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Interpreting for Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi

Interpreting for Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi

In 2003, Dr. Shirin Ebadi was the first Iranian and Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to defend democracy and safeguard human rights, especially those of women, children and refugees. This Iranian lawyer, former judge and activist has lived in exile in the UK since 2009, as her critical views on the current regime have led to her persecution in her native Iran.

Last month, she was awarded the Amnesty International Chair by the University of Ghent. On this occasion, she gave a lecture entitled ‘Women’s struggle for equality, human rights and democracy’ in her mother tongue, Persian. TvcN-Presence had the honour of supplying the conference interpreter for this event, Mrs. Maryam Abdi.

Maryam Abdi

As this is one of those interpreting jobs that is not easily forgotten, we were curious about the interpreter’s experience. So we met up with Maryam for a coffee and a chat.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi is quite a celebrity, both in Iran and far beyond its borders. How does one prepare for meeting and interpreting someone like this?

As soon as I heard about this job, I started reading everything that she had published and whatever had been published about her. I read everything from interviews, to essays and her biography, and I prepared the vocabulary thoroughly. I went as far as interpreting some recordings to make sure that I was used to her tone of voice, her expressions and non-verbal language. When I finally met her, I was cautious at first, letting her set the tone for our exchanges. But as soon as she saw me, she acted so relaxed and she was so open an friendly, that much of the tension I felt at meeting such a grande dame vanished. She really registered me and was interested in getting to know me. We ended up going into the event as sister-friends.

Interpreting for someone who is persecuted is not something that everyone is comfortable with. Is this something that crossed your mind when you were considering whether to accept the job?

conference interpreter ArabicIt did not, to be honest. I have been living outside of Iran for many years now and I did not feel like I was putting myself in harm’s way. Moreover, I come from a very modern family, so even in Iran we lived  a very free life. If anything, I just saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from someone who experienced our country in a very different way than I did. Dr. Ebadi’s biography truly shed a fresh light on Iranian history for me.

Is it important for you as an interpreter to support the cause of the person you are interpreting for? To agree with what they say and how they act?

Aside from working in conferences, I also work as a court interpreter and for the police. The clients I run into there often have done things that are quite horrible. However, one of the first things I have learnt during my interpreting training is how to strike the perfect balance between getting sufficiently involved in the story to render it correctly, and keeping a  professional distance from the speaker to avoid becoming a party in the conversation. Also, I always try not to judge. Everyone I have ever interpreted for was as much of a human being as I am. And humans can do terrible things in specific circumstances, and beautiful things in others. I always remind myself that I do not know the full story, and that helps me to really listen and interpret objectively.

Can interpreting jobs change your life? Did interpreting for Shirin Ebadi have an effect on your personal life or views?

As I said before, my view on Iranian history really feels more complete now. That really makes me feel more knowledgeable about my roots. On a more personal level, there is one thing that she did and that really struck a chord with me. Dr. Ebadi is a very busy woman. She gets invited to speak at conferences all around the world and is bombarded with messages, emails and prizes. And still, as opposed to what many of us do in this day and age, when she speaks with you, she gives you her full attention. She puts away her phone, looks at you and really sees and listens. She wants to know your story and learn from that. She is a teacher and a student. And this is something that I feel we are not doing enough and that I am really trying to implement on a daily basis.

Just a last question to round up the interview: is there anyone else you would really like to interpret one day?

Well… I cannot say that I have anyone specific in mind. I am open to whatever opportunity life throws at me, and it has been quite generous with me so far. I am sure that there are wonderful jobs out there waiting for me.

Thank you very much for your time and this lovely conversation.

For more information on conference interpreters or interpretation during your multilingual event, drop us a line here.

For more information on Dr. Shirin Ebadi and her work, Ghent University or the Amnesty International Chair, please contact lore.vanwelden@amnesty-international.be. 

To view Dr. Ebadi’s lecture at Ghent University, click here for the video (Dutch only).

Featured image: Copyright Ghent University