The dangers of the nodding effect & why your interpreter is your most valuable asset – the case of the forgotten earpiece

I have been around in the interpreting scene long enough to have found myself in numerous situations and their many variations and can say for a fact that reading the speech beforehand does not mean you will know precisely what will be said during the conference.

Do not get me wrong. Having the speech or PowerPoint presentation in advance is of enormous help for us, interpreters, as it takes us in the right direction down the path of anticipation we embark on while preparing for a job. Yes, there is a lot of preparation going on before the actual event. We do not just ‘show up’.

However, utterances (a.k.a. what people actually say) are unique instances in space and time and, even while reading out from a sheet of paper or a teleprompter, speakers either make mistakes, experience a faux pas that results in them saying something different than what is in black on white or may simply change their minds and choose to express themselves with a different choice of words.

That is why professional interpreters never ‘read out’ speeches but, instead, translate live what is being said live. Simply because the written word and the spoken word do not always match.

So, what happened?

In February this year (2017), president Trump chose not to wear his earpiece during a joint press conference with Japan’s Prime Minister, Mr Shinzō Abe. As a result, president Trump, who does not speak fluent Japanese, went through a period of nodding and smiling in a vacuum, as he was not able to hear the interpretation from Japanese into English done by the professional interpreters hired to that end.

Later on, White House officials explained that president Trump had had read the speech beforehand and, therefore, knew what the Japanese PM was saying… or intended to say?

Here is one of the many explanations available online:

I would like to quote one of my most admired interpreters, Mr Harry Obst, who served under five American presidents during his long career at the U.S. State Department. In the introduction to his book White House Interpreter, he writes:

“The success or failure of these private meetings did not just rest on the shoulders of the two principal interlocutors. They rested in large measure on the analytical abilities, intellectual acumen, communication skills, and emotional stability of the only two people the leaders could fully [my emphasis] understand – their professional interpreters.”

It may very well be that president Trump revels in extreme situations and enjoys walking on the edge and there is no possible way to find out why he chose not to listen to his interpreter. But, in my humble – yet professional – opinion, he took a big and serious risk in choosing to nod and smile publicly and in front of the press to no more than a set of assumptions based on something he had read – and, hopefully, fully understood. For all he knew, at the time of the press conference, the Japanese Prime Minister might just as well have been reciting a poem, his favourite cake recipe or, simply, making small changes or adjustments to key elements of his speech while president Trump’s recklessly smiled and nodded his approval on behalf of the over 300 million people he represents.

In conclusion

What I am saying is simple. Professional interpreters of any language train long and hard to perfect our skills. We also prepare thoroughly for each assignment. We do our best – and a little more – to assist our clients in their communications as they occur.

As. They. Occur.

“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.” ― Paulo CoelhoBrida

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Photo taken by me in Covent Garden Market during the run-up to Christmas. London is so beautiful in December!

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