Interpreting the Words of World Leaders When leaders address the U.N. General Assembly, many of them use interpreters. A U.N. interpreter talks about what it's like to translate these speeches — especially speeches like the one Hugo Chavez gave in which he called President Bush "the devil."
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Interpreting the Words of World Leaders

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Interpreting the Words of World Leaders

Interpreting the Words of World Leaders

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, a conversation with Grammy winner Lucinda Williams.

COHEN: But first, this week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly at the United Nation. He had these choice words for the U.S.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) They sacrificed all the good things and the sublime in life for their own greed.

COHEN: When Americans hear these caustic remarks, we hear them in the voice of the interpreter. For instance, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced President Bush last year, he did so in these dulcet female tones.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) The devil. The devil himself is right in the house. And the devil came here yesterday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: That voice belongs to Tica Broch. She's a Spanish and French interpreter at the United Nations. Welcome to the program.

Ms. TICA BROCH (Interpreter): Thank you.

COHEN: How do you get assigned to a particular leader to interpret for? Do you get to put in a request?

Ms. BROCH: Yes, we can put in requests. But the chief interpreter decides based on various considerations.

COHEN: Such as?

Ms. BROCH: Well, the languages and the experience of a person.

COHEN: Do they pay attention at all to gender? I mean, for instance, you were doing the voice of Hugo Chavez, and you're a woman.

Ms. BROCH: They can't pay attention to gender because we're assigned for a three-hour period. And you'll have men and women in succession, so it's the languages that count, not the gender.

COHEN: Last year, you wind up getting Hugo Chavez and he starts talking about President Bush literally being the devil. As you hear that, what was going on in your head?

Ms. BROCH: Try not to laugh. He had actually started by wielding a book by Noam Chomsky and explaining how interesting the book was. And then he suddenly launched into the President Bush and the devil part.

COHEN: Let's listen to another clip from that speech last year.

President Chavez: (Through translator) The president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here talking as if he owned the world.

COHEN: You can hear it now in your voice - you almost sound a little bit surprised as you say the devil.

Ms. BROCH: I was. I was, you know, sometimes we get speeches in advance. But that time we did not have a speech. And so I had no idea where he was going.

COHEN: How do you deal with emotion in a speech? I mean a lot of times you hear people literally doing translation as very kind of flat and monotone. But you definitely, you have a lot of emotion in your voice. How do you kind of regulate that?

Ms. BROCH: President Chavez talks like that all the time. And I had interpreted him several times before, either in large meetings or just when he met the secretary general. So that was his usual way of speaking and you try to do justice to the speaker.

COHEN: When you're interpreting these remarks, and there are leaders up there who have very negative things to say about this country and its leaders, is it hard for you, with whatever your own political agenda might be, to be the voice saying these things?

Ms. BROCH: No, not at all. I'm half Cuban. And my father became a Cuban exile. Am I going to misinterpret the Cuban delegate? Not at all. On the contrary, the Cuban speech will always be a special challenge to overcome any perhaps partiality I might have. And all interpreters are that way because we all come from somewhere.

COHEN: Tica, what's the biggest challenge of your job?

Ms. BROCH: Well, the accuracy, because you know, nowadays, there's more and more countries. You know, we keep adding countries to the U.N. But there's the same three-hour meetings, and what they do nowadays is they just read their speeches really fast. And they crowd in there all kinds of facts and figures and acronyms and whatever. And so the greatest challenge is doing something with this barrage of information that suddenly arise.

I mean, I've been in this business for almost 40 years and in the past, people spoke more slowly and there was more rhetoric and less hard facts. So you could - if you cut a little trimmings, there were still a lot left of what mattered. But nowadays there's a very little trimmings and you can almost not cut anything. English, you can usually say things with fewer words, so we're lucky. But people who are doing from English back into, say, French or German or Spanish, they really - you know, it's exhausting.

COHEN: U.N. interpreter Tica Broch, thank you so much.

Ms. BROCH: Thank you.

COHEN: Merci. And gracias.

Ms. BROCH: De nada. Thank you.

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