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Before a conference it is still possible to decline the offer, and probably all interpreters know beyond which limit they would not go, not even if paid extraordinarily well. A child pornographers' congress, I assume, or an international Ku Klux Klan event etc. However, what do we do, when a speech rather unexpectedly becomes hate speech? An example from real life, sometime in the mid-1990s: In a conference on drugs (as in addiction) and AIDS a speaker started rambling almost hysterically about Africans, women, queers etc.etc., in the most racist, sexist and homophobic way one could imagine. I eventually felt that it was against my own understanding of the work ethics of an interpreter to continue translating this man's suada. I apologized to my listeners (I said like "Your interpreter apologizes, she can't follow the speaker any more"), and switched the mike off. Now, some say, once in the booth we have no choice but have to translate, what ever is being said. Do we? And if not, what would be elegant ways out of the dilemma?

asked 16 Nov '11, 17:51

LiA's gravatar image


edited 16 Nov '11, 20:38

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck


Interesting question.

In 22 years of interpreting I've only encountered one single situation, at a rather large conference many years ago, where one keynote speaker slated for the post-prandial slot came on-stage so drunk that instead of his keynote he delivered a string of lurid and sexist jokes. To this day I still remember being drawn into it, not knowing where it would end, until the punch line hit me in the stomach, and I just could not continue interpreting. I think I must have said something like: "your interpreter is sorry, but this was supposed to be a keynote on ... and it turns out that the speaker's actually only telling very, very bad jokes. I'll resume interpreting when he's done with the lewdness. Sorry."

On more than one occasion, I've also had to interpret people whose ideas I personally find utterly despicable, including some well known extreme-right wingers from France or the UK.

But that's a very different situation I believe. Here we're dealing with ideology, not vulgarity. And I see it as my responsibility as an interpreter not to censor in the slightest way what proponents of even the vilest of ideologies have to say.

It would only be human for interpreters who find themselves deeply offended by a speaker whom they are interpreting to let it be heard that they interpret disapprovingly. We all know that you can provide a technically totally accurate rendition, and somehow not sound convincing because, well, you disapprove. But in doing so the interpreter only creates space for cognitive dissonance in the mind of the audience. People listening to you will start wondering whether you're interpreting the whole story, and why. And instead of focusing on the message - and judging it for what it is - they'll start doubting the messenger.

Really, you don't want to give your audience any excuse to repress an inconvenient speaker or ideology. You want to leave it entirely to them to deal with it. Give them the whole thing. Unedited. Let the outrage be theirs too, not just yours.

I'd say, when it hits you in the booth, you have to deal with it. Of course, turning down an offer to interpret some stupid git is always a valid option.

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answered 16 Nov '11, 19:02

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck

edited 16 Nov '11, 20:30

In my opinion, as interpreters we shouldn't allow our personal opinions or views to interfere with our job. Obviously it's one the the difficulties of the profession.

Certainly you can decline a job when you know in advance that the subject of the conference goes against your beliefs. But I think the only way to deal with an out of the blue "hate speech" is to carry on interpreting. After all we are professionals.

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answered 16 Nov '11, 19:03

Marta%20Piera%20Marin's gravatar image

Marta Piera ...

Ein Kollege dolmetschte sehr engagiert die Rede eines französischen rechtsextremen Politikers im Europäischen Parlament.

Der Kollege, der neben ihm saß, fragte ihn verwundert in einer Pause: "Du hast doch bekanntlich eher linke Ansichten. Wie konntest Du diesen Politiker so engagiert dolmetschen? "

Antwort des Dolmetschers: "Ich dolmetsche nicht für die Rechtsextremen, sondern für die deutschsprachigen Abgeordneten. Sie möchten verstehen, was dieser Politiker gesagt hat und wie er es gesagt hat. Nur so können sie reagieren."

Und sie haben reagiert!

Jedes Mal, wenn mir das Dolmetschen schwer fällt, denke ich an meine Zuhörer. Sie haben das Recht, denselben Eindruck einer Rede zu erhalten, wie die Teilnehmer, die die Sprache des Redners sprechen.

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answered 22 Nov '11, 14:36

Angela's gravatar image


Of course. We have to interpret everything they say, that's why they engage an interpreter.

Try to turn it around: Imagine you needed an interpreter and what you want to express would be heavily censured by the interpreter according to the interpreter's personal beliefs. Let's say you'd want to attack organised religion and the interpreter refused to translate that or watered it down. And so on.

The only thing you can do is avoid accepting any job where there is a realistic danger of having to intepret hate speeches. But once we accept a job, we must not engage in ideological cherry-picking.

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answered 20 May '12, 05:41

Brigitte's gravatar image


There's no elegant way out of it. I once had to interpret a speaker who denied Holocaust. I've never been closer to intervening as myself to say something, anything, to distance myself from such discourse - but while I was interpreting it and weighing my options, I decided the best thing was to stick to my role as interpreter and not to give the speaker's ideas an iota of additional attention. The speaker is responsible for what they say, not the interpreter.

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answered 16 Nov '11, 18:20

Sirpa's gravatar image


I also had one single experience where a speaker made such an outrageous remark about Jewish victims in concentration camps that I - being German - thought I would stop breathing that very second. The participants who had been listening to the original were equally dumbfounded and got visibly and audibly upset - so within a split second I knew I had to go on and tell "my" listeners why. It was more of a reflex than a well-considered strategy but instead of continuing to interpret in 1st person, I switched to 3rd person saying "The speaker just said....." thus putting a distance between myself and the speaker. I continued in 3rd person for the rest of his speech whereafter the conference organisers called for a long break and discussed whether and how they would continue with the conference.

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answered 05 May '12, 22:19

AlmuteL's gravatar image


This is one of the most interesting debates posted so far: I believe that if we can continue providing a suitable rendition of the speech, we should do so, though I found the recourse to the third person most interesting... I believe that the vote of censure must come from the audience or the organizers, it does not behoove us to intervene: imagine if this were a controlled experiment to see what happens when a speaker rambles about racism or sexism... we would be in trouble. Some uncomfortable situations may be avoided when we have time to meet with the organizers and are able to check the slant of the presentations... There are, also, situations in which the speakers are out to make the interpreter uncomfortable: seeing that we are all ladylike and formal, they go for rude language and sexist remarks... It has happened and the best way out is to proceed as if nothing strange had happened and the speaker will eventually grow tired of this little game...

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answered 17 May '12, 15:01

Vicky%20Massa's gravatar image

Vicky Massa


I've been in situations in which sexist, racist comments or other type of insulting remarks were made. I kept on interpreting business as usual. The only thing I did was to add a couple of times "the speaker has just said" or "as the speaker has just said". I feel that this way a distance myself but I can go on giving a faithful rendition on the speech without feeling misused and having to think if I should carry on working or not. I think that if we are hired to interpret and we sign a contract we are there to do our jobs as professionally as always if we happen to be surprised by a sudden hate speech. If it is clear in advance that the subject of the conference would be about something you cannot agree with then you can always reject the work.

The legal liability when acting as interpreters and thus as sheer "intermediaries" is a subject worth looking into on a country by country basis. Like Holocaust denial in Germany or the situation of interpreters working during depositions in thorny cases.


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answered 21 May '12, 06:17

Conrado's gravatar image


There are restrictions on free speech, e.g. the classic example of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

I think interpreters need to be very aware not only of what they are saying, but also of where they are saying it. In countries where hate speech is outlawed, I am unaware of specific exemptions made for interpreters. Interpreting in the third person might get you off a moral hook, but you are still caught on a legal one. An illegal contract is unenforceable, meaning interpreters do not have to interpret this stuff, but neither does the organiser have to pay the interpreter.

Certain international organisations claim extraterritorial privileges. Here it is vital to have detailed guidance from the Head of the Interpreting Service & the Legal Department as to what may and may not be said. Does extraterritoriality apply to missions, or only at HQ?

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answered 12 May '12, 04:34

parthenope's gravatar image



...the disgusting nature of hate speech is obviously not in question here, we're all unanimous in condemning it... I must however take exception to your implication that an interpreter could be legally liable for the hate speech content of an utterance s/he conveys - ie "materialising" it in the target language as opposed to authoring it originally - and even more so to the corollary that such interpreter should therefore censor the message s/he interprets.

If that is indeed what you meant, ie that my faithful rendition of "FOGO" when my principal shouts "FIRE" is actionable at all, let alone on the same grounds applying to said principal, ie once a court has determined there was no fire that could justify such original utterance, which I was both incapable and unfit to do... and that I should therefore have omitted said utterance, despite having clearly understood it, on the sole grounds of my not seeing any fire in the split seconds I had to look about... the issue obviously needs to be further debated and hopefully settled!

(12 May '12, 08:08) msr

Most people would agree that any interpreter facilitating communication between mobsters engaged in a criminal conspiracy would be lucky to escape a conspiracy charge & instead only face prosecution for aiding and abetting the criminal purpose.

Criminalised speech, e.g. Holocaust denial, which carries a stiff sentence in many countries, appears to be more problematic.

There is a tension between acting professionally and providing an uncensored flow of information and asserting one's own right to remain within the law. Can the interpreter really absolve herself by claiming she was merely following word order?

(15 May '12, 19:55) parthenope

Most people would agree that any interpreter facilitating communication between mobsters engaged in a criminal conspiracy would be lucky to escape a conspiracy charge & instead only face prosecution for aiding and abetting the criminal purpose.

Criminalised speech, e.g. Holocaust denial, which carries a stiff sentence in many countries, appears to be more problematic.

In the case of hate speech, there is a tension between acting professionally to provide an uncensored flow of information and asserting one's own right to remain within the law. Can the interpreter subsequently absolve herself by claiming she was merely following word order?

(15 May '12, 20:01) parthenope

IMHO, once an interpreter has accepted a contract - which presumably did not spell out s/he would be "facilitating communication between mobsters" - s/he only has two options: either stop working on the basis of alleged breach of contract by the principals due to misrepresentation of subject-matter (albeit a slippery slope, which - admittedly unlikely so in these circumstances :-) - may well give rise to legal proceedings against him/her) or honour the contract and ex post ask for ethical guidance from his/her professional authorities on how best to reconcile professional secrecy with the duty to report to public authorities the unlawful instance s/he was involuntarily privy to (which s/he would be well advised to do, even had s/he discontinued interpretation.. and lived to tell the story!)... this of course if we accept, for argument sake, that international mobsters would rent a conference hall and hire free-lance interpreters off the market ;-).

Aren't we forgetting "intent"? An interpreter interpreting hate speech is, again IMHO, within the law, for s/he's not speaking his/her mind but that of another, albeit disgusting... which is exactly his/her professional remit: are we to venture to identify - and react by turning off our microphones - what would with hindsight prove to be, say, a stylistic device which would consist in a principal uttering a long string of offending statements... only to better expose them and deny them at the end, or do we believe that such principal would nevertheless be liable on hate speech grounds for such an utterance?

(16 May '12, 08:31) msr

I wonder who interpreted for Lehmann Brothers ;) no, seriously I think we cannot and must not assume responsibility for content. We may want to turn down a job in the first place if it is for an organisation or individuals we disapprove of but once we signed a contract...

Also, I suppose the Nuremberg trials would never have been possible had our "ancestors" not been willing to set their own personality aside.

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answered 12 May '12, 08:57

Tanja's gravatar image


edited 12 May '12, 09:06

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question asked: 16 Nov '11, 17:51

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last updated: 21 May '12, 06:17

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