Saturday, April 15, 2006


Relay at the ECJ

Relay interpreting means interpreting from language A into language B via language C. For example, if the English booth has nobody who works out of Danish but the French booth does, then when Danish is being spoken the English interpreter will interpret what's coming out of the French booth rather than what's coming direct from the floor.

Interpreters aren't normally too keen on working from relay, presumably because it gives them less control than when working direct, although if a speaker is bad and the relay is good then the predigested version can be far more palatable than the real thing.

Relay interpreting has always been used to a certain extent at the EU institutions, especially for the more 'exotic' languages, or where resources are stretched (or where a particular language is being spoken and the one guy who does it is temporarily out of the booth). But it has obvious drawbacks and is - or has been - avoided where possible.

Recently, however, there has been an upsurge in the use of relay at the European Court of Justice. With the added oddity that the interpreters providing the relay (i.e. those working from the original) are in most cases working for other interpreters only and not for anybody in the actual room.

The reason for this is that the recent arrivals who work into the languages of the new member states (Polish, Lithuanian etc.) don't (yet) have the same range of passive languages as the other booths. Typically, they work only out of English or French, and are dependent on relay for everything else. (They may also work into English or French but that's another story.)

So if a Polish judge is sitting in an Italian case, for example, an English booth may have to be organised for the hearing even though there is nobody in the room requiring English interpretation. The English booth translates the Italian into English and the Polish colleagues then interpret that into Polish for the Polish judge.

In these situations, it often happens that one of the interpreters in the booth taking relay works only out of French and the other only out of English. In that case, the English booth needs to work only when the English-into-Polish colleague is on mike and can safely switch off when the French-into-Polish colleague is doing her stint.

In theory at least. The current view at the court, however, is that once a booth is provided at a hearing it should maintain output at all times just in case somebody in the room should deign to listen in.

Needless to say, this view isn't hugely popular with the hard-working interpreters.

I have just heard of 'translation using a pivot language'. Is that an American term for relay?
We use 'pivot' over here as well, usually pronounced as a French word. It's most typically used to describe an interpreter who is the sole link for a particular language (pivot absolu).

By the way, you may know that this system of 'translation using a pivot language' has been adopted at the ECJ to cater for the new languages. Sounds like a bad idea to me. Interpreting and translating are not at all comparable in that respect.
No, I didn't know that. I hope there aren't too many translating into German - probably mainly English and French? Imagine translating a translated text!
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