Interview with American wordsmith (and interpreter) James Nolan
|James Nolan - the interviewee||Jonathan Goldberg -the interviewer|
JG : You come from a cosmopolitan family and you grew up in several countries, before you settled down in the United States. Tell us about that.
James N : My father, a US Navy officer, came from Nova Scotia and my mother, an artist, from Asturias. I was born in the US at the end of World War II and shortly thereafter my family moved to Mexico City where my father did his Masters in Spanish. Both my parents were bilingual and I was raised speaking both languages. Later we lived in Venezuela and Chile before settling in California, where Spanish is also widely spoken. While at the University of California, I also spent summers in Guadalajara, where my parents lived during most of their retirement years.
JG : You are a qualified lawyer and you practiced law for a short period in New York. But your career began and continued in the field of interpreting, with a strong focus on legal interpreting. Your language strengths would presumably have stood you in good stead for either of those professions, but what induced you to choose interpreting over law.
James N : In New York City I did linguistic work for several law firms and worked as a lawyer with one of them, but as a lawyer I was one among thousands of lawyers in an overpopulated and extremely competitive field. However, as an interpreter I was among the best, so I decided to remain one. At the UN, I concentrated on international law and human rights issues, volunteering each year to interpret in the General Assembly's Legal Committee. I was promoted to head the language service of an international tribunal and later became Deputy Director of my division, where I also assumed some legal and administrative duties.
JG : To take the UN Competitive Examination, you went to study at Geneva University, which was the leading educational institution offering a diploma in international interpreting and translating at the time. In what languages were studies conducted? How did you fare in the UN Examination?
James N : Translation and interpretation courses at the University of Geneva were given in the students' target and source languages, in my case English, French and Spanish. International economics was taught in English and international relations was taught in French. International terminology was taught in four languages (English, French, Spanish and German). Stylistics and précis-writing were taught in English and French. Many of my professors were UN
linguists, and there were some very distinguished visiting lecturers, such as Constantin Andronikov, former interpreter of Charles de Gaulle. On graduating, I passed the UN Concours and went to the UN in 1977. In 1979 I was selected to join the in-house interpreter training program and received interpreter training from Guido Gómez de Silva and Bruce Boeglin, two of the best diplomatic interpreters.
JG: Tell us about your career as a United Nations Interpreter, the languages in which you worked.
James N : Staff interpreters at the UN are in the booth every day, working 7 or 8 meetings per week. To ensure accuracy and fidelity, we work into our strongest language (mother tongue or language of higher education) from two other UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish).
I worked into English from Spanish and French. The meetings in which I worked involved a great variety of topics and perspectives, from regional crises and decolonization to the environment and renewable energy sources. The work was sometimes stressful but always interesting. Interpretation is critical to the success of multilateral relations. During the 20 years of my career from 1982 to 2002 my assignments included 6 landmark global events which could not have taken place without simultaneous interpretation, since coverage of the languages of the 190+ countries in the world requires using all 6 UN official languages: the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1982 adopted the largest treaty in history governing the world's oceans; the first Summit Meeting of the UN Security Council in 1992 marked the end of the Cold War; the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ("Earth Summit") in 1992 led the way to the environmental revolution; the Special Commemorative Meeting of 1995 marked the 50th Anniversary of the UN; the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court in 1998 codified the Nuremberg precedent on war crimes and crimes against humanity, so that such crimes can now be prosecuted internationally; and the International Conference on Financing for Development in 2002 set the scene for today's economic development system. The issues addressed at those conferences required consensus-based global solutions, since every country in the world had a stake in the outcome. Each of those conferences arrived at a result that represented a step forward in resolving the issues it had addressed, and that progress could not have been achieved but for the possibility of exhaustively discussing issues in depth, using languages that all participants could understand. It is fascinating, as an interpreter, to have a front-row seat at events such as those, where history is being made and a way to the future is being charted, and to see how multilingual communication contributes to the process.
JG : Do you have any particular memories of statesmen for whom you interpreted (and those whom you may have met) and other highlights (as well as possible hitches) in your work as an interpreter at the UN?
James N : There are so many memories… At every General Assembly, a senior UN interpreter will interpret several speeches by heads of state or foreign ministers. I was often asked to interpret the presidents of Bolivia,
Peru and Argentina, and sometimes to translate their written speeches. One of the most amiable and courteous statesmen I met was President Ernesto Samper Pizano, for whom I interpreted in 1996 at some bilateral talks. He invited me to lunch with them during their talks, commended me on my work, and very kindly left me with a beautiful memento: a book of aerial photographs of Colombia. However, from a technical standpoint, the most interesting and challenging assignments I did were press conferences and interviews by President Jacques Chirac in Paris, interpreted live in New York at the Reuters Financial News Studio, in 1995. When you interpret live for a global television audience, the level of concentration required of you is tremendous. But I have to say that the satellite feed and technical arrangements set up by Reuters were impeccable: it was as if the speaker and I were in the same room. Moreover, M. Chirac is an excellent speaker and it is truly a pleasure to interpret someone who handles the French language so beautifully.
JG : Under the UN mandatory retirement policy your UN appointment expired when you turned 60. Since then your career has taken off in other directions and you receive invitations from different parts of the world to teach and conduct seminars and courses, principally for conference interpreters. You also serve as a consultant. Where have you been invited? Are the courses one-time events? What is the level of the students whom you teach in these courses? Are those courses confined to English-Spanish-French speakers? For which bodies do you consult?
James N : I have been invited to teach or lecture in Canada, Germany, Kosovo, Argentina and South Africa. In the US, I have taught or lectured in New York, Washington D.C., California, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Idaho. My seminars in Canada and South Africa have become regular events, and I have made three trips to Kosovo as a consultant to prepare training courses and to train linguists for the OSCE Mission in Kosovo and the European Union legal mission, EULEX.
With seminar participants, Capetown, South Africa
Most of my seminars are for advanced students and practicing professionals who want to improve their skills or to refine a particular language combination. My French-English professional seminars for ATIO take place each summer in Ontario; this summer we will be at the Château Laurier in Ottawa the first week of July. I focus on French, Spanish and English for conference interpreting, but I also use a "language neutral" approach that allows me to include other language combinations at some of my seminars (e.g. Portuguese in South Africa and Canada, Serbian and Albanian in Kosovo, and Dari and Pashto in my training of Canadian military escort interpreters). In the US as a consultant to the National Center for State Courts I evaluate French<>English oral examinations of court interpreters. For AIIC (L'association internationale des interprètes de conférence), I am participating in the AIIC delegation to the ASTM committee working to define nationwide standards for interpretation.
JG : Which text book do you use for your courses and seminars?
James N : I use my own textbook, Interpretation Techniques and Exercises, which recently came out in its second edition. However, I also develop coursebooks and syllabi specifically tailored to the needs and language combinations of the institutions or student groups that I work with.
JG : Is your knowledge of French acquired from the years you spent in Geneva, or have you lived in other French-speaking regions?
For 30 years all of my professional activity has been conducted partly in French, which is one of the UN's two working languages. I have always been drawn to the French language and French culture. It seems that I had a French ancestor in my family. Before the internet came along I kept up my French by subscribing to Les Temps Modernes and listening to short-wave radio, and I recall being moved by the eulogies of Charles de Gaulle in 1970. I studied French at the University of California and the Sorbonne but my exposure to French started in high school and later included both sides of the Atlantic. I lived in Paris while taking courses at the Sorbonne, and worked there for a year after graduating from the
University of Geneva while waiting for my UN contract. I lived in Geneva and its environs (Annemasse, Haute-Savoie; Ferney-Voltaire, Ain) for two years as a student and later for five years as a UN staff member. (By the way, more than once I visited Divonne-les-Bains, where Jean Leclercq lives. It is a very pleasant town.) I also spent many vacations in Bretagne and Québec, and became fairly familiar with the French spoken in la belle province. I am proud to say that my older daughter, Catherine, is perfectly bilingual.
JG : Do you also do translations?
James N : Yes, mainly treaties and national human rights reports for the UN in Geneva, but I have also translated legal materials for the State Department and for an international tribunal.
JG : You have said that residents of Québec "know two languages for the price of one." Give us your impressions of French spoken by the Québécois.
James N : Interpreters sometimes complain that Canadian French makes their work more difficult but I find those complaints exaggerated. The Québécois accent is at first difficult to get used to but once your ear is attuned to it you discover that the French spoken by educated Canadians is basically a regional variety of standard French with some additional dialectical features –a situation akin to that which Spanish-English interpreters face with the diverse regional varieties of Spanish in Latin America. Moreover, Canadians take official bilingualism seriously and lavish great care on making their official publications and diplomatic communications correct and elegant in both languages. At the UN, most speeches by Canadian delegates are made partly in French and what you are often hearing from them is well-written French spoken with a slight English accent. I think the language of Molière is alive and well in Canada, although it may differ from the French spoken in Paris, Marseille, Geneva or Dakar.
When Nicolas Sarkozy, a brilliant speaker, was received at the Quebec National Assembly, it was hard to say who was more eloquent, the guest or the hosts. I occasionally have the pleasure of teaching French>English refresher training workshops for the staff interpreters at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario (who work mainly into French) and I am always impressed by the polished and articulate French spoken by Canadian parliamentarians and their interpreters.
JG : You have described interpreting as "playing detective". Could you elaborate on that in general and with specific reference to accent?
James N : I was referring to an element of my model of interpretation, on which I base my seminars; I try to identify the various processes that take place in an interpreter's mind while he is interpreting, and one of these is inference / extrapolation / deduction. What I mean is that there are many aspects of an utterance that can render it difficult to interpret, e.g. use of unfamiliar terminology, poor sound quality, conference-room noise, an inadvertent slip of the tongue or omission by the speaker, an obscure accent, etc., and in order to deal with those kinds of issues the interpreter is often obliged to go behind the words, fill in the blanks and read between the lines in order to grasp or reconstruct the speaker's meaning. This kind of analysis is very similar to what a detective does when he deduces the missing piece of the puzzle from all of the other available clues. That is why it is important for an interpreter to follow the thread of the speaker's ideas, focus on the context, and keep the overall picture in mind, rather than focusing exclusively on the words he is currently hearing.
JG : What direction is the profession of interpreting now taking?
James N : Like everything else, it is being changed by technology. What technology makes possible sooner or later comes to pass, and I believe we are on the verge of seeing multilingual real-time virtual meetings being convened in cyberspace using simultaneous interpretation and video-conferencing, with the speakers and the interpreters participating from different locations. For example, listen to the following dialogue, in which the Prime Minister of Japan, speaking Japanese ten thousand kilometers away in Tokyo, is brought into a conversation taking place in English in Davos, Switzerland. ("Tough choices in a time of crisis"). Notice that, due to the size of the monitor, the "remote" participant is actually the most visible person in attendance. Just as simultaneous interpreting proved to be more efficient than consecutive, I think remote video-conference interpreting will in some cases prove to be more efficient than conference-room interpreting. Let me mention a moment of crisis that I witnessed as an interpreter and venture a prediction. I believe that in years to come the heightened security concerns that were ushered in by 9/11 will probably remain at the "orange alert" state or higher, to use the terminology now in use at airports. I have had that feeling since September12th, 2001, when I was one of the two English interpreters called in to New York City to service the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council which met that day in response to the attack. Making my way through a deserted Manhattan where the dust was still settling from the destruction of the twin towers, I could not help wondering if the attacks were really over but I knew that despite the danger in the air the Council had to meet. I sensed that, for interpreters as for everyone else, things would never be the same again and security would become a constant concern. Remote interpreting has the potential to address not only the obstacle of geographical distance but also some security situations where high-level gatherings could become targets of terrorism. Moreover, where a meeting must be arranged on short notice or when a problem of "rare" language combinations arises, remote interpreting can make it possible to use the best-qualified interpreters for the job even if they are remotely located and cannot be brought in time to the meeting venue. While bearing in mind that interpreters' presence at the meeting venue is always preferable because it enables interpreters to interact with the participants and be better informed, I believe that the possibilities offered by remote interpretation should also be explored.
JG : What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career as an interpreter?
James N : I would say: take the necessary time to thoroughly master your working languages, including your "A" language, and to acquire the necessary background knowledge, training, and hands-on experience. Do not confine yourself solely to academic settings. An appropriate degree, such as the Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI), from a good school will help you enter the profession, but interpreting is above all an art that is learned by doing. Build a reputation for quality and reliability. If you have no experience of public speaking and suffer from stage-fright, find a way to acquire more self-confidence, e.g. by joining a public speaking club like "Toastmasters" or an amateur theater group. Keep fit and learn to relax. Explore career possibilities with internet searches and tools like the Yearbook of International Organizations, which lists all international organizations in the world, indexed by subject-matter, location and working languages. Take pains with your resume. Prepare for competitive examinations using the organizations' web sites. When starting out, accept even brief volunteer assignments as a community interpreter for the sake of experience. Join an interpreter's association as a student member. Study the AIIC Code of Professional Ethics and Tips for Beginners. Read widely in all your languages and broaden your general knowledge by attending meetings or lectures on current issues. Set your goals carefully, use your time wisely, and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Practice interpreting daily, using the wealth of speeches now available on the internet. Record yourself, listen to your performances with a critical ear, and then work systematically on getting better at whatever gave you trouble, whether it was speed of delivery, financial terminology, metaphors, numbers, or reformulation. Resist the temptation of becoming a "polyglutton": mastering two or three languages is better than knowing several superficially. Finally, do not spend too much time on abstract linguistic theorizing. Remember the advice of De Gaulle's interpreter, Constantin Andronikov: "The interpreter is like a centipede; if he thought about what his feet are doing, he would be unable to walk."
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.
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