On interpreting interviews

On interpreting interviews

Kirill Kazakov

Recently, I had the pleasure to interpret (in a fine company of Yury Somov and Alex Sadykov) the interview of the Russian president Vladimir Putin to NBC’s Keir Simmons.

I really like this genre: the drama, the underlying conflict, the sudden change of pace.

It has its challenges, though. The greatest (to me, at least) is interpreting questions. 

Here, I will briefly outline the difficulties I faced and the tactics I used. 

First, lack of context

Second, question length

Third, accelerated tempo

Fourth, exact wording

Fifth, emotions running high

Sixth, different debate cultures and cultural sensibilities.

Let’s take them apart one by one. 

#1. Lack of context.

A question necessarily has no context. It effectively creates one. It is therefore important to avoid omissions, since virtually all the information is new. This early into an interview it is difficult to rank the information on the scale of importance. That being said, ranking is still a single most important tool of an interpreter and should be used (albeit, sparingly).

Take this question for instance. Here and elsewhere in this post I will use bracketed remarks to illustrate the thinking process. 

“I want to begin with some news from the U.S. that arrived just today [this is superfluous; news are, ipso facto, well, new]. In the U.S. it is reported [it has just been said, no new information, cut it out] that Russia is preparing, perhaps, within months [an aside; possibly important and not to be discarded. But it can be omitted right now and inserted later to save the attention span for the key thing coming next: what exactly is Russia preparing], to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system, enabling Tehran to track military targets. Is that true?”

#2. Question length, #3. Accelerated tempo

Let’s have a look at the next pair of challenges and handle them in conjunction. A question is often a short remark (often delivered after a somewhat lengthy statement setting the stage – see the next example below). It’s vital here not to mumble and make it as black-and-white as possible. An interviewer will often press for a clear-cut answer. Is it true or false? Do you agree with this or not? Have you or have you not been at home when your wife was murdered, Mr. Simpson? Now, an interviewee may choose to dissemble. But it is my duty to give him a chance not to, especially if he had no such intention.

Next, the accelerated tempo. As an interviewer approaches the climactic point of his question (and due to understandable agitation) he may inadvertently accelerate his delivery. This is similar to jokes (where punchlines are often delivered at a greater speed). Typically, I argue against speeding up the pace of your delivery to match the one of the speaker, as it is important to use your natural tempo, pitch and volume – it enhances your endurance as an interpreter. Questions, though, constitute a rare exception to the rule. It is perfectly acceptable to speed up during a question.

“So let's now move on to your summit with President Biden [no need for verbatim reproduction – next, your summit with President Biden]. The context for the summit is that he's meeting with the G7, a group that you used to belong to [unnecessary piece of information, President already knows that] – a group of NATO and European leaders [in a pinch, a definition of G7 can be omitted; I assume the audience knows what it is]. President Biden has defined his first trip to Europe as quote, "about rallying the world's democracies." He views you as a leader of autocrats, who is determined to undermine the liberal democratic order [notice the opposites: democracy-autocracy, this contraposition provides clarity and therefore must appear in your interpretation]. Is that true?”


#4. Exact wording.

An interviewee may latch on to or take an issue with a specific word used, and even start his response with the same word. Consider these two exchanges.

 “Keir Simmons: President Biden will most likely raise an issue of Alexei Navalny, targeted for assassination, now in a Russian jail. Mr. President, why are you so threatened by the opposition?

Vladimir Putin: Who told you that I feel threatened by the opposition?”

 “Keir Simmons: Do you worry that your opposition to NATO has actually strengthened it? For six years, NATO has spent more time playing defense.

Vladimir Putin: That’s some defense!”

 In both cases, it was crucial not to reframe or rephrase the question, and definitely not to take the sting out of the question. In both cases, it was exactly the choice of a word that enabled a smooth segue from the question and into an answer.


#5. Emotions running high.

Remember, it’s a high-stakes situation. For both the interviewer (it enables or disables future career options) and the interviewee (it creates reputational risks and provides political openings). This challenge is twofold. First, you need to faithfully convey the emotional charge. Few questions are phrased in neutral terms. More often than not, they carry a clear positive or negative emotional charge. It’s essential to get this charge right.

Consider these quotes: “election interference” [not intervention, mind you], “meaningless, inappropriate and baseless” [all negative, not neutral], “we cherish our strategic partnership with our Chinese friends” [all positive, not neutral].

 Here’s another example, perhaps, more telling.

 “Keir Simmons: Where is that written down? Where is that promise written down?

Vladimir Putin: All right, you’ve got a point. Nyah nyah nyah got you good. Well congratulations”. [This gem of an interpretation was actually suggested by Daria Mandrova, a good colleague and a friend, during the post-interpreting transcript edit; for those wondering, we did a clean-up of the transcript for the voiceover to be done afterwards].

 In this instance intonation is king. And that is also a strong reminder to fellow interpreters. In the booth, we don’t have our looks, our manners, and our body language. We have only our voice. And we need to use it for communicative purposes as much as our vocabulary.


#6. Different debate cultures and cultural sensibilities.

In American debate culture, a more assertive, if not pushy, line of behavior is deemed acceptable (e.g. “Are you a killer Mr. President”, “Did you order Alexei Navalny's assassination?”). Rhetorical value aside, one should be careful not to soften the blow inadvertently (due to one’s own political or cultural biases), as it would distort the entire tonality of a question.

And the last thing that actually baffled me quite a bit.

Look at this quote.

“Keir Simmons: In America, we call what you're doing now "whataboutism." "What about this? What about that?" It's a way of not answering the question. Let me ask you a direct question.”

The idea behind the term “whataboutism” is perfectly clear. But the hitch lies in cultural sensibilities. Many of you have probably recognized a Soviet propaganda trope that perfectly exemplifies the rhetorical tactic the interviewer is referring to: “а у вас негров линчуют” (well you are lynching n******). Using it though, is an obvious non-starter. First, the N-word is banned in American public discourse. And second, an interviewee may stick to this exact word (non-existent in the original question) and thus produce a very awkward situation. Hence the golden rule of interpreting – you never introduce imagery that is not there in the original.

For the record, it was interpreted as “аргументация в стиле ‘на себя посмотрите’”.

And that’s all I have for today. Hopefully, it would help a fellow interpreter or two to avoid some pitfalls of interpreting interviews.