Olympic task talking in 51 languages

When the simultaneous interpreting equipment broke down during a meeting of national Olympic committees from around the world last year, Los Angeles Olympic organizers decided to proceed with business anyway.

In the multilingual bedlam that followed their unilateral decision, the group learned the importance of professional interpreting.

Translating and interpreting (T&I) was not even budgeted in the original cost-cutting plan of the first privately financed Olympics, says Wilhelm-Karl Weber, chief interpreter for the Olympics and director of the Graduate Program of T&I at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"The American business community in general has a poor idea of what professional quality is needed to offer language services. They think they can give a letter to be translated into French to a secretary who just vacationed there . . . and of course their first reaction when they heard they had to pay [ for T&I at the Olympics] was that they'd get volunteers who are just as good and from L.A. -- well that's simply impossible."

There are only 1,600 accredited translators and interpreters in the world -- only 200 in the United States, says Professor Weber. (Professional interpreters are accredited by the Geneva-based International Association of Conference Interpreters, which sets the rates for interpreters at $300 per day.)

But today, language services are recognized as a "major concern" for the 1984 Games, says Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.

The committee has given Professor Weber $550,000 to put together a team of 100 professional interpreters and 40 student volunteers to help Olympic officials as well as the press, who will need assistance in holding interviews.

Meanwhile, the committee itself is trying to find qualified language volunteers to man information booths, and to act as drivers and VIP aides, says Jose da Silva Goncalves manager of LAOOC's language services.

If an athlete speaks Amharic, and only Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), someone has to point him toward the starting line. It can't be done in either of the two "official languages" of the Olympics -- French and English. The dimensions of the interpreting task become obvious when it is noted that athletes will bring a total of 51 different languages to the games.

During the height of the Olympic activities, the linguistic program will be bigger than the United Nations' T&I operation and will be subject to the same, if not greater, scrutiny should controversy erupt, Weber says.

Interpreters must be prepared for everything from an obscure sports term to more delicate situations such as, say, an athlete requesting asylum.

(Glossaries of terms of each sport are being prepared for interpreters. A typical sport glossary contains 150 different terms.)

The importance of this kind of service is heightened in a political setting where nuances of a culture as well as the tone set by idiomatic expressions must be carefully carried from one language to another, says Weber, a T&I veteran who most recently interpreted at the Williamsburg economic summit.

This intricate, almost intuitive work is refined at the Monterey Institute, which offers the only master's degree in T&I in the nation. (It also offers degrees in liberal arts, business, and international policy.)

Just 10 graduates in the past six years have mastered the rigors of interpreting. To enter the school's master's program, a student typically has 8 to 10 years of language study in at least two foreign languages. But with so few professionals in the world, the institute is a fount of linguistic wealth just 300 miles north of LAOOC headquarters.

A glimpose of the intense T&I graduate program at this small college -- a language monastery nestled in Steinbeck country -- reveals the difference between professional training and two years of a college foreign language course with a semester abroad.

In a language lab, Professor Weber, who is fluent in five languages, speaks for five minutes in French. T&I graduate students Alix Stewart and Lori Proudfit hunch over paper pads scribbling geometric and alphabetic symbols -- a form of translating shorthand that enables them to repeat, nearly word for word, Weber's speech.

Consecutive interpretation is considered more accurate than simultaneous translation because the interpreter can put each line into the context of the whole speech before repeating it.

T&I students must practice this shorthand at least two hours a day to maintain speed and linguistic reflexes.

Seated in soundproof cubicles in the language lab, the two students use headphones and microphones to do a simultaneous translation of another short speech. They demonstrate an impenetrable sense of concentration -- and a nearly computerlike ability to take in the French and instantaneously turn it into spoken English while absorbing the next words to be interpreted.

Student Alix Stewart admits she's excited to be working at the '84 Games. But, she says about the "glamour" all the years of intense study will bring: "People think we're being introduced to dignitaries. . . . I won't be introduced, I'll be in between."

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