Simultaneous interpretations aid delegates' understanding

Team of 150 gives live translation in major languages

Atlanta, Georgia, United States | Arin Gencer/ANN

A tangle of voices fills the skyboxes hanging above the Georgia Dome floor, as one speaker after another takes the stage during the 59th World Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Russian. Vietnamese. Romanian. Japanese. These are just a few of more than a dozen languages on hand for the person seeking something beyond English, the official business language of the church.

In the global Protestant denomination that is the Adventist Church, the more than 150 simultaneous interpreters at Session are crucial to ensure that delegates and visitors remain on the same page. Although several of this year's interpreters have used their skills for home churches and conferences before, working for Session is a new opportunity that many said they simply couldn't miss.

"These people are really very good," said Odette Ferreira, the interpretation coordinator for a group largely consisting of volunteers. "This kind of work really fries your brain."

The headphone-clad men and women doing that brain-frying work will spend the next days thinking fast as they strive to not only follow each speaker, but even anticipate his or her next utterance.

"You don't know what you're getting. I don't know the speakers' backgrounds or how they speak," said Toki Kawakami, a first-time Japanese interpreter and student at Hartland College in Virginia. "We have to read into what they're going to say and maybe correct it if it was wrong later on. ... It's exciting."

Indeed, said Rolf Poehler, who traveled to Session from Hannover, Germany, the challenge of interpreting is a draw in itself. The job requires a singular level of focus, Poehler said, adding that he must tune out his three fellow interpreters -- all speaking different languages -- who share the room, follow delegate debates and understand the Robert's Rules of Order, a guide to running orderly meetings.

"I just love it," he said.

For the most part, interpreters are expected to work one hour at a time, Ferreira said, assuming there are enough of them on hand to cover a particular language. Although almost anyone is up for translating worship services, she added, "nobody wants to translate the Treasury report," as the numbers present something of a challenge in other languages.

In English, for example, the word for "97" has four syllables. But in French, it is literally interpreted as "80 plus 10 plus 7," Ferreira said. "It's pure madness, all those big numbers."

Words pose another kind of challenge, Romanian interpreter Laurentiu Nistor said, as interpreters seek to convey English idioms to an international audience.

"You hope you catch things that are being said between the lines," Nistor said. "You're not just reciting after the speaker. ... You are assimilating what is said, and then you issue it from your own thoughts, which is basically like participating in the speech. It's taxing -- but also [uplifting]."

Despite those obstacles, the interpreters say they feel the importance of their role, and take it seriously.

"It's a privilege for me," said David Barrozo, who is organizing the Portuguese interpreters. "I believe the majority of people that are down there don't speak English, so this job -- this service -- is very important for the church."

Without interpretation, while delegates on the Dome floor can see the gestures and emotions of people on stage, "they can't understand a word of what it's all about," said Oleg Voronyuk, the Russian coordinator. "Now we come in with the word interpretation, and that together makes sense."