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By Nathan Bierma, Special to the Tribune, April 20 2005

Before you make a movie called "The Interpreter," you have to get one thing straight. An interpreter is not the same as a translator.

That's what the makers of "The Interpreter," which opens Friday, learned as they made the first movie filmed at the United Nations in New York.

"After they understood the difference between interpreters and translators, they stopped calling us translators," says Brigitte Andreassier-Pearl, the UN's chief of Interpretation Services, who consulted with director Sidney Pollack and actress Nicole Kidman in the making of "The Interpreter."

Interpreters are in charge of interpreting spoken communication as it happens on the UN floor. Translators work with written documents, under far less time pressure.

"Some of my best friends are translators, so there is no antagonism," Andreassier-Pearl says. "But we're called `interpreters.' We do a different job. That's one thing I explained to Sidney Pollack, and it's one thing I hope the movie is going to spread around."

To hear professional interpreters tell it, the difference between interpreting and translating is like the difference between auto racing and a stroll.

"Translators work in offices from 9 to 5, with dictionaries, computers and databases. It's a leisurely pace, and if they don't know something, they can go and research," says Andreassier-Pearl. "Interpreters are in the glass booth, in the middle of the action, with no dictionaries and no help. They have to be able to do it right on the spot. It can be kind of scary. "

Prepared for the part

Kidman, cast as a UN interpreter who accidentally overhears a secret threat on an African president's life, had her definitions down when she arrived at UN headquarters to observe interpreters at work. She spent a morning in the glass booth of the Security Council, studying the interpreters and asking them questions. Then she sat down to interview Andreassier-Pearl, a French native with aPhD in French literature who has worked at the UN for 34 years.

"She wanted to know how long you have to wait before you start your sentence," Andreassier-Pearl said. "It's a split second. But it depends how fast the speaker is. And in some languages, you cannot plunge right in -- you have to wait for the verb."

Kidman also asked Andreassier-Pearl the most common question interpreters get asked -- what do you do if you don't know a word?

"We always work in the context [of what's being said]," says Andreassier-Pearl. "You try to understand the meaning and express the idea, you find an idiomatic equivalent right away. Sometimes, I hate to say it, but you skip it."

Idioms can be a linguistic obstacle to diplomacy, but interpreters are ready for them. Andreassier-Pearl recalls one American delegate she was interpreting into French who put her on the spot.

"He said, `Now I'm going to test the interpreter in the booth and see if she knows the idiom,'" Andreassier-Pearl says. "He said, `You cannot have your cake and eat it too.' In French, you cannot translate that. I said, `You cannot have it both ways.'"

Multilingual job

The UN employs 113 interpreters and nearly as many freelancers. All of them are fluent in at least three languages. Each interpreter has what is called her "active" (or native) language, and two or three passive (non-native) languages. Interpreters are assigned (with one day's) to interpret from one of their passive languages into their active language. The UN uses six official languages -- Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The job is a paradox -- interpreters must remain utterly unnoticeable while serving as a vital link in international diplomacy.

To make the job even more challenging, delegates are talking faster, Andreassier-Pearl says, thanks in part to time limits on speeches.

"Sometimes interpreters are practically in tears," Andreassier-Pearl says. "They're good, well-prepared, and we do our best, but we're not machines."

Not everyone is satisfied with their efforts. Sometimes as they are speaking, delegates monitor how they are being interpreted. You can tell they're listening to you via their earpieces, says Andreassier-Pearl, when they start to speak more slowly. Occasionally, delegates file complaints with Andreassier-Pearl.

"I always ask them to give precise and specific examples," Andreassier-Pearl says. "I don't [just] want to hear that the interpretation was bad in Room 2 on Wednesday morning. Interpreting is very easy to criticize, but it's very hard to do it."