How to Translate Spoken Language
‘‘Be invisible,’’ says Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a retired interpreter for the United Nations. Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings. When Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, ranted in Arabic about Jews and Palestinians during his first appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, Ajalyaqeen’s English translation sounded equally agitated. ‘‘If he is angry,’’ she says, ‘‘you’re angry.’’
Beginners should strengthen their concentration and short-term memory by trying to repeat voices on the radio. ‘‘Learn to actively listen like it’s your profession,’’ Ajalyaqeen says. Forget pausing to find the right word: Fall more than 10 seconds behind, and you’ll start forgetting chunks of what was said. Aim for a lag time of between three and four seconds.
Master a subject ahead of time. In the days before Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council in 2003, when he argued in favor of military action in Iraq, Ajalyaqeen studied weapons terminology and figured out how to translate less intuitive particulars like ‘‘yellowcake’’ uranium into Arabic. Because people communicate in culturally specific clichés, your repertoire of proverbs should be extensive. If an Arabic speaker says something about adding more water to mud, you’ll need to know that the English equivalent is adding insult to injury. When Ajalyaqeen interprets from Arabic at the United Nations — where she still freelances — her English is rapidly translated into French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. Any mistake can ricochet into a high-stakes, international game of telephone.
Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. ‘‘A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,’’ says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sentences without knowing where they are going grammatically. The structure of a Semitic language like Arabic differs from that of English. ‘‘Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is — you’re waiting for the verb,’’ Ajalyaqeen says.
Hearing one language while simultaneously rendering a message aloud in another will make your brain ache. Acknowledge your limits. At the United Nations, interpreters work in 30-minute shifts, but that seemingly short span will leave you so profoundly exhausted, Ajalyaqeen says, that ‘‘by the end, you’ll be shivering.’’