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Official languages professions: interpretation (Part 2)

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick


They work in the shadows. Their names go unknown. And their work is seldom recognized. Yet official bilingualism is impossible without their services. Translators, interpreters and terminologists enable our Anglophone and Francophone communities to talk to and understand each other. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick pays tribute to these lovers of language by publishing a series of portraits. This article is the second in a series of three.

Annette Pelletier, interpreter

When she was a child, Annette Pelletier liked to listen to foreign‑language programs on the radio. And then one day, she saw some interpreters on television. Right away, she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up.

A native of Edmundston, Annette was one of the first female interpreters at the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick. In fact, she embarked on that profession in 1971, just three years after the simultaneous interpretation service was established at that institution. She later worked in legal translation for a few years before returning to interpretation.

Annette likes to compare the job of a translator or interpreter to that of an artist. "Translation or interpretation involves creation," she explained. "You're putting what someone else has said into another language."

Although her formal education ended a few decades ago, Annette feels as though she is still at university. "Interpretation is a constant learning process. The variety is limited only by the number of conference topics. It's like university, but you get paid to go there." She explained that an interpreter needs more than a knowledge of languages. "You also have to know the culture that's associated with each language, because things are not necessarily seen the same way from one culture to another," she said. The fact is that interpretation consists in reproducing a message as it would be said in another language, not in transposing it word for word.

Does an interpreter ever miss any details? Annette admits that it can happen, especially if someone is talking very fast. She explained that the context of a conference, the background knowledge people already have about the topic, helps to compensate for any gap that might exist between what the person who is talking says and what is translated by the interpreter. But you can't always rely on the context. She recalls one day when a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) asked a very simple question about sangliers (boars). Her mind went completely blank. She couldn't remember what the animal was called in English, so she had to admit into the microphone that the word escaped her. One MLA misunderstood her and said that the interpreter hadn't understood the question! "We were no further ahead. I had to admit my ignorance a second time." Another MLA finally grasped the situation and provided the equivalent.

Annette defines her work as being that of an artist, and with good reason. In a sense, interpreters have to slip into the skin of the people whose words they are translating in order to express their thoughts, anticipate what they will say, and render their emotions. And sometimes, that can be tricky. Annette recalls a conference where a man was relating a deeply moving story. "It was someone who had had an extremely hard life, in part due to his own fault, and who had managed to overcome his problems," explained Annette. "He was talking about these very painful times for himself, his wife and his children." Annette had the words, but she couldn't get them out. She was all choked up. "My colleague and I passed the microphone back and forth several times during that conference."

That reaction seems perfectly natural. After all, aren't artists known to be sensitive souls?