team— daughter. Check it out:


Unknown on August 25, 2009 at 7:57 AM said...

Not to be hyper-critical, but I wouldn't cut this interpreter much slack. After all, conference interpreters are or at least should be trained to stand next to heads of state, movie stars, CEOs, and hold their own on worldwide TV or radio. Even those of us who do almost no interpreting know that failing to give an exact interpretation of what the person said is an absolute no-no. Once I attended a court interpreting conference where the trainer said, "If the defendant calls the judge an a**hole, you call the judge and a**hole," so I think that this interpreter kind of blew it.

Even translators are faced with this kind of issue; recently I was translating a set of corporate e-mails that had been seized for a lawsuit and one of the underlings referred to the boss using an extremely vulgar term that I could barely force myself to type in English. However, that exact term really got to the heart of what was going on at the company so it had to be said. So I think the interpreter should not have saved Miss Universe from her mistake!

Guija Matías on August 26, 2009 at 7:17 AM said...

Agree with Corinne.

Btw, that reminds of the most funny rendition of an interpreter on a film. EVER. It's on Lars von Trier Office-esque effort "The Boss of It All" ("Direkøtren for det hele"). Seriously, check this one out, it's absolutely hilarious and amazing seeing how the interpreter gets angry ALONG with his client.

I mean, how lucky we are, don't you think? Besides being a great parody movie, Lars von Trier makes us see this crazy translator seems a partner for the businessman/client more like it. By the way, my wife is an actress and totally loved the discussion about acting and interpreting that is inserted on the feature.

You can't go wrong with this one, Twins. If you haven't seen it yet, just go for it and tell us blog readers your impressions later, please.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with Corinne, but alas the whole spectacle is about looking good (this is showbiz), so professionally I might fault them, but I would imagine the interpreter's client (the producers) would not.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 27, 2009 at 9:50 PM said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

@Corinne: we completely agree. Yikes about having to type the exact term, but of course you did the right thing!

@Matías: we will put that movie on our list! We watched Ms. Brazil's video, and wow, for not really speaking the language, she had an impressive vocabulary ("social inequality"), but it was certainly challenging to understand her.

@Thomas: true; less time is sometimes much better. ;)

@cinoche5: yep, surely the producers are happy with the outcome....Interpreters, not so much.

Geovanna said...

Judy and Dagmar (and to all who have questions about PR):

I could explain to you a lil' bit more about the languages in Puerto Rico because I am borned and raised in here. :)Our official language is Spanish not English but as a Commonwealth of USA, English is considered our secondary language. But I have to admit that English is not spoken on the Island so often (I mean in conversations, agencies, etc.)Public Schools in Puerto Rico usually teach English but as I know it is NOT good. Private Schools (mainly) teach better English. But many people in Puerto Rico are fully bilingual (English and Spanish), nevertheless, I have to say that many Puertorricans do not speak English and thus they may need an interpreter.

Hope this could help.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on August 29, 2009 at 10:59 AM said...

@Geovanna: mil gracias for clearing that up. We were looking for a real boricua like you to tell us how the two-language system works in PR. We appreciate the information and stand corrected. Thanks for reading!

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