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Understanding the Importance of Interpreters Through 'Game of Thrones'

15/07/2014 19:19 BST | Updated 13/09/2014 10:59 BST

You may or may not have been following the on-going saga that is the outsourcing of court interpreters in the UK to one single agency. In short, it hasn't gone very well. In fact, the agency ended up paying a fine earlier this year as a result.

Recently, within a professional capacity, I have been trying to explain to people why it's so important to have qualified, experienced and court-savvy linguists working in our justice system. Anything less in my eyes is just dangerous. However, many people don't get it because they don't see the true value in an interpreter's role.

So how could I explain it in a way that people really understand the importance of what interpreters do, and actually how challenging it is? Yes, you guessed it Game of Thrones. Come on, you know you love a bit of GoT.

It's all too easy to think of interpreting as merely changing words from one language to another; how is that difficult, right if you know both languages? Well imagine trying to translate the House Stark moto 'Winter is coming.' Without the background knowledge about what it means and where it has come from you would essentially be stating the obvious - that the cold season is coming like it does every year.

But the phrase isn't about the changing seasons. You need to understand the nuances and context behind it to truly translate the meaning.

The Starks are the first to have the bad weather due to being up north (it's even grim in GoT). It is from this that they have developed their world view and outlook on life. 'Winter is coming' is both a warning to be ready for the worst life might throw at you, and also the bold statement that in adversity House Stark is the one to thrive.

So in fact, a good interpreter may translate this for a soft southerner as, 'We are ready for the worst that can happen,' and maybe to someone beyond the wall (I never mentioned anything about Scots) as, 'we are ready for you'. Completely different in wording but the essence of the meaning and intent is the same.

It takes skill to do that rather than translate just the words.

Perhaps the most enlightening bit of action we see in GoT that truly exemplifies the challenges of being an interpreter is when for Daenerys Targaryen faces the Good Masters of Astapor.

With what is left of her Dothraki, her knights at her side, she barters for the army that will fulfil her dreams and vanquish her enemies. At the end of Season 3 episode 4 she marches her army of unsullied out of the gates of Astapor, her three dragons flying overhead. Her victory over this city, for now, complete.

Yet this would probably never have happened if it wasn't for the sheer brilliance of an interpreter - the slave Missandei, who stands by the side of the Masters of Astapor, translating Daenerys' words to the Masters and the Masters' words to Daenerys.

It is here we witness how she not only translates between the languages, but also skilfully and diplomatically interprets the meaning that the Masters want to convey to the woman they refer to throughout as a "slut".

For Missandei there are two clear relationships, a situation that any interpreter may regularly find themselves in.

The first is with the Masters; they are the ones she is working for and has worked with before. She asks clarifying questions and her replies are stripped to the bone; throughout the conversation she shows her in-depth knowledge of the subject at hand, and in many ways she keeps the negotiations on track.

Missandei to Daenerys: 'All? Did this one's ears mishear your Grace?'

Daenerys: 'They did not, I want to buy them all'

Missandei to the masters: 'She wants to buy them all.'

Master Khaznys: 'She can't afford them. The slut thinks she can flash her tits and make us give her whatever she wants,'

Missandei to Daenerys: 'There are 8,000 unsullied in Astapor; is this what you mean by all?'

Daenerys: 'Yes 8000 and the ones still in training as well.'

Missandei to the masters: 'And the ones still in training.'

Masters to each other: 'If they fail on the battlefield they will shame Astapor.'

Missandei to Daenerys: 'Master Khaznys says they cannot sell half-trained boys, if they fail on the battlefield they will bring shame on all of Astapor.'

Daenerys: 'I will have them all or have not, many will fall in battle I will need the boys to pick up the swords they drop.'

Master Khaznys (after Missandei has translated): 'The slut cannot pay for all of this.'

Missandei to Daenerys: 'Master Khaznys says you cannot afford this.'

Watch the video for more.

The second relationship is between herself and Daenerys; at this point it is her job to be courteous and give the young Khaleesi the respect she deserves.

Within the book, although not explicit in the TV series, we see that one of the Masters speaks enough of the Common tongue that the negotiations are being conducted in to be able to understand exactly what Missandei is saying. For Missandei she first must understand the intent of Master Khaznys words, and change them to a respectful statement that still conveys his message. In the TV series we watch as she pauses to try and work out what to say when Master Khaznys state he will give Daenerys 10 extra unsullied because he likes her looks; she decides to merely say he is generous. Imagine the horror on both sides had she just translated his words exactly!

Essentially the interpreter is lying to save face and as a vital member of a team in such a situation, they need the leeway to make things happen. Missandei proves to be the ultimate diplomat throughout the conversation. On the screen we see Daenerys demand Missandei as a gift; in the books she is given away without a thought by the masters, but in both she is discrete, polite and gets the job done. She as well as the Master are shocked when it later turns out that Valyrian is Daenerys' first language and she had been understanding the crude comments the Masters were making all along! But Missandei's tact earns her a place beside the young Khaleesi.

Missandei is an example of a professional, experienced interpreter. Intelligent, quick-thinking, accurate and diplomatic as well as possessing the ability to get the job done. Had someone who just happens to speak the languages been translating, chances are it would have all gone a bit Pete Tong.

And this, in short, is what we potentially see happening in our legal system. Second-rate interpreters attending trials who are unable to deal with the situation, the language(s), the cross-questioning and the pressure. If I were in court, I would want a Missandei interpreting for me. Wouldn't you?

Just a note for GoT geeks: Fans of the books will note that I've used the conversation from the TV series rather than the books; this is one of the scenes where the scriptwriters for the screen play have stepped away from the original and interpreted it differently for the medium.