Interpreter Annica Törmä now knows just about everything there is to know about the Covid-19 pandemic. She works as a simultaneous interpreter in coronavirus press conferences – often without being told the exact topic in advance.
For over a year, Törmä has been working as a simultaneous interpreter in the press conferences of the Finnish Government, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The past year has without doubt been one she will never forget.
“I was contacted on 19 March 2020 and asked if I was available for interpreting. My first thought was that surely they can handle this in Helsinki. The situation seemed a little bit too thrilling,” says Törmä, who has worked as an interpreter since the 1990s.
The first press conference with interpreting had been held only two days earlier, on 17 March 2020.
Sudden twists and turns and stressful situations
Last spring and summer, the press conferences were still taking shape. Sometimes, there were two press conferences in one day or they were organised late in the evening or delayed by hours. The interpreters were constantly on standby.
“Once, I got a call when a press conference was just about to start. All I could do was jump in my car and drive to Yle’s studio in Palosaari.”
At times like that, there was no way to prepare for interpreting. Törmä had to rely on the foundation she had developed over many years: her professional competence.
In fact, there have not been many occasions where Törmä could prepare appropriately for these press conferences. In normal interpreting assignments, she often receives some of the event’s materials in advance so that she can get familiar with the topic and terminology. However, this does not apply to the press conferences held by the government and THL. In the best case, Törmä will be told about the topic or see the draft press release 10–20 minutes before the broadcast begins.
“At first, I was pulling my hair out; however, over the year, my tolerance for stress has increased.”
Instead, Törmä prepares herself for the press conferences by constantly reading and listening to the news.
“Interpreting is on a more solid basis when the topic is familiar to you.”
Remote interpreting at Yle’s studios
Törmä usually interprets at Yle’s studio in Vaasa. The studio was built after Easter last year and allows one interpreter to work at Yle’s studio in Helsinki and the other in Vaasa. Previously, the interpreters were always working in the same place.
“Nothing like this has been done before. The solution has even attracted the interest of the European Commission. Yle probably didn’t realise they had developed something unique.”
To put it simply, working as a simultaneous interpreter consists of listening to what is being said, understanding it, translating it in your head and then expressing it understandably and correctly. Preferably in a manner that keeps people listening. All of this takes place with a delay of 2–3 seconds of the presentation.
“The optimal situation is to interpret someone who speaks freely and in a well-structured manner, without introducing complex subordinate clauses or completely unrelated additions in the middle of the sentence.”
Speakers who read text quickly from a piece of paper or a screen are challenging to interpret. The task becomes even more difficult if the topic is complex or if legal texts are involved.
There are always two interpreters, who take turns. One interpreter usually cannot handle the simultaneous interpreting of an entire event alone, whether it lasts for an hour or an entire day.
“Typically, one person interprets for 20 minutes, then we switch. At government and THL press conferences, we tend to interpret one person’s statement at a time.”
The work is also complicated by the fact that speakers will have a face mask that covers half of their face. It is important to see the movements of the mouth. It can be the decisive factor in whether the interpreter understands what has been said or not.
During the past year, Annica Törmä has had to learn many new words and phrases that she never needed before. “Incidence”, “the R number” and “the National Emergency Supply Agency” are examples that weren’t part of her vocabulary. Another challenge has been the fact that the press conferences have focused on a great variety of areas.
“The topics have included, for instance, epidemiology, vaccinations, public finances, restrictions and border crossing.”
Annica Törmä and her colleagues have also had the chance to be the first to translate completely new words and concepts into Swedish. For example, Törmä mentions the time when the different levels of the hybrid strategy were presented. At that time, the Swedish translation had to be invented quickly.
“Often, the result is a direct translation from Finnish.”
Only afterwards does the Institute for the Languages of Finland have time to reflect on what would be the correct Swedish word to use.
Of course, mistakes sometimes happen or the interpreter has to skip a sentence.
“In these cases, I usually think that we’re just people, too.”
“The article is based on an interview in Swedish published in Vasabladet on 7 April 2021.”