Attento allo scalino

Excerpted from Dancing on Ropes: Translators & the Balance of History by Anna Aslanyan:

Umberto Eco asks what would happen if ‘Bonne journée’ at the end of a conversation was translated as ‘I hope you will have good and enjoyable experiences for the rest of the day’, or if the exclamation ‘Attento allo scalino’ was turned into ‘I advise you to pay attention to the step whose presence may perhaps have escaped your notice.’  Formally speaking, the meanings would be the same, but the point is that the greetings and warnings should be brief. 

Interpreters [of live speech], who have to keep up the tempo all the time, are especially sensitive to lengthy passages.  They also watch out for any peculiarities, so as not to throw listeners off balance.  Thus, UN interpreters are not supposed to highlight what little color might be present in speeches:  essentially, they work into UN-ese, a conventional language they learn as part of their training.  When I asked Stephen Pearl, who spent several decades at the UN before retiring as chief of the English Interpretation Section, if their approach might be too formulaic, he disagreed.  ‘All the speakers usually want is to get it on the record, preferably in two minutes,’ he said.  ‘Things are really decided by arm-twisting behind the scenes.’

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