Translating the Dalai Lama

People generally consider translating to be much easier than it is. How often do you—translator—hear: “Oh, you just read the text and re-write it in another language! Big deal!”? Anyone who has ever tried to translate a simple paragraph—we are not even talking about specialised texts here—certainly knows that the task is everything but easy.

When it comes to interpreting, though, the situation is completely reversed. Our listeners are more often than not simply overwhelmed: “How on earth can you listen and speak at the same time?” or “How can you memorise such a long speech?” We should compare interpreters to circus acrobats: Viewers stare in awe at the seemingly impossible feats, while they—the performers—know very well that it is all down to technique.

I always admire jugglers with any number of things in the air simultaneously, although I know that no matter how astonishing, each stunt is just a result of technique, years of practice, injuries and perseverance.
Interpreting the Dalai Lama proved to be just such a demanding challenge and that is why I think it is worth saying a few words about it. When you find yourself in a demanding situation made worse by a concurrence of negative circumstances, some experience, well-rehearsed techniques and a trick or two up your sleeve may come in handy.

Which were the challenges then? First things first:

Technical problems

We stepped into the sports hall and took our place on stage, the Dalai Lama started speaking and I have realised that I do not understand a single word of what he was saying. So, what now?

Hundreds of people in the hall and live broadcast on national TV, fleeing was definitely not an option.

So, I decided to understand the speaker. Just like that. I took the decision that I would understand him. I gathered all my concentration, pricked up my ears, gave a prod to my brains… and I actually started understanding him.

The next day I was translating the Dalai Lama from a booth and only then I realised the real problem was that I could not hear him. There was simply no foldback on stage, no monitor speakers, rear-facing loudspeakers enabling performers to hear themselves. Stage monitors are used in live performances, so the musicians are able to hear each other and play in time.

So it was not Dalai Lama’s English, but simply hearing his voice without distortions. The only sound reaching was the one reverberating from the rear walls of the hall.
On stage, I had to sit on the edge of the sofa—almost completely turned towards the Dalai Lama—and reading his lips without even being aware of doing it.

Long passages

Luckily for me, the first few words the Dalai Lama said were introductory remarks that are not too difficult to half hear and half guess. At the next passage, he probably forgot that he was being interpreted, so after about eight minutes I uttered a tentative “OK” in my microphone.

“Oh, sorry, too long.” said the Dalai Lama. “Not too long. We’ll manage.” was my answer and so, before starting, I turned to the public. I have seen faces like that before, but this time they seemed much more sceptical than usually: “I bet he cannot remember everything. He will just stop somewhere in the middle, if he manages to find the beginning of it.”

These are the challenges that usually spur me into action. I relayed Dalai Lama’s eight minutes in a five-minute section.

Although an eight-minute monologue is quite long, on the same afternoon—after more than an hour and a half of interpreting—when I was considerably more tired, I had to tackle a fourteen-minute long passage as well. How to pull it off? We are back to circus performances and technique.
Rule number one: Keep calm. Take notes and memorise. Then go back to the first page of your notes and start speaking: with calm, clarity and persuasion. Let us now break down the rules into detailed instructions.

Keeping calm simply means: No panic. You have the techniques and the skills, others have proven it can be done, and panic only stops your brain from functioning. Confidence and cold blood play an extremely important role in managing stress.

Take notes and memorise. Note taking is probably the most ‘technical’ aspect of consecutive interpreting. You simply do not have the time to write down entire sentences, even in the case of Dalai Lama, who speaks at a more forgiving pace.

You only jot down key words, essential pieces of information: years, numbers, dates, specialised terms and, most important of all, turns of thought. With practice you save time by developing your own symbols for the most frequently used words such as: world, every-thing/one/body, people, man, many/a lot, large, small, very/strongly, increase/development/advancement, etc.

More importantly, you have to remember, in which way the next thought is connected to the preceding one: is it a continuation, a consequence or a contradiction? But, however, nevertheless, so, on the other hand, etc. are your most important words or signs.
After each sentence or concluded thought, you draw a line or two, so that when you speak, you know where to lower your voice, slow down, then stop and start a new sentence.

Then there are much more trivial details to be added. As you take notes, you turn the pages and leave them hanging from your knee. Once the speaker’s segment is completed, you turn back all of the pages and turn them one by one as you were writing. After you have finished, you take the whole bunch of papers and fold them under the bloc, so that you know that you have already dealt with that section of your notes and when you start taking notes of the next part of the speech, those sheets will not turn out again and there will be no confusion. It is a simple, but extremely important trick of the trade.

Pen. Can you allow a pen to let you down while interpreting? Of course not. You must always have at least one spare pen. I prefer using fountain pens, as they flow more smoothly and do not leave stains, but need to be refilled more often. Mine ran dry after the Dalai Lama’s first words. In a split second, his personal assistant took out a Hilton pen from a mysterious fold somewhere inside his Tibetan attire. I calmly thanked him for the help and pulled my second fountain pen from my pocket.

The icing on the cake or the last trick

Technical aspects aside, let us see an aesthetic one. I must have already mentioned confidence, which is extremely important, when you work in front of a large audience. They will accept your words depending on your level of self-confidence. You can master every technique in this world, it will make no difference if you lack self-confidence. On the other hand, if you radiate poise, your listeners will—for some mysterious reason—assume that you are perfect and you will also be allowed a few glitches, which they either will not notice or will pass on.

Good pronunciation and voice training are an important aspect of self-confidence. At the start of my career, I used to mumble and I spoke with a heavy accent. So, I have invested in a pronunciation course and voice coaching. Correct breathing, putting the right emphasis on the right words and so on all play part in improving communication.

Sentences sound much better if you know exactly, where you are heading to and prepare your ending by slowing down and lowering your voice by a few notes. Everyone in the public will notice that you have ended your sentence with grace.
Why am I mentioning all these technical details? Good consecutive interpreting does not happen by chance and does not rely entirely on talent, but comes as a result of well-rehearsed technique. When you find yourself in a stressful situation in front of a large audience, broadcast live on national television, and everything goes wrong: you cannot hear the speaker, your pen runs out of ink and you think that you may have chosen the wrong socks, you cannot afford to spend additional mental energy on wondering how on earth are you going to remember everything the speaker said, how a particular word is properly pronounced, what is that particular word in Slovenian, what syllable should you put the emphasis on etc.

Technical skills are the supporting structure and once they become second nature, you spare your brain much effort and you can entirely focus on the most important tasks in that particular moment: listening to the speaker, understanding the words, translating them in your mind, remembering what has been said and then saying it.

One last trick? Self-confidence thrives or falters depending on feedback. From any stage you will always have a full range of facial expressions in your audience. Most people in the audience have no discernible expression and it is difficult to keep your self-confidence and speak convincingly, if you see people shaking their heads, furrowing their brows or chatting with the person sitting next to them. You won’t be able to shake the thought that they are commenting your performance—negatively—of course.

Over the years I have learnt a trick and then discovered it is widely used by many public performers. Whenever I speak, I always look for ‘nodders’. I try to find shiny happy people, those agreeing with everything I say and nodding in approval. Or, at least, seem that way. They might be only having a good day, being in love or having just had the best coffee and are not interested in my interpreting in the least. To me it makes no difference! They seem to be cheering for me, saying: “Bravo!” and nodding encouragingly.

It helps a lot even if their heads are bobbing because of Parkinson’s.