The Business of Being an Interpreter

The Business of Being an Interpreter

When you are a top simultaneous interpreter, you basically deal with world leaders on a daily basis. Three interpreters give a little insight in what it is like to interpret for diplomats and presidents.


Interpreting might sound like a boring job: you have to spend hours confined in a small booth listening to boring speeches, right? Not according to Luke Harding! In his article on the website of The Guardian, he states that interpreters have “a front-row seat to history,” and often interpret for the leaders of today’s world.

It is true that interpreters often spend their work days in soundproof cubicles. However, interpreters work in same-language pairs, which is necessary because interpreters perform their jobs in short, 30-minute bursts.

Very often, an interpreter has to listen and speak at the same time, which, according to Harding, is even astonishing to the interpreters themselves. He also states that interpreting is like acting: a good interpreter mimics the personality of the speaker.

In addition, he believes interpreters don’t aim for a literal translation, but try to translate more idiomatically. Interpreters try to become invisible when working, Harding says, which doesn’t mean they don’t have to meet specific demands from time to time.

He claims that an interpreter working for Ralph Lauren once was asked to wear black clothes and was told to wear her hair a certain way. The real challenge, though, lies of course in the interpreting job itself; this is why Harding gives the stage to three different interpreters that give a little insight in their jobs.

Elena Kidd

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Elena Kidd interpreted for Mikhail Gorbachev. Later, she also worked as an interpreter for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sent to jail by Vladimir Putin in 2002. Now, she is the course director of the MA interpreting and translating at Bath University.

Kidd states that when Gorbachev’s foundation moved into the building where she was working, the interpreters there were told that they could apply for a job at the foundation. She and three other interpreters were eventually hired. Kidd interacted with Gorbachev on a daily basis and believes him to be very friendly. She flew to America with him and met many famous people via het job. Interpreting for Gorbachev was easy, Kidd says, as she found him easy to understand. His sentences, however, were very long, which meant paraphrasing was in order.

According to Kidd, Khodorkovsky, whom she worked for in 1995 and 1996, was very organised and in control. As a consecutive interpreter between Russian and English, Kidd says, you have to analyse every word that is spoken. Moreover, you can only start interpreting when the entire sentence has been uttered. This is why she asks her students to think before they speak – they have to listen first and then make the utterance their own by using their own words. This will also lead to a more interesting speech, she says. After all, you shouldn’t bore your audience!

Victor Gao

Victor Gao worked for the Chinese Foreign Service in Beijing and the United Nations Secretariat in New York from 1983 to 1989. He also interpreted for the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Currently, he is working for a Beijing private equity company and is a commentator on international affairs.

Gao entered university in 1977, the year in which the Chinese universities reopened after a shutdown of ten years due to the Cultural Revolution. After graduation, he began his training at the UN to become a simultaneous interpreter. At 21, he was one of the youngest people working at the Chinese foreign ministry. Gao first interpreted for the important cabinet ministers of Deng’s government before he moved on to the great leader himself. He states that Deng didn’t speak much, but that when he did, his utterances had great force. Deng spoke in his native Sichuan dialect and used colloquial speech and  metaphors, which meant everybody could understand him.

Gao was involved in many important diplomatic meetings. In the 1980s, Deng was regarded very highly as people believed he would reform China. Among other important leaders, Gao travelled to the UK to meet Margaret Thatcher, with whom Deng had discussions about handing over power in Hong Kong. He also met Ronald Reagan, whom he thought to be very refined. In 1985, Gao also interpreted for another US president, Richard Nixon. Deng, Gao says, believes focussed on peace and “brought China out of the darkness.” This is why he believes his world view is still important today.

Banafsheh Keynoush

Having spent her childhood in London, Banafsheh Keynoush moved to Tehran after the revolution. She is a self-taught simultaneous interpreter that acquired her skills by listening to the BBC, and with great results! She has interpreted for four different Iranian presidents, of which Hassan Rouhani is the most recent one.

Many of Keynoush’s relatives have worked for the Iranian foreign ministry before the revolution. She has been interested in politics since she was a child, with a particular interest in foreign politics. She lived in Tehran when the Iraq war was taking place, and as a child, she used to dream about getting into the diplomacy field. When she found out diplomats used earphones to listen to simultaneous translation, she finally found a way to do so. As Iran did not have any interpreting schools, she translated BBC broadcasts simultaneously to practice.

After a BA and MA in English, Keynoush worked both as a university teacher and a simultaneous interpreter. She worked as a freelancer for presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, and also interpreted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for nine years. She quit her interpreting job in 2010, but when she received the request to interpret for the new president Rouhani last September, she agreed to take on the job. Keynoush reveals that all Iranian presidents had their own way of speaking: Rafsanjani, for example, spoke very informal. It was a little harder to interpret for Rouhani, she says, as he speaks a little English and thus carefully listened to her translation.

Keynoush believes translators should be invisible. The audience should get the impression that they are listening to the speaker himself instead of the interpreter. She states that translators might get to experience history, it is a difficult job as they realise how much is actually “lost in translation.”

Emma Tidey
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