The joys and pains of simultaneous translation

Observations in the Wings of the International Meeting of the Camillian Charismatic Family (Rome, 10-14 March 2019)

The aeroplane of the United Arab Emirates from Nairobi landed on time. We arrived at Fiumicino as expected. Half an hour’s train journey and we soon reached the generalate house of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene where various people from various parts of the world had already arrived: Benin, Vietnam, Spain, Hungary, Tanzania, Brazil, Peru, etc. However, the meeting did not take place at the Mary Magdalene building because the religious house did not have enough space to accommodate eighty people, all of them Camillians, made up of sisters, priests, brothers and lay men and women who had come as representatives of the Camillian Charismatic Family.

The Camillian Charismatic Family

This was the first time that the phrase ‘Camillian Charismatic Family’ had been used. It was the product of a happy insight of the Superior General of the Camillians, Fr. Leocir Pessini. It was Fr. Leo who had the idea of bringing together men and women who every day, under the aegis of their Institutes, implement the charism of St. Camillus de Lellis, the patron saint of the sick.  Indeed, there are eight Institutes, all recognised by the Church, that exercise the Camillian charism and bear witness to the love of merciful Christ for the sick. They are the Ministers of the Sick (Camillians), the women Ministers of the Sick of St. Camillus, the Daughters of St. Camillus, the Handmaidens of the Incarnation, the women Missionaries of the Sick ‘Christ our Hope’, the Kamillianischen Schwestern, the Stella Maris and the members of the Lay Camillian Family.

On Internet and in Camillian bulletins we can read the documents of the meeting and learn about the way in which it unfolded. The intention of this short testimony is to inform you about an activity that is an integral part of every international meeting, namely simultaneous translation, seen from the angle of the translator.

Let us try to imagine what would happen if eighty people from twenty different nations, wanting to communicate with each other and make known their points of view over four days together, held a meeting. The first hours would certainly involve interesting original greetings and standard phrases, such as how are you, que tal, comment va tu, habari gani, che bello rivederci, and so forth. But once the series of conventional greetings in the three or four languages that we know was over, the crisis would arrive, or rather Babel, because an international meeting for an in-depth discussion of the Camillia charism is not a meeting of friends at a football stadium.

For some years the Secretariat of the General Consulta has invited three confreres to meet the needs of translation in the four languages that are most spoken by our Camillian religious: Italian, English, Spanish and French.


Let us begin by speaking about the ‘pains’ of this work and end by illustrating the ‘joys’ that such work give to those who engage in it. The first pain begins a few days before the great day when you are assailed by the first feelings of inadequacy and incapacity. Indeed, into your mind come thoughts such as: ‘can I deal with this challenge?’ And if I do not understand the pronunciation (English spoken as though the person had a potato in his mouth) of the people who are speaking? I once was in the south of Ireland, in Skibbereen, in the county of Cork. The language that people speak there, naturally enough, was English, but the pronunciation was terrible. For the first two or three days that I heard it, it was almost incomprehensible, but then I got used to it…but the conference to which I had been called to work did not wait two to three days for me to get acclimatised…

But the greatest fear of a simultaneous translator is speed when a person talks. This is particularly the case when a person reads the text. Because they do not have to think about what they are saying (because it has been already written down), they go at breakneck speed and because of this the translator – who is already sweating very heavily in his booth which lacks air – does not manage to keep up with the person who is speaking and sooner or later ‘explodes’, that is to say he stops translating because he is no longer able to keep up with him. Fortunately, at times the person who is speaking realises that the translator is in difficulty and is gesticulating through the window of his booth. He proceeds to reduce his reading of his text to small pieces. Or some of the listeners in the hall, after taking off their headphones, turn to the speaker and ask him kindly to speak a little more slowly because the translators are ‘overheating’.

Another fear of simultaneous translators is words ‘in jargon or slang’. These words are spoken with very much ease and even as a challenge for the expert, but those who hear them for the first time, well it is though there were listening to Arabic! This took place in Kenya at the beginning of my missionary activity when I had to translate from English into Italian and the Kenyan who spoke often used phrases from Swahili: “This is a great challenge for today’s world”, he said. But he did not use the English word ‘challenge’ but the Swahili word ‘changamoto’, which was totally unknown to me. For this reason, when a specialist (for example a Bible scholar or a jurist) is speaking one should have the text of his paper beforehand in order to find words ‘in jargon’ and be helped by a dictionary.

Another critical component of being a simultaneous translator is the duration of his work. By this I mean: how long will he stay in the booth to translate before taking a break? How long will his ‘odyssey’ last? At times, he will be in his booth for two or three hours without a break and this is an infinite time for a translator because he puts all his heart into being successful at what he is doing.


     And let us now come to the ‘joys’ or satisfactions that this activity brings with it. I would say that the first gratification that you feel in doing this job is to meet very many people (confreres, Camillian sisters, friends) rapidly. You can develop a relationship with them and exchange ideas, views and experiences. How many years would you need in normal conditions to meet confreres and Camillian sisters who live so far away from us? One need only think of those who came from Vietnam, from Australia, from Taiwan, from Argentina and from Brazil…many of these men and women Camillians who came from afar you met during the course of the pastoral visits that you engaged in as a member of the General Consulta. But at the time It took me six years to see them…here I saw them all in six days!

It is a source of great satisfaction to be greeted by them and hear them say: “thank you for your clear and accurate translation. How do you manage to keep up with that machine gun?” It is evident that these congratulations are not always completely sincere. Indeed, I recognise that my translations are not always ‘clear and accurate’. However, it is always gratifying to receive a feedback which, indeed, constitutes an act of good wishes and encouragement.

It was also pleasant to hear from one sister the following declaration: “Father, I understand Italian quite well and this is not the first time that I have heard a homily by Fr. Leo, but the translation into English that you did today of the homily of this morning during the Mass gave me energy. You fully captured the spirit and the inner depth of your Superior”. “Sister”, I replied, “you should thank the Superior General Fr. Leo and the Holy Spirit for the enthusiasm with which you are still filled. My work was that of a simple worker who works dough, so to speak. What is important is the quality of the dough, that is to say the raw material!”

A confrere said to me: “You see, Paolo, I studied English for a number of years, some time ago. I can get by reading it, speaking it not so much, but understanding it, especially when someone speaks rapidly, is martyrdom. When I come into the hall and I see you in your booth I find peace of mind because I can enjoy the speaker who is talking as well as the comments and questions that he receives”.

The Handshake of Pope Francis

      Dulcis in fundo: a great joy given to me by this international meeting was meeting Pope Francis in person. Indeed, thanks to the kind role played by the Daughters of St. Camillus, the members of the Camillian Charismatic Family were received at a private audience by Pope Francis, who personally shook hands with everyone and said, amongst other things, that “Christianity without tenderness cannot work”.

I will not go further. I think that I have sufficiently described in detail the work that I engage in with patience and devotion. I am not a professional of the field. I have never engaged in studies on the subject: I am completely self-made, an autodidact. I apologise if at times I have not been up to the situation (however at times the speakers are also to blame!). The work of simultaneous translation is a rather difficult undertaking; it is very demanding and stressing. However it is a duty that I perform willingly as a service to my confreres and Camillian sisters, as an opportunity for growth, in mutual learning about the very many arms that implement the charism of St. Camillus. I am grateful to the secretariat of the generalate house for giving me this opportunity.


Paolo Guarise