Interpreting Magic: Secrets Revealed!

By Steven Goldstein

You are seated in a parlor—a small theater, of only 35 seats—for the singular purpose of witnessing a few curious and unusual things. A sleight-of-hand artist from abroad, renowned the world over, is about to astound and amaze you. Except for one thing: he speaks a language you don’t understand. How will you make sense of what is taking place? Meet two of the most well-known interpreters in the world of magic, Tina Lenert and Luis Iglesies.

The suave young gentleman takes the lady’s proffered ring, and places it on her open palm. “Concentrate on the happy memory that this ring evokes for you,” he says. “Think of that memory as a ray of white light.” In a moment, the ring moves, ever so slightly. “Keep your eyes on the ring,” he continues in a low, calming voice, “and enlarge this light in your mind; imagine that the light is spinning, growing, rising …” At that very moment, the ring floats off the woman’s palm, and hovers over it. Over gasps from the audience, the young man moves his hand all around the ring, now suspended miraculously in midair, and says softly to the woman, “Know that you can completely encircle this warm feeling, and at any moment grasp it”—he plucks the ring from the air—“and hold on to it for the rest of your life.” Amid cries of amazement and applause from the rest of the audience, the young man returns the ring to the astonished woman, who, with tears in her eyes, whispers into his ear, “Thank you.”

Whether a simple effect with a pack of cards or a social experiment involving a personal memento, the emotional power of a magic performance taps into the spirit of humanity that is in all of us, regardless of what culture we come from, or what language we speak. And yet clearly—except for those performances that are deliberately wordless—we need to understand what is said in order to be able to fully appreciate the effect. Enter the magic interpreter.

A fortuitous path

Tina Lenert came to the magic interpreting field along a decidedly non-traditional route. Indeed, she is the first to admit that she is not a professional interpreter. But her deep involvement with the magical arts over the years has led her—in addition to garnering fame and respect the world over as a performer in her own right—to be identified forever as the English-language voice of one of the most remarkable close-up magicians of all time, René Lavand of Argentina. (“Close-up” generally refers to sleight-of-hand magic performed for small audiences.)

Born to an American geologist working in Caracas, Venezuela, Tina grew up speaking Spanish, but largely abandoned it when her family returned to the United States when she was 12 years old. She didn’t pick it up again in earnest until the early ‘90s, when she was asked by her husband (also a magician) to interpret for a performance being given by Señor Lavand during one of his lecture tours in the U.S. “I was petrified at first,” Tina said, “but his combination of patience and artistry opened a new door for me.”

Poetry in motion

Part of the appeal for Tina was the way Señor Lavand used language. “There’s a poetry and elegance to the Spanish language,” said Tina, “and the way he puts together words is just so beautiful; they simply ring in my heart.” Interpreter Luis Iglesies echoes this sentiment about Señor Lavand: “There is no one else in the magic community who expresses himself better through poetry and refined language, full of sentiment”; a characteristic that both interpreters agree makes Tina’s task especially difficult.

On top of that, Señor Lavand’s words, notwithstanding their poetic resonance, have to be integrated into the performance of the magic itself, where the need for interpreting necessarily alters the environment. After all, as with any public entertainment, magic depends on directing an audience’s attention through the careful timing of words and action (and, sometimes, music). Isn’t this disrupted by the need to stop and wait for a phrase to be interpreted?

“Yes,” says Tina. “But it’s all about timing; about continuing a flow, almost between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting—even pausing, when it’s important to stop and not do anything. To the extent possible, it’s about becoming a part of the performance, and not a distraction. After a while, you go on instinct.” She felt that one of the best compliments she ever received for her work with Señor Lavand was from the well-known magician Harry Anderson, who said she “was like a bell ringing softly above him.”

In addition to interpreting for Señor Lavand, and translating some of his books into English, Tina has, on a more limited basis, interpreted for American magicians during their lectures in Spain. “It is a privilege to communicate these performances,” she says.

Schooled in the profession

An entirely different route to interpreting, and especially magic interpreting, was taken by Luis Iglesies. For Luis, while his interest in magic also blossomed early—as a youngster, he believed one of Spain’s most influential magicians, Juan Tamariz, had supernatural powers—his young adult life was all about language. Born and raised in Spain, he took language seriously while at school, eventually living and studying in the U.S. and Britain, and receiving a translation and interpretation degree from the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), with French, German, and Italian on his resumé as well. While working for various financial institutions and as a management consultant, Luis began translating magic books in his spare time. This in turn led him to interpreting, and has culminated in his working for the crème de la crème of the worldwide magic community.

“I must know the tricks they will be performing,” Luis says of his preparation to interpret for a magician. “Essentially I want them to tell me their jokes and funny lines, and to define my range of movement and location on the stage. It’s like having a blueprint, or a roadmap, of the performance. Being a magician myself, I thus know where they are going, and how the routine is going to end, so I don’t feel ‘lost.’”

Being a magician oneself is obviously an imperative for anyone interpreting a magic performance or lecture. Not only for the obvious advantages of understanding the theatrics of performing, but also, again, in preparation. “Preparation also encompasses keeping up to date with magic’s most recent tricks, books, and performers, so you know what to expect. If there’s something I’ve never seen, it usually comes up during our briefing before the show.”

A sense of rhythm

Like Tina, Luis also feels that the interpreter must have a great sense of the cadence of a performance, in order to stay in sync with the artist. Although it depends on the performer, this often means working fast, but in any case it requires taking cues from the performer and offering the same emotions—enthusiasm, intensity, drama—that the performer is trying to convey, including voice inflections, gestures, and facial expressions. The result is that the interpreter is indeed not merely the conduit for what’s being said, but in fact an integral part of the performance. “If you do a good job, the audience erases you from the stage,” says Luis. “They perceive you doing lip-sync with the artist; they put your voice over his mouth … it’s as if you are the artist’s twin brother who happens to have studied Spanish.”

The magicians themselves have a responsibility for the success of their act in front of a foreign audience. “Since interpreters are part of the performance,” says Luis, “most good magicians will choose material that accommodates this situation. For example, in effects where instructions must be given to the audience, they must not be complex. It’s a difficult situation for a spectator to be in, because while physical interaction may occur between the spectator and the performer, aural (listening) interaction occurs between the spectator and the interpreter. And so things must be made as simple and straightforward as possible.”

As for the business end of interpreting, matters such as compensation are dependent, not surprisingly of course, upon the skill and experience of the interpreter. Most interpreters for magic lectures in Spain are not professionals, but those of Luis’s caliber can command above-average fees. “(Magic) Convention organizers see the audience’s response to the interpretation—the overall enhancing effect that it has on people’s appreciation of the performances—and they realize it is worth the fee.”

Who among us would doubt that? We need only think back on the performance described at the beginning of this article to see how demanding such a job would be, and how difficult it would be to do it well.

Sounds like interpreting, doesn’t it?

Translating and Interpreting at the Olympics

By Michael Schubert

With the Olympic Winter Games returning to the world stage this month in Turin, Italy, we take a look at what’s behind the decidedly Olympian efforts of our translating and interpreting colleagues—including NCTA members!

Survey the mainstream media for information on how translation and interpretation services for the Olympic Games are handled and you’ll find yourself tripping again and again over such tired phrases as “lost in translation” and “Babel,” interspersed with predictable anecdotes about mix-ups in the mixed zone and confusion at the conferences. Frustration with the pace of consecutive and relay interpreting at media events is another common theme. This scenario seems credible enough, given that the most recent games (2004 in Athens) drew some 10,500 athletes from 202 countries and territories.

Speak with professional translators and interpreters who have actually been in the thick of this prestigious, global, athletic megaevent, however, and a very different picture emerges. Four NCTA members with Olympic experience were of one mind that not only was the quality of the professional linguist teams top-notch but that the honor and excitement of being part of such an important undertaking eclipsed any negative aspects.

The MIIS Connection

Who recruits and coordinates these elite teams? Wilhelm (Bill) Weber and Daniel Glon are part of a common thread in the organization of translation and interpreting services for past Olympic games, as is the local institution—and NCTA corporate member—with which they share a long association, the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Not surprisingly, Mr. Weber and Mr. Glon have résumés that sparkle with not only linguistic distinction but athletic prowess.

A native of Geneva and an accomplished equestrian, Bill Weber was Dean of the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation of MIIS from 1978 to 1992. His involvement with the Olympics goes all the way back to the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, and the International Olympic Committee remains an important client of Language Services International, his formerly California-based and now Hawaii-based company. When the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984, Mr. Weber directed International Olympic Committee officials to the incredible talent pool among MIIS students, alumni, and staff, and from these circles a total of 30 interpreters and 15 translators were hired to work in Los Angeles that year. Mr. Weber subsequently served as Chief Interpreter for the games in Calgary (1988), Atlanta (1996), and Salt Lake City (2002), and describes the Olympics as akin to a mini United Nations.

Past MIIS professor and native Frenchman Daniel Glon is a cycling buff and former racer and played rugby at a national level. Mr. Glon began translating for the Olympics at the Munich games in 1972. Most recently, Mr. Glon served as Chief Translator for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Mr. Glon is founder and president of AILOS (Association internationale des Linguistes Olympiques et Sportifs), a non-profit working to bring together translators and interpreters with sports expertise to meet the needs of sports organizations and events organizers worldwide. He also created the French-English site In an interview available there, Mr. Glon describes the work of Olympic translators as involving a lot of legal and medical documents as well as the official daily newspaper, the Olympic Record. He speaks of the huge glossaries that he and Mr. Weber and their teams manage—technical lingo for bobsled racing or figure skating, for example, plus terminology for newly added disciplines.

Scale and Scope

Every written document associated with the games must, according to Olympic guidelines, exist in the two official Olympic languages, French and English. This means a bounty of work for French translators like NCTA member Christiane Abel of West Point, California. Christiane holds a Master of Arts degree in Translation and Interpretation from MIIS. Her association with MIIS and Bill Weber led to her recruitment for the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. For one full month before and two weeks during the games, Christiane worked as part of team of 15 French translators in two shifts translating everything from menus, Olympic Village signage, Atlanta mass transit information and, of course, the Olympic Record. The modern office space featured workstations equipped with IBM Translation Manager software. Despite the tight deadlines, horrendous traffic and housing reminiscent of college days, Christiane savored being part of what she described as an excellent team, and formed good working relationships with colleagues that have lasted to this day.

Another aspect of Olympic translating is the big-screen information at the Olympic stadium and other venues, seen around the world by millions. Agnew Tech-II of Westlake Village, California, founded in 1986 by President and CEO Irene Agnew, collaborated with Big Screen Network Productions to translate its video board programming from English to Greek for every venue and sport at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Olympic interpreters work assisting the media in interviewing athletes when- and wherever they can, at the post-medal ceremony press conferences and at meetings of the International Olympic Committee and its commissions. Interpreters must prepare by familiarizing themselves with the rules and regulations of the various Olympic sports, the names of previous medal winners and current favorites, athletes’ biographies, and more. But the most challenging interpreting work may be in the so-called “mixed zone,” the area through which athletes pass between their performance venue and the locker room. Media hounds hungry for a word from the star performers jostle for a front-row spot here; shouting is common and even fistfights have broken out. The chaos of this scene naturally exacerbates the job of the interpreter.

Depending on the infrastructure and budgeting/organizational priorities set by the local committee, interpreting at the post-medal ceremony conferences will be simultaneous, consecutive, or even relayed. Where no budget or obligation for professional interpreters exists, volunteers pick up slack. Some sports are so competitive and culturally significant—basketball and soccer, for example—that the national team will hold a press conference regardless of whether it won a medal.

NCTA Olympians

In addition to Christiane Abel, several other NCTA members have Olympic T&I experience on their resumés. Andrea Hofmann-Miller is a German translator and interpreter, and an alumnus of MIIS as well, where she earned the degree Master of Arts in Translation and Interpretation. While there, she met Bill Weber, who recruited her for the games in Atlanta (1996) and Salt Lake City (2002). Before and during the games, Andrea provided both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting services, mainly into her native German. She remembers with fondness the ebullient atmosphere before the opening ceremony and at the pre-Games interviews, when no one had yet been branded a “winner” or “loser.” The presence of many international luminaries and their social and environmental involvement were another highlight.

NCTA member and newly elected ATA board member Jacki Noh, a professional Korean interpreter, was contracted by Bill Weber for the games in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Salt Lake City (2002). She describes the highlight of her Olympic work as simply “being there,” and she enjoyed cheering on the Korean teams. Jacki interpreted for both the North and South Korean contingents. Compensation for professional Olympic interpreters is according to terms of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), and Jacki describes the pay as competitive, though less so for her Sydney stint because of the exchange rate of the Australian dollar. Despite the stress and travel, however, Jacki regards her involvement with three Olympiads to be a highlight of her career.

Yet another graduate of MIIS, NCTA member Shan Young Tsen, was also recruited by Bill Weber, and worked as a simultaneous interpreter in her native Mandarin in Atlanta (1996) and as a consecutive interpreter in Salt Lake City (2002). The experience was an enjoyable one that she would definitely do again and recommend to others. Shan recalls her self-study crash course in ice hockey terminology and her delight in watching her first-ever ice hockey event as the Chinese women’s team competed.

Shan has no insider information on the 2008 Beijing Games but presumes they will wish to draw first on local translators and interpreters. The press conference hall for Beijing 2008 has already been equipped with a wireless simultaneous translation system. Though the Chinese translation market has grown in leaps and bounds recently to keep pace with China’s growing importance as a global business power, reports indicate that the country still faces an alarming shortage of high-quality professional translators.

Related sites Official site of the Olympic Movement (English, French) Official site of the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy (English, French, Italian) Official site of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, China (English, French, Mandarin) International Association of Conference Interpreters, Geneva, Switzerland (English, French and selected content in additional languages) Monterey Institute of International Studies, California Language Services International, Inc., Hawaii Agnew Tech-II, Westlake Village, California

The Tower of Babels – Interpreting at the Americas Social Forum in Quito

By Martin Hoffman

As a professional interpreter, you may find yourself working in the finely outfitted booth of a prestigious conference center or in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of an emergency room. Somewhere in between lies the experience of Babels, the global network of volunteer translators and interpreters for the World Social Forum. In July of this year, it was in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, nestled high in the Andes, that these volunteers congregated to offer their services.

This past summer, an intriguing message was forwarded to the NCTA’s e-mail list. Its header was “Volunteer interpreters needed in Ecuador.” It went on to explain that Babels had been asked to cover the needs in simultaneous interpretation at the ASF (Americas Social Forum) for Spanish, Quechua, Portuguese, English, and French—all official languages of the pan-American Forum. I followed the instructions for signing up as a French-English interpreter. Six weeks later, I was on a plane bound for Quito!

My travel companions were Leda Beck, a Bay Area-based Babels coordinator who is originally from Brazil, and Mateo Rutherford, a freelance Spanish interpreter who lives in Berkeley. They were both veterans of previous WSF events, and during the long plane ride they filled me in on what to expect.

The only events scheduled for our first two days in Quito were an interpreter orientation and the opening ceremonies. We therefore had plenty of opportunities to visit Ecuador’s capital city, which was founded in a high narrow valley on the slopes of Pichincha volcano in the 16th century, and which is today a UNESCO world-heritage site.

There were about 60 interpreters at the orientation, which was held mostly in Spanish, with occasional asides in Portuguese, French, and English. Among the many interesting things I learned was the fact that half the interpreters at this Forum were non-professionals (mostly students). The plan was to pair professionals with non-professionals in the interpreting booths. The philosophy of Babels, an avowedly “non-hierarchical” organization, is that everyone should have the opportunity to participate, share, and learn.

The color of celebration

The next morning, Mateo and I went to the Plaza de San Francisco in the city’s historic quarter for the opening ceremonies. Combining elements of both a carnival and a protest, the event might be best described as “defiantly festive.” There were at least a thousand people in attendance, and two stages. On the main stage participants gave speeches, alternating with musical performances, including Quechuan drummers, a local hard rock band featuring Andean pan-pipe players, and an African-American civil-rights activist who sang “¡El pueblo UNIDO jamás sera VENCIDO!” (“The people UNITED will never be DIVIDED!”) to a gospel melody, with an endearingly thick American accent. On the other stage, a small group of Indian women in traditional garb were chanting and burning sage.

The crowd itself was quite diverse: a mix of locals and foreigners, ASF activists, hippies, real-life communists bearing red flags and distributing Marxists pamphlets, intellectuals with wire-rimmed glasses debating globalization, little boys looking at my scuffed shoes with avid disapproval and asking me “Shoeshine?,” tattooed punk rockers, banner-waving union members, voluble Brazilians wearing giant multicolored Afro wigs, and some folks wrapped in rainbow flags who were either gay-rights activists or indigenous-rights activists (in the Andes, both groups have laid claim to the same flag).

A new perspective

The next morning I went to the Babels office to get my interpreting schedule. I was bemused to discover that I had been assigned only to Spanish-English booths for the duration of the Forum. I reminded the coordinator (an otherwise charming volunteer from Argentina) that I only interpret between French and English, and have never interpreted Spanish (I only translate it) and she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ve already assigned all the events that have French presenters, but since you understand Spanish, I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Not being quite as confident as she was, I nonetheless went off to my first assignment. The panel topic was “Human Rights: Pathways and New Perspectives,” with speakers from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Suriname. I was as nervous as I was the first time I had interpreted French, some eight years earlier. But it could have been worse. For example, some poor interpreter got stuck with “The Democratization of New Technology: Laser Odontology as a Tool for Improving People’s Quality of Life.” I figured that in a worst-case scenario, if I didn’t understand what the speaker was saying, I could just tune my FM radio to catch interpreting from one of my French colleagues and work with that. Or, maybe I’d get lucky and one of the local radio stations would up the wattage and drown us all out with the latest Ricky Martin single.

Somehow I managed to stay afloat in the Spanish-to-English booth. That is, when there was a booth. At the first event where I interpreted, there was no equipment, so my interpreting partner and I had to do whisper interpreting, sitting at the back of the hall with a crowd of English speakers sitting around us, leaning in to hear. Whisper interpreting leaves much to be desired, because without a direct feed into headphones, when you are speaking you can hardly hear what the presenter is saying. It didn’t help that a woman with a chatty, squirming little boy decided to sit right next to me!

Of war stories and peace

In spite of these distractions, when I was done, one of the people for whom I was interpreting told me I did an excellent job, which felt good, even if that particular morning it wasn’t true! But during the following days I also got positive feedback from my colleagues, most of whom were very talented and accomplished interpreters and who were sympathetic to the fact that I was a novice in the Spanish booth. It turns out that they had “war stories” of their own!

A number of other social, political and economic themes were discussed during the conference (see The other seminars and panels at which I interpreted were entitled “Demilitarization and Peace Proposals,” “The FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and FTAs (Free Trade Agreements): The Crucial Moment for the Peoples of the Americas,” “Integration Alternatives for the Peoples of the Americas,” and “Free Trade: Resistance and Proposals.” I also had the honor of being among those chosen to interpret at the closing ceremonies, which featured some inspiring speeches and dazzling performances by local musicians and dance troupes.

Despite the organizational problems that I’ve mentioned, I was nonetheless impressed by the hard work of the Babels team (or “Babelit@s” as we call ourselves), who are all volunteers and are primarily involved with the World Social Forum through a desire to further social justice in the world. There was a real sense of esprit de corps among the interpreters, all of whom were warm, friendly, good-natured people.

A growing experience

Volunteering for Babels is an excellent way for beginning interpreters to gain experience in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, where skills certainly do count, but so does the fact that you’re simply trying your best. It is also a wonderful way for seasoned interpreters to participate in a worthy cause, while providing guidance to interpreters-in-training. I was inspired by the examples of the people around me, and by my own unexpected ability to perform adequately as a Spanish-to-English interpreter. Although I have been working towards being able to interpret Spanish for a number of years, had I not been given this opportunity, I think I would have waited another year or two before even attempting it. Granted, I still have a tremendous amount of progress to make, but for the first time I feel confident enough to volunteer my services locally, doing community interpreting between Spanish and English.

In the end, my Quito experience was a valuable one, and I made some real friends while I was there. I’m looking forward to meeting up with them in January 2005 for the next WSF, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Volunteer interpreters (and translators as well) are still being recruited for this event, as well as for the Mediterranean Social Forum, to be held next summer in Barcelona (see below).

Building Bridges

Babels is the non-profit global network that provides volunteer translation and interpreting services for the World Social Forum. The WSF is an open meeting place where groups and movements engaged in building a civil, global society centered on the human person, come together to pursue their thinking, debate ideas democratically, formulate proposals, share experiences freely, and network for effective action. For more information about the WSF, visit www. If you think you might be interested in volunteering to be a Babels translator, interpreter, or coordinator, visit the Babels website at, where you can find more information on the group, and on registering for upcoming events.