March 27, 2023

Article at Angel on Authory

"Translation is what we do": On speechwriting and translation

I was invited to deliver a short speech at a meeting of the European Speechwriter Network, held in Cambridge in the Spring of 2022. This was both fun and nerve-wracking. As speechwriters, we are used to putting words in other people's mouths, but not often our own. Knowing that I would be addressing an audience of fellow professional speechwriters made the task all the more challenging. You can listen to the audio of my delivery here (Audacy), here (PlayerFM) or here (Apple podcasts).


I don't know what you call the opposite of the "pre-lunch uplifting slot"... but here we are.

Thank you, Guy.

I was a student at Emmanuel College many years ago, so I’m really happy to be back in my old college, making lots of new friends.

Speaking of new friends – all of you will have seen the “Top Tips for European Speechwriters” handed out yesterday with the delegate list.

I’m especially interested in one of those top tips.

Number 8: "Knowledge of foreign languages enriches our work. We are linguists. Translation is what we do."

​"Translation is what we do."

So, translation is what I'll speak of now – or, more precisely, how translation and speechwriting are joined at the hip.

When I’m not writing speeches – and when I’m not attending speechwriters’ conferences – I’m a literary translator.

I translate novels from Spanish and Portuguese into English.

The story of how I ended up doing this is fascinating (to me at least), and I'm happy to talk about it later.

But what I want to say now is that I fell into literary translation in the same way that so many of us fall into speechwriting – by accident.

Like speechwriting, translation is not an obvious career choice.

Many of us may dream of writing a novel, but very few people that I know have said to their careers advisor: "I want to translate novels".

I certainly didn’t.

And while some of us picture ourselves swaying audiences with rhetoric, perhaps fewer grow up saying: "I want to write other people’s speeches". 

I definitely didn’t.

Yet one thing all of us here have in common is that – whether by accident or by design – we find ourselves in a position of being able to build bridges... to go back to a powerful image from one of this morning's presentations.

Bridges between one language and another language.

Bridges between an idea and a speaker.

Bridges between a speaker and an audience.

There is a personal attribute that is essential and very useful to both professions: humility. 

By definition, both speechwriters and translators must acknowledge that we are there to serve some-one, or some-thing, other than ourselves.

It might be a politician, or someone delivering a eulogy, or a best man’s speech…

Or an author whose work has to be transposed into another language.

It is our job to bring them across to a particular audience or readership.

The Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol said: "The translator should be like glass: so transparent that you can't see him."

This annoys many of us translators, who would of course like our names to be on the covers of books (and maybe even get some royalties) – but Gogol had a point.

And the point applies to what we do as speechwriters, as well.

This does not diminish our work in any way.

Quite the opposite – it takes craftsmanship and skill to be as transparent as glass.

The skills required in speechwriting are largely linguistic – for instance, knowing how to deploy the right word, at the precise moment, for the greatest effect.

Literary translators have to be equally careful in considering the tone and the cadence and the music of the words they are carrying, carefully, into other languages.

There are other transferable skills involved: think about the amount of time we speechwriters spend doing research.

We often have to become experts on a subject in days, if not hours.

The same applies to translators, getting under the skin of a foreign work of literature, the better to lay it out before new eyes.

So translation, like speechwriting, requires humility and skill.

Let me add one more.

Translation and speechwriting require radical empathy.

Empathy with the work we translate, and with the author’s intentions.

Empathy with a speaker whose voice we must capture and modulate and amplify.

Empathy with – understanding the needs and expectations of – the intended audience, or the intended readership.

Humility… Skills… Empathy.

I can think of others, but we speechwriters are attached to the rule of three.

I’ll finish by quoting a French speechwriter who I once saw being interviewed by Brian [Jenner].

Her name is Amélie Blanckaert.

Reflecting on the role of the speechwriter, she said: “It’s our job to translate someone else’s intelligence.”

 So that’ the message, in a nutshell.

And if I had started with this quote, my speech could have been much shorter.

Now – all speeches need a call to action.

My call to action today is that you join me in urging the European Speechwriters Network to adopt a new motto.

Its new motto should be this: “Translation is what we do."