How Margaret Thatcher changed the way I interpret forever

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How do you get started on your interpreting career?

This week we’re posting something a little different from our usual series, and featuring a guest blog from freelance translator, interpreter, and friend of Atlas, Hellen Mason-Spyry. Enjoy!

I have decided to finally start to set down a few words on some of the most spectacular or memorable moments from my interpreter life.

Today I thought I would describe my “Maggie Thatcher” moment:

Somewhere back in 1997 or thereabouts I had just started my foreign office interpreting engagements with the Overseas Visitors Section. Having studiously attempted to memorise the political situations and leaders in Latin America for my interview for this freelance work, it turned out that all they were really interested in on the day was if I knew how to change tack and direct my foreign dignitary or scientist or journalist (people singled out by British ambassadors abroad, for invitations to the UK to make contacts in their field) across London in the event there was a traffic jam and the chauffeur was unlikely to get us to the station on time……

So, a very excitable lady was one of my first week-long assignments. She was a little disparaging that I did not come along with a suitable handbag so I felt a little bedraggled in her company, collecting her as usual at the hotel. She was a founder member of the El Salvador Arena party, which had recently been at admitted into the international grouping of Conservative parties…. That is about as specific as I get ….. and, whilst I do not remember who else she saw during the week I accompanied her, she had been granted 15 minutes with the indubitable Maggie Thatcher.

We arrived exactly on time, this being a requirement and the interpreter/accompanying officer was instructed to neither be early nor late, getting the chauffeur to go around the block and make up extra time if necessary.

So there we were, this lady who had told me so many things and chatted continuously, face-to-face with the rather diminutive, beautifully coiffed and eagle eyed Margaret Thatcher. To my mind, she was noticeably peeved having to attend to such a non-important matter, although it may just have been my imagination.

My charge nevertheless proved to be overwhelmed, and remained speechless.

There are two things interpreters should never do, as you may know, one of which is that they may not interpret or construe matters spoken, but must relay the original content accurately. The other forbidden action is that interpreters may not speak out of turn or on their own behalf.

What then, was I to do when faced with this impasse and silent protégé? Margaret Thatcher was becoming more and more irritated. I then took it upon myself to gently and quietly suggest that perhaps it would be of interest if she told Mrs Thatcher some of the things she had told me – for example, the ‘bomb through her letterbox’ is the only example I can remember. This got the conversation going at least.

Margaret Thatcher then did something that changed the way I interpret forever. She came right up to me, her face no more than a hand’s length from mine and, looking me straight in the eye, asked where I lived. Not where I was staying, which might have reminded me the question was actually intended for the person she was meeting, but where I lived! This had the effect of knocking me off the interpreter pedestal and I lost all bearings, starting to babble about having lived in Finchley (her constituency) and even that my dentist, Mr Mukherjee, had lived opposite her! I was mortified. Never before and never since have I been drawn away from the impersonal interpreting role and tempted to talk of myself. And I suppose it just had to be Margaret Thatcher.

She had, of course, meant to ask for the hotel where she should send a signed copy of her memoirs to the poor lady from the Arena party, whom she duly congratulated on having become part of the worldwide association of Conservative parties.

Everyone I have interpreted for since that day, solicitors and barristers with their clients, witnesses or defendants, has been asked to sit in a position where they make direct eye contact with their client and I, the interpreter, position myself to the side with the request they refrain from actually looking at me but allow me to interpret “from the wings”.

The sign of a job well done is when the two people who have no common language become so engrossed in conversation that they forget the interpreter is even there.

A lesson well learned!

Hellen Mason-Spyry

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