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Simultaneous translation is never an easy feat, and political debates make it even harder. Is there anything a diligent interpreter can do to make the task easier?

Americans may not be able to agree on much in this historically divisive election year, but after the first presidential debate on September 29 the entire world saw eye-to-eye on one thing – the event was a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire,” as CNN aptly described it. Endless interrupting and randomly hurled insults made it incredibly hard to follow even for native English speakers, to the point where microphone muting is under active consideration for future debates.

As you can imagine, the rest of the world had an even bigger challenge. People who watched the debate on Japanese public broadcaster NHK were forced to watch three men shout over each other at the top of their lungs while three interpreters interpreted over each other simultaneously. When clips of the exchanges and the translators’ struggles were posted on social media after the debate, one poster stated “We feel very sorry for decent Americans”, while another said that “Whatever those translators are paid, they deserve more.”

Some of the exchanges were so chaotic that Taiwan’s Yahoo News anchor Catherine Lu thought there was a technical problem with her earpiece. “I have not often come across this kind of situation!” she exclaimed live on air while presenting in Mandarin. “(Donald) Trump keeps interrupting (Joe) Biden, and Biden also interrupts Trump. It is hard to make out what anyone‘s viewpoint is.”

All of this begs the question – is there anything that interpreters and translators can do to help avoid such a spectacle in the future? There are a few tips that top professionals recommend:

  • Know the political system of the country you are translating/interpreting in.
  • If you are assigned to translate/interpret for a particular candidate, get familiar with his or her speech patterns, accent, and tempo. 
  • Know the opposing debaters. Study their bios, read about their ideologies and platforms, and learn about their lives.
  • Be aware of the most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. 
  • Internalize the rules of the debate.

At Argos Multilingual, our translators are chosen for their diligence and skill, and we work only with expert freelance linguists and in-country language service providers whose standards match ours. And while we may not be able to make anyone a better debater, we can offer world-class multimedia publishing services that help our clients prepare, optimize, and localize their multimedia content – including voiceovers, subtitles, on-screen captions, dubbing, and lip-syncing.

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