This Video on the Work of Interpreters Is Going Viral

“Interpreting is rather enigmatic for the general public. When done well by a professional, it looks like magic. When done poorly, it can be a real mess,” according to Barry Slaughter Olsen, professional conference interpreter of 25 years, Associate Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and self-confessed interpretation tech geek.

Olsen told Slator he spent the last half-year working with the creative team of on a couple of videos — one of which is fast going viral. The video, called “Interpreter Breaks Down How Real-Time Translation Works,” garnered over 50,000 views within two hours of going live on YouTube on June 24, 2019. Views had topped 370,000 at presstime, with about a thousand more added with each passing hour.

The video begins by mentioning the closed-door bilateral meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin that, for many, first highlighted the complex challenges faced by professional interpreters. Narrated by Olsen and also featuring seasoned conference interpreters Katty Kauffman and Adnane Ettayebi, the video then goes on to discuss details (how interpreters take notes during rapid-fire exchanges, do they interpret insults verbatim, Chuchotage, Décalage, and so on) that many in the general public may not be aware of.

Olsen said he had just done interviews on interpreters and professional secrecy with CNN and MSNBC in January when media conglomerate Condé Nast Entertainment, owner of WIRED, approached him “to explore the possibility of collaborating with them on a video for the general public about our profession.”

The idea for such a video “had been simmering on the back burner for a long time,” Olsen said, adding, “But the reality is, as a conference interpreter and professor, I didn’t have the resources or expertise to produce anything of professional quality.”

Now that Olsen’s expertise has met WIRED’s resources and talent, shall similar videos follow? Well, one other video has already been produced. (Check the post-credits à la Marvel at the end of the video.)

Olsen described the second video, which is available exclusively on streaming services (AppleTV, FireTV, AndroidTV, and ROKU), as “a surprise for Katty Kauffman and me.”

“There is nothing more daunting for an interpreter than being put to the test on camera with material that we are exposed to for the first time and at an increasing level of difficulty, which is exactly what the producers at WIRED has cooked up for us,” he said.

According to Olsen, he received a “serious economic speech at increasing rates of speed,” while Kauffman was asked to interpret a fast text exchange between two friends from Chile and Cuba.

“The result was hilarious and provided an amazing opportunity to help the audience understand why simultaneous interpretation is so demanding and why working conditions really matter. I knew we were on to something good, when the film crew told us that they had never laughed so hard when filming a video,” Olsen said.

“Language can be a stuffy, boring subject, but I think we really hit the right tone on these videos,” he said, promising that if well received, “we may be able to produce additional videos for the general public focusing on other fascinating aspects of our profession.”

Olsen is also Co-President of InterpretAmerica, LLC, a forum for the interpreting profession that aims to “raise the profile of interpreting.”

Image Credit: Screenshot off YouTube