Interpreters work in real time with no possibility of correcting mistakes
What makes a good translator might be open to interpretation, but it's clear what translates into being a good interpreter. Interpreters are quite simply the European Parliament's tightrope walkers. Always performing under pressure, they need to find the right balance between speed and accuracy. But if they fail, there is no safety net to catch them. Let's take a look back-stage at these linguistic daredevils.
Interpreters work in real time: they listen and speak at the same time, which leaves no room for mistakes. "Once a word is out, you cannot take it back so they have to be pretty sure of what you are doing," said Olga Cosmidou, the Parliament's director-general for interpretation and conferences. "Speed is one of their biggest enemies, but at the same time it is very exciting. You have to like this positive stress and the adrenaline rush, you have somehow to anticipate what MEPs are going to say."
Interpreters are crucial to the functioning of the Parliament as their services are needed for all plenary sessions and for as many meetings of committees and delegations as possible. They are so important that unless they are there, the meeting cannot start. The Parliament uses all of the EU's 23 official languages so it's no surprise then that it's the biggest employer of interpreters in the world. Their number varies from 300 during weeks when committees meet to 1000 during plenary weeks in Strasbourg. The Parliament is also able to call on 4,000 freelance interpreters if needed.
"Language is much more than a means of communication, it is part of our identity. That's why it's important that MEPs speak their own languages so they can best defend the interests of their electorate and talk directly to the citizens in a language they understand. We have to make this miracle happen every day," continued Ms Cosmidou.
Interpreters work up to two 3.5 hour shifts a day. For this they prepare by reading relevant documents in their working languages and checking for changes and new terms. They also regularly read the press in different languages to keep up to date of the latest developments to help them handle the huge range of topics covered by the Parliament.
During plenary sessions interpretation is done from 23 language booths, each housing three interpreters. There are 506 possible language combinations (23 x 22 languages), so sometimes instead of direct language to language interpretation a relay system is used, whereby interpretation passes through a third language.
To become an interpreter a university degree is needed followed by two years of specialising in interpretation. To work at the Parliament, it will also be necessary to pass a competition. They need to speak their mother tongue perfectly and have a very high proficiency in at least two other languages.
However, the excitement of the job makes the hard work more than worth it. While travelling together with MEPs, interpreters have the chance to meet personalities such as the Dalai Lama, Prince Charles and Bill Gates. As they are present at negotiations and the signing of crucial documents, they get to witness the important events of our age. Or as Ms Cosmidou puts it: "They have a chair in the front row of history."