The Face-saving Power of Interpreting

diplomatic interpreting
The Face-saving Power of Interpreting

It often happens that my diplomatic clients only need a little help – as opposed to full on, constant, bidirectional interpreting from English into Spanish and vice versa.

The Issue

English is the foreign language most widely studied in the Spanish-speaking world. Therefore, it is no surprise that those who usually work in international settings understand more English than they feel confident enough to speak. As a result, when interacting with their English-speaking counterparts, they do not need any help to understand what others are saying but prefer to use an interpreter rather than having a go at it in English.

I call the service I provide for these clients face-saving interpreting.

Such was the case of a Latin American Secretary for International Trade, during his visit to the United Kingdom.

The Secretary in question speaks good English but, as he himself told me, sometimes struggles with certain English accents and expressions or with speaking in public in a foreign language.

The Solution

During our short briefing session before his first meeting in the schedule, it became clear to me that he would find the traditional mode of translating everything back and forth cumbersome and, most likely, inefficient. So, I suggested using face-saving interpreting instead.

This way, I remained as a backup (constantly following the conversation, of course) in case he needed to clarify something that was said. Also, instead of interpreting what his British counterparts said in English into Spanish, I only interpreted what he said in Spanish into English for his British counterparts to hear.

The goal was to keep things simple and, in line with rule number one of the Multilateral Way: be useful. Imposing a way of doing things simply because it is the way it has always been done would not have benefitted any of the parties involved.

One of the most beautiful things about interpreting, at least the way I see it, is how flexible it is, allowing us to adapt the use of the different interpreting techniques to each situation.

The Secretary’s schedule included a forty-minute presentation about his country to a small and select audience, which he wanted to do in Spanish. So, we changed modes and, after considering the size of the room and the composition of the audience, his team and I decided to use simultaneous interpreting.

It worked wonderfully well.

The added bonus

As usual, his presentation was followed by a networking session for him to meet with different key players.

We switched modes again, as I followed him around the room and assisted him on an as-needed basis. However, my most noted, face-saving intervention during this part of the day was not linguistic but intercultural.

The Secretary was conversing with a lady representing a group of Scottish whisky and spirits producers. I could see that he was handling the lady’s heavy Scottish accent fairly well, not an easy thing to do, mind you, but quickly realised he was struggling with something else.

She kept mentioning Beefeaters’ Gin, the famous British gin brand, and the Secretary’s facial expression was telling me he was a bit lost –spotting when the person I am interpreting for is in a bit of trouble is part of my job. So, I approached him as if I were to interpret something for him and quickly whispered in his ear that she was talking about Beefeaters’ Gin, one of the most famous gins in Britain. He nodded and carried on while giving me a thumbs up behind his back.

Lessons Learned

Listen to your clients. They know what they know. You know what you know. And, together, you can find the best service setup for each occasion.

Oh, and always have your client’s back.

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