Expert advice / A wealth of words: what it’s like to be a top translator and fixer in Cambodia

By: Cristyn Lloyd - Posted on: June 26, 2018 | Cambodia

Yin Soeum is a professional Cambodian fixer and interpreter with almost 30 years of experience translating both in the field and the boardroom for international media and high-profile political players. He talks about building a bridge between English and Khmer and the challenges of switching between languages on the fly

Yin Soeum works as a fixer for international media outlets such as CNN and BBC Photo: Sam Jam for SEA Globe

Tell us a bit about what you do…
I’m working as a freelance fixer/translator. When there’s an international crew like BBC [or] CNN, I organise interviews, set up appointments with government officials [or] NGOs. [When] they’re not here, I do work for international conferences, for NGOs, for governments, etc. – what we call simultaneous translations. People listen through their headphones and then I’m doing live translations as people talk. Sometimes I do work for the prime minister when he attends international conferences – when the foreigner speaks, I translate for him… Sometimes the organisers send us documents in advance, maybe one day or two days. But [many] times they give me documents [at] like 10pm and then I need to do interpretations the next day about 9am. I enjoy doing the simultaneous translations. I don’t have time to stop to think.

What are some of the challenges of live translations?
Some foreigners, their English is not that great. Sometimes they cannot get things right. And then we lose concentration and cannot translate the right word. [And] most speakers speak too fast. They tend to forget interpreters in the conference…

The accents of different speakers, that’s the main challenge. If the translator doesn’t catch up, [they might think], what does it mean? What are they talking about? But for me, because I’ve been to many different workshops, many different conferences, I sort of have a better idea. The topics are very similar. I can translate different sorts of [tones] – I can lower my voice to follow what they are saying.

Other than that, [translating] medical terms or tourism terms [is a challenge]. Sometimes the [speaker] is talking about nuclear bombs [or] talking about cybercrimes – some of the terms we cannot translate… For those who are involved in that, on a criminal or anti-trafficking case [for example], they know what [those terms] mean. But some of them, if they’ve never done this kind of work before, they don’t have any ideas what that means… I transfer knowledge. As a facilitator, sometimes I need to use the word that’s easy for them to understand.

What advice would you give to budding fixers and interpreters?
They need to be patient working with the media – they come here, they don’t have much time. Sometimes they don’t care about food. They just say: “Let’s go get a story done.” Sometimes we sleep in the forest. One day, ten years ago, I worked with BBC Radio. We were out in the field in a village in the middle of nowhere. Our car broke down and then we had to spend the night. In the morning, it was heavy rain. The road [was] cut off, so we had to sit and wait from 6 until 12 until the water receded, and then we [could] go back. This kind of experience I won’t forget.

If someone wants to do this kind of job – simultaneous interpreter – they need to learn a lot more words, more terminology. And they have to listen carefully to the different accents of speakers. They can practise by listening to the radio.

This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.