"Bringing Europe to life for everybody"

Working for the European Commission as an interpreter "Bringing Europe to life for everybody"

Almost 500 interpreters are employed by the European Commission in Brussels. It is only thanks to them that the participants in Council meetings can understand one another. One of these interpreters is Elisabeth Bock-Chambon from Baden-Württemberg. In this interview she reports about teamwork behind glass, interpreting during the coronavirus pandemic, and her own, personal vision of Europe.

Elisabeth Bock-Chambon sits in a glass-fronted interpreting booth in a meeting room in Brussels. This is where she interprets.

Elisabeth Bock-Chambon in her interpreting booth in a Brussels meeting room. From here she interprets from six languages into German.

Photo: Sophie Hettrich

Ms Bock-Chambon, how did you become an interpreter?

Elisabeth Bock-Chambon: I realised early that my vocation and my talents lay in the field of languages and communication. After taking my school leaving exam in Germany (the Abitur), I first went to the USA for a year. I studied there, and began to learn Portuguese. Then I studied interpreting in Heidelberg and Paris. During this time I lived for two years in São Paulo, making my dream of living in Brazil come true. When I graduated in 1991, I began to work as an interpreter for the European Commission.

Originally you come from Biberach an der Riß in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. What brought you to the European Commission in Brussels? 

Bock-Chambon: I’ve always been enthusiastic about the idea of working for a European institution. My parents were both history teachers, so I’ve always believed in reconciliation and in Europe as a peace project.

With my work, I want to bring Europe to life for everybody, irrespective of their mother tongue. I believe that we interpreters can foster better understanding among the different countries and cultures, and multilingualism in Europe.

Elisabeth Bock-Chambon has been working for over 20 years as an interpreter in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation. She interprets from English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Greek into German. She is currently responsible for coordinating interpreting for Council meetings.

How should we visualise your work for the European Commission?

Bock-Chambon: My working day really begins at 18:30 the previous evening, when our final programme for the following day is posted. Then I make sure I am prepared for the issues and the content matter of the meetings. The next day I go into the booth and interpret in line with the agenda.

Interpreters are generalists, not specialists. We deal with a different specialist area every day meetings are scheduled, from agriculture to taxes to aerospace. My last meeting, for instance, looked at the multiannual financial framework.

Listening and translating at the same time – that sounds like a major challenge. How do you do it?

Bock-Chambon: We have to listen to a speaker, understand what has been said, and produce an accurate rendering in another language – all in a fraction of a second. Obviously, sometimes things get missed out, or we might not understand something quite right, but interpreting is teamwork. And since there are generally two or three of us in the booth we support one another, say by writing down vocabulary, figures or acronyms for a colleague. 

On 1 July, Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. What challenges does the COVID-19 pandemic pose for the interpreting services for the Council meetings?

Bock-Chambon: During the early weeks and months of Germany’s Presidency, a lot of meetings will certainly still be online. I have the impression that the experience we have gained with video conferences over recent weeks has made it clear that these negotiations do not offer the same conditions as face to face meetings, where participants genuinely meet and can talk on the margins of the actual meeting and see their standpoints converge.

How do you resolve this problem?

Bock-Chambon:We’re just optimising an internet platform for simultaneous interpreting during online conferences. The platform is based on what is known as RSI (Remote Simultaneous Interpretation).The interpreters generally work in a meeting room in Brussels. Participants can follow the interpreted version in their own mother tongue and can express themselves in own language.

It is, of course, a technical challenge. When the internet connections or the microphone of participants aren’t strong enough, it is practically impossible to interpret satisfactorily. The platform was used for the first meetings of justice ministers and home affairs ministers at the start of July.

Every six months the Presidency of the Council of the European Union passes to the next member state. On 1 July 2020, Germany assumed the Presidency. 

Has your work changed the way you see Europe?

Bock-Chambon: Thanks to the many languages I speak, I see Europe with different eyes. The last language I learned was Greek. Since then I have had lots of contacts with Greek people and have watched a lot of Greek broadcasts. That has helped me understand the financial and economic crisis from the Greek point of view, for instance. It is not our role as interpreters to intervene in political events in Europe, but just understanding it better is worth a lot I find. After all, there is never only one truth, but always several truths.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation interprets for an average of 40 meetings a day at the various EU institutions. In addition to the 24 official EU languages, interpreting services are available in 15 to 20 non-EU languages. To provide these services on a daily basis, the Directorate-General employs about 500 interpreters and works with another 2,900 freelance interpreters. 


Keywords