Roderick Jones - helping Europeans understand each other

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is EU conference interpreter Roderick Jones. Roderick's been translating and interpreting for twenty years. Currently he's based in Prague, where he's co-ordinating a team of translators working on a raft of documents that have to be translated by May 1st 2004, when the Czech Republic joins the European Union.

Roderick JonesRoderick Jones Roderick, just how many languages do you speak?

"I personally speak five languages at the moment. English is my mother tongue. I have a knowledge of French which allows me to work into French as a conference interpreter - normally we only work into our mother tongue but I also work into French - and then I have so-called passive languages, German, Italian and Czech."

How old were you when you noticed you had something of a talent for languages?

"I personally I didn't notice at all, but it became fairly obvious when I was at secondary school the moment we started doing languages fairly seriously that that was where my strong points were, and my weak points were things like chemistry and biology which I gave up as quickly as possible. So from roughly the age of eleven I'd say."

Is there something in your family background which has given you this aptitude for languages or is it just chance?

"Nothing whatsoever I think with just one exception which is my father. My father is in fact an appalling linguist, but he's Welsh. And he is sufficiently old to be of the generation where he spoke Welsh at home, and he actually started learning English only when he went to primary school. So he is in fact bilingual Welsh-English, so maybe there's something of the genes there. Otherwise no."

When did you begin interpreting?

"I personally started in 1982. I read for a languages degree at university, a very traditional languages degree with a lot of literature and that kind of thing. I had no intention of becoming an interpreter. And then more or less by chance when I finished my studies I had the opportunity to do the in-house training which the European Commission did at that time for conference interpreters - they no longer do it. They were looking for interpreters, particularly into English. It was a very short intensive training programme and a very good one. And I just fell into it really by chance. By 1982 I was ready to start work as an interpreter with the Commission."

Do you remember your first ever conversation that you had to translate simultaneously?

"Yes, it wasn't really a conversation, it was actually a meeting, so we were working in simultaneous interpreting, in the conference interpreters' booths, with the headphones and the microphone and everything. It was a very banal, some would say boring meeting about the administration of railways. I can still remember that. When you work as a conference interpreter in the European Commission in simultaneous interpreting, you don't work on your own. There are two or even three of you sitting together in the booth, and as it was my first day of course they put me with a senior experienced colleague who looked after me extremely well. And I can still remember that at the end of the day's interpreting, one of the British delegates came into the booth, popped his head round the door, and thanked us for the quality of our interpreting. That was my very first day at work, and I should imagine it's happened to me less than five times in the following twenty years!"

What was your worst experience as an interpreter?

"My worst experience as an interpreter...I wouldn't have one single such experience, but it's always the times when you get things wrong and you know you shouldn't have got it wrong. There is some background information you should have had, there is something you should have picked up in the course of a meeting and you didn't. Something really banal I remember - there was a discussion about the diplomatic status of a country, whether it was allowed to participate in an international conference, whether they were allowed to be full participants, or just observers, or whether they were to be present without even having observer status. And I didn't pick up the difference between the last two. And when they came to the conclusion, I got it wrong, and said they could be observers when in fact they couldn't. This was at ambassadorial level, it was fairly serious, there was a minor diplomatic incident. That kind of thing is very embarrassing, and I confess on that particular occasion it really was my fault. So you feel really bad about it."

Do you always translate everything verbatim? Do you ever censor what a speaker is saying, if he starts swearing for example?

"We never interpret verbatim. I stress very strongly that interpreting has - in the word itself - interpretation. Interpreting is not a literal transliteration of what is said, and that's really, really important. You understand the meaning of what is said, you understand the meaning in context, and then you transpose the original into your target language, rather than doing a literal translation."

But if, say, an Italian diplomat suddenly loses his temper and starts using rude Italian phrases about somebody, would you translate them into the most colourful language you could think of in English, or would you tone it down a bit?

"I would tend to tone it down. That kind of thing has happened to me. It happens very rarely I must say, because we generally work in the context of politicians, diplomats, civil servants, who tend to be rather urbane."

Tell what happened in one of those examples.

"Well, I can remember that one French speaker was extremely crude about the behaviour of the attitudes of other delegations, and I think if one had translated it honestly into English, one would have been using four-letter words, very strong language. Quite simply, in order to avoid upsetting people and unnecessarily adding to the tension in the room I think the interpreter is entitled just to tone it down a little bit."

You work for the European Commission. Can that not get terribly boring sometimes, translating long speeches about farm subsidies or something?

"I think it can involve working in very routine meetings, which if taken at face value can be boring. I would admit that. But I would say two things. One, it's compensated for by the fact that you don't always work in such meetings -you also work in incredibly interesting meetings where sometimes quite literally history is being made. I personally was one of the interpreters on the day the European Commission took its decision - formally - to give the green light for this forthcoming accession, when ten new countries will be joining the EU. In fact I interpreted the presentation by the commissioner responsible for enlargement, the German Mr Guenter Verheugen. So that is fantastic. The other thing is that I think interpreting is more than just working with the intrinsic content of the speeches you're translating or interpreting, I think there is also the sheer intellectual pleasure of dealing with the language problems that you're faced with in any translation. So even if they're talking about boring administrative questions concerning the price of potatoes, nonetheless that can be put in an interesting way or it can be put in a way which creates an interesting translation problem. So you can get an awful lot out of the job and I don't think you need to be bored, no."

So it still remains a challenge then.

"Yes. I've been doing it for over twenty years. I'm taking a bit of break in a way because I'm doing another job in Prague at the moment, but basically it is the job I enjoy and I still get a great kick out of it after more than twenty years."