This week I was dummy-boothing at the Human Rights Council. On Monday, as it was the opening of the twenty-first session, there was an introductory statement by the President and an update on the activities of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights as well as an address by the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon. Following this, a general debate opened with five-minute statements from various delegations. One which I found particularly challenging was that given by Cuba. I know I seem to be harping on constantly about Cuba, but everyone has their weaknesses. I’ll freely admit that I’m terrified of Cuba because you really have to pay very close attention to what is actually being said, as they will go out of their way to disagree with the majority of other delegations and can be quite outspoken in their opinions (to put it lightly). I wasn’t completely happy with my interpretation of the intervention, and I was grateful to the English booth colleagues who gave me the transcript of the speech after the meeting to use for vocabulary. The meeting was public and broadcast live as a webcast, which you can watch here. Cuba starts speaking at 56:31.
I thought it would be a useful exercise to go through the Cuban statement, looking at how the English interpreter expertly worked around the pitfalls. The transcript I have is typed, with handwritten annotations by the interpreter which clearly show how to divide backwards-sounding, convoluted sentences into manageable chunks. I’ve attempted to replicate this in a pdf which you can download here: Cuba Transcript with Annotations. Most of the comments are self-explanatory but I’ll go through some of the more complicated structures. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any way of embedding the image of the pdf into this post without scanning it and losing quality. If you open the file and read it alongside my explanations here all will become clear! After analysing the speech sentence-by-sentence I’ll look at the overall structure of the statement and identify the key thematic points. Finally I’ll provide a vocab list of the words I found tricky or to have an unexpected translation. The headings below in bold pink italics represent what appears in pink “handwriting” on the pdf file. Ready?
1) President as opposed to “Chair”, because French and Spanish use “President/e/a” to mean either “chair” or “president”. In this case, the President of the Human Rights Council is presiding over the meeting, so “Chair” is inappropriate.
2) repercussions, both political… rather than the more literal “of a political and institutional nature” – the contraction saves time when working from a pre-written speech read at speed.
3) integridad territorial (the squiggly line around these words) these words will appear reversed in the interpretation: “territorial integrity”. The upper line indicates the word that is to be said first, the lower line second. This is a very fast and effective way of ensuring that the words come out in the right order. Even though you might think the “noun + adjective” construction in French and Spanish is so familiar that it doesn’t need flagging up, these notes were made by an interpreter with 25 years experience at the highest level, proving that you can never be too careful. Even the slightest stumble at speed can mean you fall off the horse (or wave…) for good!
4) there must be an end this has a different grammatical structure in English than in the original Spanish, so good to jot down your interpretation to avoid hesitation when live.
1) matters of crucial import a higher register and more stylistically consistent with high-level language than “crucial matters”
2) (…(….(…)..)..)…) – use of brackets in sentences starting “La Oficina requiere…” and “Si se impusiera…”. Here you can see how the interpreter used brackets to divide up the sentences into smaller chunks, adding numbers above the individual components to make it clear which clauses or words should appear in which order. The last paragraph of page 2 also shows how to use circles and arrows to make it clear where the beginning of a Spanish sentence should be moved to the end of an English one.
I think the rest of the annotations are clear enough. I found them to be very helpful in analysing where I had stumbled in my own interpretation – my problem had been getting all tied up in the “backwards” sentences. Of course, I was interpreting without a statement and so had no prior warning of those specific complications. But really, seeing as it was Cuba, I should have guessed.
In terms of the more general thematic structure of the speech, it can be summarised as follows:
Paragraph 1: Thanks and congratulations to the High Commissioner.
Paragraph 2: Recognition of Navi Pillay’s activities and expression of distaste for “scourge” of racism.
Paragraph 3: Rejection of “interference” in Syria and demand for self-determination and an end to the violence.
Paragraph 4: Appreciation for increasing transparency within the OHCHR. Need for full independence.
Paragraph 5: Condemnation of ongoing “torture” in Guantanamo and military action against Southern states.
Paragraph 6: The role of States in defining the priorities of the OHCHR.
Paragraph 7: Conclusion with need to rectify “geographical imbalance” in Office staff.
Some key phrases which struck me as “tell-tale” Cuba-isms are:
- “…reiteramos nuestro rechazo a cualquier intento de socavar su independencia, soberania e integridad territorial”.
- “…agresión militar extranjera…”
- “…actos terroristas…”
- “…manipulación mediática con fines políticos…”
- “Apoyamos el derecho…al pleno ejercicio de la autodeterminación y la soberanía, sin injerencia ni intervención…”
- “…una herramienta de ricos y poderosos para imponer sus prioridades…”
- “…preocupantes desarrollos en varios países del Norte del planeta.”
- “…del centro de detención arbitraria y tortura en Guantánamo.”
- “…las agresiones militares a los países del Sur … una falsa defensa de libertad…”
- “…las crisis generadas por la dictadura del capital financiero.”
Perhaps if I can learn some of these “stock phrases” I’ll be more confident about knowing what’s going on when the delegate’s talking at a million miles an hour and frightening me half to death!
Finally, here is the inevitable vocab list. These weren’t so much unknown words as specific HRC-appropriate translations of familiar words.
afrodescendientes persons of African descent
cobrar to claim (lives)
I hope this analysis will be helpful for others. My aim in doing it was to look at how speeches are made up thematically and, in the case of Cuba, to break things down grammatically so they scare me less. I am going to try and do the same for other challenging speeches as part of my preparation for the UN permanent interpretation examination in April next year. Hopefully, bit by bit, I’ll be able to do the analysis “on the job” to ensure that my interpretation is as faithful as possible. To conclude, I’d like to extend my thanks to the kind colleagues in the English booth on Monday who scooped up armfuls of used transcripts and thrust them into my eager hands. Inspiring senior colleagues are the reason I’m taking that exam next year!