“I am the voice in your ear”

  • Claudia Bell
  • India
  • Oct 17, 2014



Manuela Wille works with global celebrities, translating their words instantly from English to German. As an experienced Conference Interpreter, she is no longer fazed by the fame of her clients, such as celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver and ‘steamy’ actress Pamela Anderson. However, she admits that she did get excited at a journalism award ceremony in Germany last May. A surprise guest had been announced, but the name was kept under wraps. ”Then suddenly Edward Snowden joined via Skype,” says Wille, talking about the NSA whistleblower who now lives in Moscow. “And thank God that the connection was a good one.

Wille, 54, is in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). Wille, based in Hamburg, has been a freelance interpreter in German, Spanish and English since 1990. She works primarily for companies – at business meetings or negotiations, and for television – at talk shows or entertainment programmes that feature international guests. This type of ‘instant interpretation’ demands top concentration and performance. To listen in one language, process the material in the brain and then speak it out ‘accurately’ in another language – almost instantly, time after time, requires top professionalism. Much easier is ‘consecutive interpretation’, where the speaker and translator alternate with one another at a ‘decent interval’. Conference Interpreters work in relays, preferably replacing each other after 30 minutes. It is not easy to continue to keep one’s attention and ‘perform’ at top level for a long period. ‘Tripping up’ can be costly. “It is a kind of stress that you must enjoy, otherwise you would go crazy,” says Wille, who has also translated from German to English for former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The classic workplace for interpreters is a small enclosed booth at a conference. But for television, it is often just a separate corner in a transmission truck parked somewhere outside.
The pay is respectable - a net of 800 to 1,000 euros per day. Of course, a good interpreter also needs to do some homework and prework. When the subject matter is something she’s unfamiliar with, Wille will spend a day on getting a grasp of the terminology. While she is today knowledgeable in a broad range of topics, she does have a few favourites - such as renewable energy and data protection. She’s less versed in military-defence issues, she admits. “Tanks aren’t my thing,” she smiles. She has also noted a drop in conferences that need interpreters for multiple languages. ”When I started out – over 20 years ago - we often had French, Spanish, Italian and even Russians booths,” Wille says. “Today everyone is expected to know English – though it can be difficult when someone is speaking it with an ‘exotic’ accent.
In fact sometimes you almost don’t understand a thing!” she admits. In such cases she has to ‘improvise’. Thankfully she has rarely been ’off-target’. It’s wonderful when a participant speaks coherently; a rambling talker, on the other hand, can be a linguistic minefield for an interpreter. An interpreter is supposed to be detached – expected to translate without emotion. But emotions can sometimes enter into the work, says Wille. She recalls how tears welled up in her eyes when people at a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were talking of their experiences. She also turned down an assignment offered by German public broadcaster,
ARD, on the day of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. ”That ‘event’ just touched me too personally.” An interpreter also needs to hand-hold (rather, ‘ear-hold’) some ‘customers’ - not every talk-show guest or conference participant is comfortable with being simultaneously interpreted (apart from  ‘handling’ an earphone). Wille tries to loosen things up and helps them get ready by introducing herself as ‘the voice in their ear’.



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