Interpreters are wizards – at times they seem to have read my mind. AI could never compete

Back in 1985, the Irish government asked me to attend the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which took place that year in Budapest. The theme was culture, hence the choice of a novelist, and a political ignoramus such as myself, to be the delegate from Ireland.

At the time the cold war was still distinctly warm, there was very little cooperation between east and west, and no one felt particularly secure. The conference rapidly degenerated into a slanging match between the American and Russian delegations, over the heads of us inconsequential Europeans.

I had prepared a very short address, in which I spun out a few variations on those lovely lines from Sonnet 65, “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” I also quoted Theodor Adorno, as best I could from memory, to the effect that political art is neither art nor political.

The delegate who spoke before me was a scowling middle-aged lady from Bulgaria. We had been strictly instructed to limit our addresses to 10 minutes maximum; she finally wound up after an hour. I took off my headphones and was consulting my speech, when the British delegation, at their desk beside mine, burst into loud laughter. Afterwards the delegation leader, the sleekly elegant Norman St John-Stevas, came to apologise. “You had taken off your headphones,” he said, “so you didn’t hear, as we did, the interpreter saying of our Bulgarian colleague, ‘My God, I thought that bitch would never stop talking’.”

I have related this anecdote to many interpreters, and each one of them, looking slightly sheepish, said the woman in the glass booth had probably known exactly what she was doing when she failed to switch off her microphone prior to making her remark about the comrade from Sofia. Interpreting is a thankless job – often the interpreters are not even visible to the people for whom they are interpreting – and sometimes they exact their revenge.

But there is an art to everything, and the art of the interpreter is sophisticated and subtle in the extreme. I cannot imagine how they do what they do. That they can take another’s words and sentences and reshape them, on the instant, into another language, sometimes one that is not their mother tongue, seems to me a magical feat.

They all have their individual wizardly methods. An Italian with whom I have frequently worked – I cannot think of any other verb that fits – sets a large notebook on her knees and as I speak rapidly sketches geometrical diagrams, which, when I pause, she converts back into words. I asked her once how this method works, but she couldn’t explain it. How had she arrived at this way of working? She couldn’t explain that, either. “I just do it,” she said, “and somehow the lines, the squares and triangles and arrows, speak in my head.”

The ones who really astound me are those who can translate simultaneously. Somehow they seem to know what I am going to say before I have finished saying it. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw in a German newspaper, showing a man in a boiling rage throttling another man who, despite the violence being visited on him, is completely calm; the caption read, “He is waiting for the verb.” But simultaneous interpreters don’t wait at all, they just rattle on as if my words are printed on a screen before them, and they can look ahead to what I am about to say.

Never has any interpreter asked me to speak slowly; never have I been asked to stop and repeat something I have said. It is uncanny.

Interpreting is nothing like translating from a text. The translator can operate at her leisure; she can break off to consult the dictionary, or wander away to make a cup of tea. The interpreter is trapped, held captive as the words spiral along, like a spring being stretched to the snapping point. They do not snap; they sit there, between me and the interviewer, in a sort of animated trance, transforming my laboured answers into a musical recitative.

Often, if I have some grasp of the language into which I am being translated, I have the suspicion that the interpreter is fashioning my halting speech into a far more elegant version of what I am struggling to express. It is as if there were an angel at my side, transforming my stammered-over words into sublimities.

Now all this is threatened. On a recent book tour in Spain, I was told by each interpreter assigned to me of his or her fears that soon they would all be made redundant by – yes, you guessed it – artificial intelligence.

If this happens, it will bring about a deep impoverishment. There is an intimacy between me and my interpreters that I value and in a mysterious way depend on. In Barcelona, at the end of my tour, the Catalan interpreter asked me to sign her copy of my book. I wrote in it: “To Carmen, my voice in Spain.” No machine could communicate the warmth of Carmen’s smile when she read those words.

Leave a Comment