Interpreting during cultural clashes

Bourgogne bottleThis bottle of Burgundy we shared with friends at the weekend reminded me of a major cultural clash that I observed during a meal with French and English partners working together on a project a few years ago. A busy day was to be followed by dinner and since some of the English partners didn’t speak French, and vice-versa, I stayed on to help communication.
It was all going well until the waiter brought the wine list. One of the Frenchmen took it and said: “I assume everyone wants to drink Burgundy?” Half of the Frenchmen nodded vigorously, while the other half pursed their lips, in a show of politeness over outrage. What followed was a passionate debate on the merits of Burgundy versus Bordeaux that lasted all evening.
This was impossible to interpret in a traditional way, so it was a very different challenge from my usual role: thankfully, I know a bit about wine, and so I was able to turn into a cultural interpreter and help the English understand the context of the argument through a heady mix of interpreting, summing up and off-tracking completely into topics such as traditions and heritage. As a translator and an interpreter who generally prefers working with the written word, this is where interpreting delights me: you never quite know what is going to be thrown at you, and I like having to think on my feet.
However, the real challenge was to remain neutral, and to resist the temptation to slip in that Bordeaux wines are obviously vastly superior to Burgundy wines, especially as being born in the South-West of France, I am genetically programmed to think so. That’s utter professionalism and neutrality at work for you.

By |2012-07-06T16:04:45+00:00July 6th, 2012|Culture, Interpreting|1 Comment

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.

One Comment

  1. Linda Herbertson July 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    I agree the South-West’s the place!!! But I would have thought the challenge was rather point out that it might be a tad boring for the other team to have to witness – all evening – a lively discussion they couldn’t take part in. I’ve just spent some time in the company of Wolof-speaking Senegalese, who speak a mixture of French and Wolof constantly, and don’t seem to have a concept of trying to include the whole company …

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