The Perils of Translating a Speech on Live TV

Usually, professional translators have a few days or at least a few hours to translate important information for the general masses. However, a recent speech by Aung San Suu Kyi was broadcasted in an arena in Indiana, and the entire speech was in Burmese. The speech was translated in real time so that captions were presented on the arena’s screen, which proved to be a serious feat of technology and translation. To translate the speech in real time on the arena screens, a team of camera operators, transcribers and a translator needed to work together from different locations. Overall, the translation of the speech went off without a hitch. But the entire event showed just how complex the task of translation could become.


The Translator had an Especially Challenging Task

The speech’s translator, linguist Aye-Nu Duerksen, was picked by the Burmese politician’s welcoming committee. She was chosen for her language abilities in both Burmese and English, which would prove necessary talents for the translation. Duerksen sat at the arena and translated the speech as it was happening over the phone to a transcription team in Boston. Though the speech would air in Indiana, Boston’s PBS station was tasked with creating quality subtitles, since they are known for their work in that area. Duerksen could not simply translate each sentence word for word. Instead, she had to wait until each sentence was complete, and then quickly state the phrase before the next began. One of her of colleagues described the translation as mental gymnastics. Real-time professional translation, especially when the language is vastly different, can be extremely complex.


The Only Mistake was a Technological Error

Amazingly, Duerksen’s translation was fast and accurate. The only problem arose when her phone was disconnected from the offices in Boston. This error goes to show that translation on its own is a complex task, and when technology is added to the mix, it becomes downright demanding. Her phone was disconnected, so she was unable to tell the team in Boston what was being said, and they were unable to broadcast the captions to the team at the arena, which was unable to display the captions on the live feed. The translation services provided that night were more like a 007 mission.

Sometimes, translator services must go above and beyond the call of duty to help people cross language barriers and understand each other on the same level.

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