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Interpreting A Live Presidential Debate Is An Art, Telemundo's Team Leader Says


Telemundo is broadcasting this week's two Democratic presidential debates in Spanish, and it is a lift. Each night, there are 15 voices to interpret. There's 10 candidates and five moderators. And the interpreters don't just have to get the candidates' words right. They also have to make them sound right. Alexander Gonzalez from member station WLRN in Miami has the story.

ALEXANDER GONZALEZ, BYLINE: The first candidate to answer a question in Spanish last night was former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke. It was a question about immigration.


BETO O'ROURKE: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: His Spanish was good enough that Telemundo didn't have to interpret that. When O'Rourke switched to English, Telemundo viewers heard another voice.


CESAR CARDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: That's the voice of Cesar Cardoza. He's sort of the team leader for the eight interpreters sitting inside Studio E of Telemundo's headquarters in Miami.

CARDOZA: This is our flight plan for tonight.

GONZALEZ: A flight plan is how Cardoza describes a simultaneous interpretation. That's when it happens in real time. And it's challenging. The interpreters were so focused last night, they entered into a Zen-like space, listening on their headsets while staring at a monitor in front of them for two hours.

CARDOZA: I'm concerned. I want to do a great job. But in the back of my mind, it says, well, I am not the candidate. Imagine that you are a pilot. You know that your plane is going to crash. You have two choices - focus on what you're doing and try to keep everybody alive or panic.

GONZALEZ: Cardoza doesn't panic. He's been doing this work a while. He says he's interpreted every president since Ronald Reagan. Telemundo hired him to find some of the interpreters. He says there are few things to look for in a good interpreter for a live event, like a presidential debate.

CARDOZA: This is an art. You want voices that sound pleasant, that sound accurate. And you try sort of to match those voices with the person that is going to be interpreted.

GONZALEZ: Telemundo is used to producing real-time interpretations. In early 2016, the network had to deal with fewer candidates, and they were all male. This week's debates pose some different challenges, says Leticia Herrera. She's the producer behind the debates.

LETICIA HERRERA: What caught us by surprise - the amount of female in this election. So when we have so many females, we really have to identify with different voices.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America...

SONIA BERAH: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: That's Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar talking about health care. Her interpreter is Sonia Berah. She flew in from New York for the debates.

BERAH: You have to be on your toes, very fast and keep up with the speaker.

GONZALEZ: Berah has a lot of experience. She's worked with the United Nations. That's considered the gold standard for this line of work. Berah knew her candidates ahead of time. That allowed her to study their platforms and learn new vocabulary that could come up on debate night.

BERAH: Something, like, called a blue dog Democrat.

GONZALEZ: How would you translate that?

BERAH: Well, it's a conservative senator from the South who usually votes conservative. So (laughter) you have to, I guess, find some small phrase for that.

GONZALEZ: After the debate ended, there was relief in the room.

So what's your first thought coming out of this?

BERAH: I'm glad we were a lot of people (laughter) and that it wasn't just, like, two people, like, one person doing all the women and one person doing all the men.

GONZALEZ: She'll be back for tonight's debate. This time, she's interpreting New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. For NPR, I'm Alexander Gonzalez in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexander Gonzalez