Interpreters speak their mother tongue perfectly and have a very high proficiency in at least two other languages. "To be an interpreter, you have to like languages," said Gertrud Dietze, a German interpreter, "to like the effort that goes into learning and maintaining a high level of a language". Most interpreters have four or five working languages, some seven or eight, and they know all of them very well. It is essential for them to understand perfectly what is said because they do not have the time to open a dictionary or to ask their colleagues; an interpreter relies only on himself/herself.
However, language knowledge is only a tool; interpretation involves transmitting the message of a speech. Lots of people can speak foreign languages well, but only a few make good interpreters. It is a skill that needs to be taught.
As the range of subjects covered in parliamentary debates is almost unlimited, the interpreter is required to have a solid general knowledge and expertise in all areas of EU activity. Being familiar with an MEP's political opinions can help an interpreter grasp the speaker's intentions beyond mere words.
The interpreters are communicators, their feelings about what is said being irrelevant. "I make people understand each other whatever they say, even if they say the opposite of what I hold as true," said Ms Dietze. "We are impartial and this is easier for people who have a talent for acting, who can put themselves in the frame of mind of the speaker...you are on the same wavelength".
The interpreters' work
Interpreting is not word-for-word translation but the transmission of a message, captured in one language and faithfully rendered in another. Working in real time, interpreters have to perform under pressure, simultaneously delivering the message of the original speech into another language. They listen and speak at the same time, so they listen selectively, focusing on the message rather than on the words.
Having little time for thought in the booths, interpreters spend a lot of time preparing in advance, reading relevant documents in their working languages, trying to keep pace with changes and new terms. Another essential part of the job is reading the press regularly and in different languages, to keep up-to-date with the international political situation and the latest developments. "You need to understand the concepts, then things come to you naturally; otherwise you have to rush and cling to the words," said Ms Dietze.
Most Parliamentary meetings are in Strasbourg and Brussels, but there are times when they take place in other countries, meaning the interpreters have to travel a lot. It is tiring, but interesting and a good opportunity to learn. Lifelong learning is part of the interpreter's job: "There is hardly a day when I get home and I cannot say 'today I have learned something new, '"said Ms Dietze.