How many hours have I spoken in these dark, tiny booths, hidden in the back of the room? I’m a man in the shadows. I’m not part of the protocol, yet here I am, interpreting politicians, tradesmen, lawyers. I’m the guardian of secrets. Countries and millions depend on me. I live by strict rules. Nothing ever puts me off. Except you.
I’ve never been so confidential with someone before. Except you…I see you’re listening to me. There are 70 people in that room, but you’re the only one hearing me. I flew over half of Europe, I got up at 4:00 a.m., landed in Prague at 7:00 a.m., and have been watching you since 9:00. Can’t take my eyes off you since then…I want to meet you. I want to see you. Up close. I want to hear your voice. For you I would step out of the shadows into the light.
—from a scene in the film Chuchotage
Could an interpreter at an international conference cease to interpret a speaker’s remarks and substitute their own thoughts? Of course. Would they? Never—unless they wanted to instantly end their career in a blaze of dubious glory.
The monologue above is the heartfelt message delivered by a suddenly lovestruck interpreter in director Barnabás Tóth’s short film Chuchotage, selected for more than 40 festivals, winner of more than 20 awards, and short-listed for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 2019 Academy Awards.
In Chuchotage, two interpreters become convinced that only one person is listening to them: a blonde woman seated three or four rows in front of them. The two set out to gain her affection through their interpretation.
The film has garnered many overwhelmingly favorable reviews, but I’ve seen none written by interpreters. One movie critic wrote: “I’ve always been impressed with interpreters and translators, particularly those people doing it live, while the person they are interpreting for is still speaking (chuchotage is the Hungarian term for this).”1 Not a very accurate definition.
Chuchotage, from the French chuchoter (to whisper), is also known as whisper interpreting. The interpreter sits next to, or stands or crouches behind, a person or group and interprets in a low voice. Its principal virtue is that it’s cheap; there’s no need for a booth, console, or a technician. The method has various drawbacks: interpreters cannot move to a spot where the acoustics might allow them to hear the speaker better, and not everyone likes to have another human being, let alone an interpreter, in such close proximity. This technique is also particularly ill-suited to interpreting in the COVID era.
While there is no actual chuchotage in Chuchotage, one can certainly understand its romantic appeal to the film’s infatuated interpreter. When asked about his choice of title during an interview for the film review website Close-Up Culture, Tóth had this to say:
“It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? So French. Although this term exists in English as well with the same spelling. It also exists in Hungarian as Susotázs. Anyway, I didn’t hear this word until I contacted a professional Hungarian interpreter while writing the script, and she told me about it. At first, the movie was called ‘Flirt,’ but after the shooting I realized Chuchotage is much better. Nobody knows it since it’s so specific to the interpreting milieu.”2
Why See This Film?
Chuchotage came out just before the pandemic. Any interpreter who has worked in a conference setting should want to see this film, especially today, when we long for the days when such conferences were a bit more commonplace. (Now, even when there are conferences where interpreters work on-site, they do not always share the same booth.) One cannot help but view the film with nostalgia.
Tóth drew on his own limited interpreting experience for the film. “I did a conference interpreting job for one day in my entire life and it was a nightmare,” he confessed in the Close-Up Culture interview. “Fortunately, only a gentleman from Luxembourg was listening to my French channel. At the end of the day, I excused myself as I was so poor at the job.”
Tóth also conducted meticulous research for the film, interviewing interpreters, Skyping with interpreters from the European Parliament, and observing them work from inside a booth during a conference. It’s clear that he understands the potential difficulty of conference interpreting. “Interpreters have to switch every 20 minutes, because your brain is so burnt out, and it’s so intense,” he said during an interview at the Edinburgh Short Film Festival.3 Tóth’s attention to detail when recreating the interpreting environment at an international conference is probably why the film was so well received by interpreters. As Tóth has said, interpreters are the film’s biggest fans.
What the Film Gets Right/Wrong
Premise aside, the film accurately reflects many aspects of conference interpreting in Europe. First, there is the setting: a conference center with built-in interpreting booths, which actually are quite common throughout Europe. Of course, in the U.S., the United Nations has marvelous facilities, as do international organizations in Washington, DC. However, I know of no major convention center in the U.S. with permanent interpreting facilities. Conference interpreting in the private sector in the U.S. is (was) almost overwhelmingly conducted with portable booths.
Many interpreters will also relate to the behind-the-scenes activity depicted in the film. Some interpreters arrive well in advance of the event to get documentation or speak with the organizers. Others arrive minutes before the event is scheduled to start. In Chuchotage, one interpreter wears a sports jacket and no tie, while the other traipses into the booth with rain gear, a backpack, and a tray full of food. (Food issues are often a sore spot for interpreters. I quickly learned that I could eat bananas in the booth, but I had to get rid of the banana peels immediately. Apples were a no-no because the crunching sound of biting into an apple could often distract your boothmate.)
An opening pan shot shows us that the conference portrayed in Chuchotage has four interpreting booths, each with two interpreters. We can see one interpreter putting on makeup (I worked with an interpreter who put on nail polish in the booth, and it was quite pungent), while her boothmate is gesticulating as he interprets. While gesticulation would clearly be frowned upon in a courtroom setting, where the interpreter aims to be as inconspicuous as possible, I often find that gesticulation helps me concentrate on the subject matter, especially if the subject is somewhat dull. (In the film, the conference touched on refrigeration and electronic waste.)
We are led to believe the two Hungarian interpreters in the film are pros. They have fantastic diction and a very pleasant style, even when dealing with a less than scintillating subject and non-native English speakers perorating in Eurospeak. (One speaker begins his remarks by saying, “I am Paolo Falcioni.” A native English speaker would have said, “My name is Paolo Falcioni.”)
In the midst of a dense presentation on recycling electronic waste, the two interpreters manage to play tic-tac-toe with each other. While I can imagine two very cocky interpreters doing this, I’ve never seen it (fortunately). I have seen colleagues receive phone calls while interpreting. If they do answer, they usually mute their mics, pick up the phone and say, “I’ll call you later,” release the mute button, and resume interpreting. However, such multitasking is counterproductive and is best avoided. No matter how experienced the interpreter, you’ll likely miss part of a sentence or various sentences.
Which brings us to the heart of the film. As the two interpreters strike up a competition to see who can win over their sole listener, they repeatedly turn each other’s microphone off and start interpreting. This is a no-no and a basic violation of booth etiquette. The person who is interpreting determines when to stop and then signals to the other interpreter to begin. I’ve witnessed interpreters cut their boothmates off, and it definitely does not work wonders for booth morale and team spirit.
It’s very understandable that an interpreter would want to know if anyone is listening to them. If you’re absolutely sure that there’s no one listening, maybe you can stop interpreting. (The jury is out on that one–you might be sure no one is listening, but halfway into the conference, a new attendee might walk in, turn on your channel, and hear nothing.) A good, although not infallible, way of knowing who is listening, or if anyone is listening, is to ask over your channel, “Is anyone listening to the Hungarian interpretation? If so, could you please raise your hand?” This is a fairly accurate way of ascertaining one’s audience, a technique not followed by the interpreters in the short. Had they done so, the director wouldn’t have had a film.
Which brings us to the major sin of both interpreters. They try to seduce their one-person female audience over the headphones: one rather coarsely, and the other somewhat poetically. Obviously, this is a film, and the director is entitled to cinematic license. I know of no interpreter who would seriously entertain the possibility of doing something that might get them blacklisted in perpetuity. However, what has happened, on more than one occasion, is that interpreters continue to talk in the booth during breaks and sometimes forget to turn off their mics. When this happens, information they thought was for their ears only might be inadvertently broadcast to anyone who has their headphones on. One interpreter at a conference on ceramic tiles told his colleague that the English spoken by a Japanese delegate was incomprehensible. (He was removed from the conference.) Another commented on the physical appearance of someone in the auditorium. (He was also kicked out.) Sometimes the conference technicians realize the interpreters are discussing “sensitive” information on air and quickly alert them that their mics are live. But not always.
For Those Who Wonder “What if…?”
This is a film that gets all the details right. It’s realistic down to the minutiae, even showing the coffee breaks with participants talking on cell phones. Starting from a very realistic setting, the film takes off on a flight of fancy. What actually happens in the film would never happen with veteran interpreters.
But for any interpreter who has ever wondered, “what if…?,” this film provides a most entertaining interlude.
Chuchotage (2018, 18 minutes) is available for rent ($4.50) or purchase ($7.00) on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/chuchotage. For the moment, at least, it’s also available on YouTube for free at https://bit.ly/Chuchotage-YouTube.
- Sarah. “Chuchotage (Short Film),” Caution Spoilers (January 16, 2019), https://bit.ly/Chuchotage-review.
- Prestridge, James. “Interview: Barnabás Tóth’s Short Film Chuchotage Brings Laughs and Love to the Translation Booth,” Close-Up Culture (January 11, 2019), https://bit.ly/Close-Up-Culture.
- You can watch the Barnabás Tóth interview for the Edinburgh Short Film Festival here: https://bit.ly/ESFF-Tóth.
Daniel Sherr is a court and conference interpreter who works in both New York and Barcelona (not simultaneously, but sometimes on the same day) in Catalan, French, Spanish, and English. Danielsherr@cs.com