Challenges of the US Presidential Debates for Transcriptionists and Interpreters

by OFER TIROSH 09/10/2020
Challenges of the US Presidential Debates for Transcriptionists and Interpreters
I watched, along with viewers around the world, the recent presidential and vice presidential debates that took place in the United States. An important part of the US’s democratic process, the debates allow viewers to hear from the parties’ leaders and their deputies on the issues of the day. 
 
It’s not the first time that I’ve watched the debates take place. However, I was struck this time around by the differences between the 2020 debates and those from other years. The presidential debate, in particular, saw the candidates repeatedly speaking over each other and even over the moderator. This creates plenty of challenges for language professionals working on transcribing and interpreting the content. 
 
By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the debates in full, you can read the transcripts here:
 
 
 

Transcribing the Presidential Debates

 
I spoke to a member of the Tomedes team today who had transcribed part of the presidential debate. His professional opinion? 
 
“It wasn’t easy.”
 
Transcribing the presidential debates has thrown up both practical and moral dilemmas for those charged with undertaking the work. Let’s look at each of these in turn. 
 

Practical Transcription Challenges

 
Every seasoned transcriber has at some point had to deal with transcribing incidences of more than one person speaking at once. Both verbatim transcription and edited transcription often include a requirement to deal with such occurrences. (For a more detailed discussion on the differences between these types of transcription, click the link below.) 
 
Transcribing overlapping speech isn’t in itself a disaster. The transcriptionist merely needs to use the forward slash symbol to show when it occurs. However, the extent to which it happened during the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden meant that transcribers really had their work cut out. 
 
Not only is transcribing overlapping conversation more time-consuming, it also means plenty more stopping and starting of the video, as the transcriptionist needs to work out what each speaker is saying. With the moderator and both candidates were all speaking at once, this task became particularly tricky. 
 
 

Moral Transcription Challenges

 
The other issue for those transcribing the debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden and Mike Pence and Kamala Harris relates to the need to remove emotion from the transcription process. 
 
Both verbatim and edited transcription require the transcriptionist to avoid paraphrasing. That means that they need to convey the speakers’ words regardless of how they will sound for the reader – including when those words may offend some of those reading. 
 
Indeed, the emotions that are fuelled by elections mean that the transcriptionist may be in a position of having to deliver words with which they strongly disagree. Irrespective of their views – even when morally outraged by the candidate’s words – they must faithfully transcribe what is being said. 
 

Interpreting the Presidential Debates

 
If there’s one task that’s harder than transcribing the presidential debates, I think it has to be interpreting them. With the world keeping a close eye on the US election process, it was only natural that the presidential debate, at the very least, was live-streamed in various countries. For non-English speaking countries, interpreters had to do their best to deliver the discussion in real-time. 
 
I’m always impressed by interpreters’ ability to listen and speak at the same time. I’ve tried it myself and it’s definitely an art that requires practice. Speaking two languages fluently is only the beginning! 
 
Interpreting becomes even more challenging when you’re working with more than one speaker at a time. And the difficulty notches up again when those speakers overlap their words. 
 
You can imagine, then, that the Trump/Biden presidential debate was no picnic for those tasked with interpreting it. 
 
As with transcription work, interpreting also presents the issue of having to accurately convey messaging with which you may profoundly disagree. Interpreters, though, have to do so in real-time, effectively conveying the speakers’ words without sensoring them or filtering them in any way. 
 

Interpreting Solutions

 
I was interested to read about Japan’s approach to interpreting the presidential debates. Public broadcaster NHK clearly expected something of a muddle from the event and so employed three interpreters as their simultaneous interpretation solution (you can click the link below to discover more about the different kinds of interpretation). 
 
And it worked – to a point. While each interpreter was able to represent one of those present, the overlapping conversations meant that, throughout the debate, all three interpreters were often speaking at the same time. With the audio of the original speakers also audible in the background, the broadcast was not the easiest to make sense of in certain places. 
 
Interpreters charged with delivering President Trump’s words also face the added complexity of keeping up with his sometimes erratic speech patterns. The president is known for his habit of chopping and changing what he’s saying mid-sentence. This presents interpreters with a difficult choice: do they deliver precisely what the president is saying or go down the tricky route of trying to summarise and paraphrase? 
 
 
US Presidents and the English Language
 
The nature of the discussions during the recent presidential debates got me thinking about how the nature of these events has changed over the years. So much so that I’ve just sat and watched the first televised presidential debate (thanks, YouTube) between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon back in 1960. Wow, what a difference. 
 
What struck me most was the degree of respect that Kennedy and Nixon had for each other and for their moderator. The moderators of the 2020 debates – Fox News’ Chris Wallace for the presidential debate and USA Today’s Susan Page for the vice presidential one – have been heavily criticised in the press. The criticism has accused them of failing to control the candidates and their frequent interruptions, and of failing to deal with their dodging of the probing questions that were asked. 
 
But are the moderators really to blame or is the way we use language changing so substantially that there’s no longer a forum where candidates can speak respectfully and present their opinions and policies without being heckled? And, most importantly for the purposes of this article, how are language services providers supposed to handle debates where two if not three people are all talking at once?
 
Of course, there’s more to this issue than language alone. Debating in a civil and orderly manner has to do with attitude and approach as much as it has to do with the words being used. Speaking over somebody else who is expressing a contrary opinion says more than words alone ever could. 
 

The Challenges of Localization

 
The other challenge that I wanted to mention centres on localization. This is something which both transcribers and interpreters have to deal with, though in different ways. 
 
The presidential debates are a good example of this challenge. Joe Biden, for example, spent time talking about President Trump being opposed to Roe v. Wade. How many of those outside the US would understand this reference without a quick spot of help from a search engine? (FYI, it refers to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction should be protected.)
 
From an interpreter’s perspective, mentioning Roe v. Wade with no explanation means delivering information that their listeners will not understand. Staying faithful to the messaging means that the message gets lost in translation. 
 
It’s the same for verbatim and edited transcriptionists. Those providing intelligent transcription, on the other hand, do have some flexibility when it comes to delivering such highly localized content. Intelligent transcription allows the transcriber to paraphrase and summarise, meaning that they could help to shape the transcription in a way that adds some explanation. Referring to “Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade” at least provides some context as to what the discussion is focusing on. 
 
Incidentally, if your business is in need of intelligent transcription (or any other kind of transcription), you can click the link below to find out more about this service. 
 
Local references such as Roe v. Wade also highlight the need for both transcriptionists and interpreters to have experience of the subject matter that they are working with. Given the real-time nature of interpretation, this is particularly important if the speaker’s words are to be delivered accurately. 
 
An interpreter with knowledge of US politics, for example, would understand that “Roe v. Wade” referred to a court ruling, even if they didn’t know the details of the case. An interpreter with no knowledge of US politics, on the other hand, would likely be left floundering, trying to work out how to translate “rovey wade” when they have no idea what the phrase means. 
 

Future Presidential Debates

 
Donald Trump and Joe Biden were originally scheduled to face each other in three presidential debates between 29 September and 22 October. At the time of writing the debate originally scheduled for 15 October is under dispute due to the president having coronavirus and rejecting the idea of taking part in a virtual debate. 
 
Whatever happens in terms of a virtual or a live debate, there is still plenty of work ahead for the transcriptionists and interpreters tasked with keeping up with the election campaign. The world is watching and waiting to see what the US people decide. At present, Joe Biden is ahead in the polls, but so was Hillary Clinton at this stage in the process back in 2016. 
 
This means that it’s still all to play for in the race to find out who will be president for the next four years. The use of language, as ever, will play a key role in deciding the outcome. Rousing speeches and emotional appeals for voter support will pile on top of manifesto promises in an attempt to get voters stirred up and motivated to vote the ‘right’ way. 
 
In terms of future debates, I hope for the sake of the language professionals involved in transcribing and interpreting them that the candidates will show somewhat more decorum and allow each other time to finish speaking before interrupting. Or at least allow the moderator to finish asking the questions before butting in. 
 
However, as election campaigns only tend to get fiercer as the big day approaches, I suspect my hopes for respectful, orderly debates are somewhat in vain. As such, I’ll end this article by wishing the very best of luck to all of those delivering interpretations of the upcoming presidential debates – and to those assigned to transcribe them. 
 
Of course, I also want to say ‘good luck’ to all of those who are tasked with translating the presidential debate transcriptions. Those translations are unlikely to be easy. However, it’s probably best if I save my thoughts on that for a whole other article. Watch this space. 
 
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