What the professionals really think of the interpreter

In Sydney Pollack’s latest film Nicole Kidman plays an interpreter who overhears details of a conspiracy to assassinate an African leader during the UN General Assembly yet finds herself both suspect and victim in this fast-paced thriller, filmed mostly within the UN building.

UN/DPI PhotoVenturing into unknown territory, the directors took the trouble to consult UN interpreters at length (you see some of them during the film) to make Kidman’s character as convincing as possible. The scenes of her interpreting are pretty realistic, but for a few small details.

It’s remarkable that the film is called “The Interpreter” and not “The Translator” because people often muddle interpretation of the spoken word and translation of the written word. The movie’s official website makes a commendable effort to explain the difference between these two diverse professions.

Nicole Kidman’s character is clearly a staff interpreter at the UN, i.e. someone on the payroll rather than a freelance like so many in the profession. She is a “conference interpreter”, so it strikes a slightly discordant note to see one of her colleagues helping Sean Penn (playing an FBI agent) to question a Portuguese usher; UN staff-interpreters do not work as court or police interpreters in real life.

Any professional will be struck by the absence of clutter in the interpreter’s booth, because we usually have glossaries, speeches, resolutions within easy reach. Even Nicole’s own bookcase seems better supplied with travel guides that our standard reference works. Pollack’s interpreter appears to have learned her languages on the way as she was born in Africa, brought up in Europe, and attended university in several countries; this fits with the CV of many professional interpreters. Kidman’s character doesn’t appear to do much preparation for her meetings. Lucky her. In real life preparation is part of the interpreter’s daily routine.

All interpreters work within some kind of administration. We have a work roster and a chief interpreter issuing instructions about who goes where. Kidman’s character seems to exist outside any formal management structure. The only person giving her instructions and concerned for her welfare is the sound engineer. She is not given carefully prepared assignments by the Chief Interpreter – which is how things work during the General Assembly – but is “roped in” in a corridor by an official to interpret between the US and an African delegation.  She doesn’t provide simultaneous interpretation from a booth but consecutive. Yet instead of sitting at the table with the delegations and taking notes so she can interpret like a professional would, Nicole remains standing clasping an agenda and hardly taking any notes. She then provides an imaginative voiceover of what is said in English and “Ku”. But she’s such a great actor that you can excuse her personal style of interpreting.

Her performance brings her to understand fully the threat of assassination that she’d overheard. It might be reasonable to ask if she breaks professional secrecy as defined by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). As the plotting had not been divulged in a meeting it is clear that the obligation to speak outweighs any duty of confidentiality[1]. But she pays a high price for speaking out.

Sydney Pollack says on the website that only the interpreting booths were not the genuine UN item. He found the real booths to be rather cramped and cluttered so he preferred to build his own from scratch on a stage for ease of filming. Indeed, despite the best efforts of ISO and AIIC to achieve standard booth dimensions, many booths remain small and poky.

Although The Interpreter is the first feature film made in the UN, in 1996 AIIC co-sponsored “The Interpreters: a historic perspective,” a documentary undertaken by UN staff interpreter Evelyn Moggio using archival material and interviews. The film depicts the history of the profession and the constant challenges interpreters face. It is a stimulating and exciting profession but luckily rarely as dangerous as you might think when you follow the gripping adventures of our heroine, brilliantly portrayed by Nicole Kidman.

English version – Phil Smith

[1] For a discussion of interpreters’ professional secrecy see these articles on the AIIC website:
Professional Secrecy: Until the Bitter End? by Danielle Grée
Professional Secrecy by Juiz Cunha Rodrigues
AIIC and Ethics by Benoit Kremer






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ulla schneider

I thought the movie was great fun! Nicole Kidman is convincing, and like Phil I enjoyed the scene where she called Shawn Penn's attention to the use of words and their meaning (interpreting...).

I wonder how many colleagues know that the original idea for this movie was a book with the same name,written by Suzanne Glass. I must say I enjoyed the film more than the book, which was superficial and sometimes silly, e.g. the interpreter in question always insisted on having fresh flowers in the booth. I kept worrying about the water spilling all over her documents, laptop etc. However, the author is obviously someone who is an interpreter or has worked in that capacity. Credit where credit is due and did anyone notice whether S. Glass' name appears in the "credits" list? I may have missed it.

Ulla Schneider

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Phil Smith

There is no suggestion "Ku" is an official UN language, it is just the device to involve Nicole Kidman in the unfolding drama.

The simultaneous interpreting scenes ring reasonably true: there is a booth for each language, a technician is present, there are two interpreters per language and Nicole Kidman’s delivery and demeanour when interpreting are believable.

The director chose not to glamorise interpreting, but show it as a job done by qualified and committed people; Nicole Kidman is dressed in smart but not spectacular clothes, she lives in a pleasant but not luxurious flat. This understated depiction of the interpreter and her job give a far more realistic picture of interpreters than the dashing jet-setters featured in glossy articles.

I particularly liked an early scene between the policeman (Sean Penn) and the interpreter (Nicole Kidman) when he is trying to find out about her past political affiliations. I’m working from memory, but I think it goes something like this. He asks if she likes the current president of Matobo and she responds that she’d like him “gone”. Penn accuses Kidman of wanting the president dead – but she makes it clear that “dead” and “gone” are not the same thing and that sloppy use of language would not get you a job as a UN interpreter.

The UN building is used to good effect with the bustle and liveliness of the days giving way to the rather eerie nights – buildings designed to accommodate crowds are slightly scary when empty.

We interpreters spend our lives working for organisations that those with a political axe to grind see as a useful scapegoat, so it was refreshing to see a film that depicted the UN and the International Criminal Court in a positive light.

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Sergio Viaggio

Apart from the inaccuracies and outright nonsense (like that hyper-super-secret meeting across the aisle of a packed MTA bus), what I find most disturbing is that the UN authorities have thought nothing of having a Head of State arrested inside the UN by a secret agent of the Host country. The only time UN security is seen as doing anything at all is telling the good guys that they cannot get in unescorted, after which they let them go pretty much where they please and do as they like, more or less ordering around the UN security itslef. This but reinforces the message that the UN is as incompetent as it is powerless, and that, if any kind of effective action is up to the American hosts. Outside or inside the UN, the Sadam Husseins of this world know that they cannot escape the avenging sword of the one remaining superpower - would that it had happened with Ian Smith, Idi Amin, Somoza, Pol Pot (whom they insisted in recognising as the legitimate representative of Cambodia) or the apartheid regime (whose nuclear armament was an item on the UN agenda!)... Well, I guess it is better late than never, and that the other regime presently massacring its own people in the Saharan region can now expect its comeuppance... or does it have not enough oil?

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Cecilia Rydbeck

I just wanted to ask for whom the article (which is good) was written? Non-interpreters, I suppose? Because all"real" interpreter know that "ku" could NEVER be a UN language!

Speaking of which there was an article in the Kurier in Vienna last week where they had interviewed a "real" UN interpreter in N.Y. A colleague in the Spanish booth who, according to the article, worked from French, English and German into her language! When did German become a UN language?

I certainly wish it were...

Cecilia Rydbeck

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