AFCEC translator, interpreter keeps communication clear

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFCEC Public Affairs
Communication; it’s something people do every day. However, what is said and what is heard can often be two different things, even when speaking the same language. Add in other languages, and communication can get further muddled.

Keeping the conversation clear at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s European Store Front is translator and interpreter Barbara Spur, who’s been with the Air Force since 2003 when she was hired to support the Rhein Mein Air Base transition program. 

“We’ve always had extremely good translation/interpretation with Ms. Spur,” said Karl Willi Ningelgen, Spur’s former coworker at AFCEC. “That was very important when we had the Rhein Mein transition project … moving the mission from Rhein Mein to Spangdahlem and Ramstein … we had a lot of meetings with German construction agencies so it was key.”

In her work, Spur finds many people don’t understand the difference between interpretation and translation.

Translation applies only to the written word, Spur explained, and is considered the easier of the two linguistic disciplines.

“With translation, the advantage is for the most part you aren’t under time pressure,” she said. “You have enough time to sit down and focus on the text. You can also rephrase something to pick the proper terms.”

In Germany, once someone has a translation degree, which can take up to six years, he or she can sit through a battery of aptitude tests and college examinations to determine the likelihood of becoming an interpreter.

The tests and examinations evaluate “if your brain is quick enough, if you can talk fast enough, if you can keep up with the speaker’s pace, how you handle stress – because this is stressful – and they will also monitor how your body reacts,” Spur said.

After passing the various tests, people are allowed to move on to interpreting.

Before working for AFCEC, Spur was employed by a larger European institution in the Hague where she would perform interpretation in an insulated booth with another person, allowing them to switch out after a certain period of time. 

“We were limited in the booth to 20 minutes because it really takes a toll on your brain and depending on how hectic the discussion is, you can get tired very easily,” she said. “It really wears you out … there were some meetings where I thought my brain cells were dying away as I was speaking.”

During meetings for AFCEC, Spur is physically in the same room and uses a microphone and receiver with attendees being given ear pieces to receive her interpretation.

“I go from English to German and the other way around,” Spur said. “We will have German local nationals and U.S. people at the table and to enable proper communication between the two, you need somebody to act as a mediator and that’s where I come in to play.”

With Spur, Ningelgen said AFCEC and the USAFE civil engineer team “has always had extremely good interpretation/translation. She’s great and helped a great deal.” 

Ningelgen knows from experience how every word can make a difference when it comes to interpretation and translation.

“When we were in negotiations with the Spanish Air Force at Moron Air Base, we often used the word ‘compromise.’ We had kind of a bad translation/interpretation service at that time and they always translated or interpreted the word compromise to ‘my opinion’ and the Spanish misunderstood,” he said.

Both sides were talking for several months until Ningelgen and one of the translators discussed the situation. 

“It was just one word badly translated,” Ningelgen said. “From that day on, we could find a solution and it taught me an important lesson.