Interview with Alexandra Brabcová, Executive Director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the CzechRepublic

Ambassadors without diplomatic passport

This part of the series Ambassadors without a Diplomatic Passport focuses on persons who often significantly contribute to the success of talks among official representatives of States – people who draft background papers, engage in preparatory negotiations or interpret at the meetings. These men and women are not in the focus of photographers and TV crews and they rarely find the time or opportunity to enjoy the fine meals or VIP services offered to the dignitary whom they are accompanying.

The first person whom I wish to introduce is Alexandra Brabcová, a former interpreter and translator to Václav Havel in English and German. Alexandra studied these two languages at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University and then worked as a translator-interpreter at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She first interpreted for President Havel in 1990; thereafter, she spent almost the entire 12 years of his presidency at his side. Numerous statesmen were amazed by her phenomenal memory. President Havel’s spokesman Ladislav Špaček remembers this in his book Ten Years with Václav Havel, describing an occasion when Alexandra won applause from Vice-President Al Gore of the United States after having interpreted President Havel’s monologue of considerable length on substantial international issues. At present, Alexandra is Executive Director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in theCzechRepublic, President of The American European Community Association –CzechRepublicand member of Rotary Club PragBohemia. She is currently launching a new project of her own entitled Inspired Choices, aiming to help both Czechs and expatriates based in this country and visitors from abroad find opportunities to enrich their lives through special social and cultural experiences. Every person-to-person meeting with Alexandra Brabcová is an inspiring occasion but this interview was conducted in writing. I have found it unbefitting to translate the answers of a professional translator and interpreter into English; therefore, we have agreed that Alexandra will write the English text herself.

Let me begin by asking a typical question: What is your perception of the world of today?

I admit that I find it somewhat difficult to fit such a complex subject into a few lines. Perhaps I would say that the world of today is, to my mind, a world of contrasts. On the one hand, humankind has made incredible progress in numerous areas of knowledge, science, technology, communication, etc. This advanced knowledge makes it possible to prolong human life and improve its quality. On the other hand, there still are many people who are denied access to these grand achievements, nor can they participate in their creation, because of poverty and underdevelopment in their countries, restrictions imposed under various types of authoritarian regimes, armed conflicts, criminal activities or combinations of these adverse factors. Spreading all the good things that the human race is capable of doing and bringing their benefits to a growing number of people worldwide is a mission that should be pursued by all those who want this world to be a better place than it is today.

And how do you perceive the position of the Czech Republic in the world?

In the last two decades, the Czech Republic has had the privilege of being part of the free world. Our country and its people have thus clearly been in a position to contribute to the overall progress of the human race. Many Czechs have actually done so in many areas. There are numerous hard-working, enlightened and dedicated Czech men and women who have made or participated in remarkable scientific discoveries; built up successful businesses; enriched our lives with great performances in diverse arts; saved human lives as rescue workers or medical professionals; worked selflessly in educational institutions or charities and so on. Some of these people have been part of international teams and have won acknowledgement from their foreign colleagues, thus enhancing the reputation of our country.

In contrast to these worthy efforts, we hear every day about instances of individuals or entities seeking gain for themselves only and using unethical or illegal means to achieve that end. These unfortunate developments, and the absence or inadequacy of action to combat them, have had an adverse effect both on the way in which the Czech Republic is perceived and on the mind-set of the society: too many Czechs appear to believe that it makes no sense to get involved, to go to the polls or to run for public office since nothing will ever change. As on the global scale, the Czech Republic would benefit if the fine accomplishments achieved by Czech people served as a source of inspiration for others, and if the State improved its ability to act against harmful practices, no matter who perpetrates them. Some progress along this line has been made recently, but there is still a long way to go – and it is a journey that will never end.

Cooperation with our partners within the community of democratic nations to which we now belong is clearly of great significance. Exchange of expertise and experience with those who have dealt with similar issues as those that we face now – every nation has had its share of problems – can help us improve the overall environment in our country as well as its international standing. My vision of the Czech Republic sees it as a nation that acts on the international scene with self-confidence but also with respect for the opinions of others, as a reliable ally that is prepared to contribute to a common cause while enjoying the benefits of international partnerships.

You interpreted messages of major significance during President Havel’s discussions with foreign statesmen, such as the talks about the Czech Republic’s integration into the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. You told me once how much you were aware of your responsibility for conveying President Havel’s message exactly as he meant it, without omitting or distorting any part of it. What did you feel in such strongly emotional situations?

To this day, I remember how I felt when I accompanied President Havel to his first meeting with President George Bush in the Oval Office of the White House back in February 1990. Before the talks began, while the Presidents posed for the countless photographers and cameras, I kept thinking: ‘This is such a truly momentous occasion, I cannot do anything wrong now.‘ Interpreting for President Havel was an especially challenging task because of his special skill with the spoken word, and the significance that he attached to the choice of words when expressing his thoughts.

Please describe a working day of an interpreter accompanying a Head of State during a State Visit to a foreign country. The protocol often gives an interpreter only a chair but no lunch or dinner. How did you cope with the permanent strain? And was it possible at all to experience something of the countries that you visited when accompanying President Havel?

First of all, an interpreter must be fully concentrated on his or her task – conveying the speaker’s message as accurately as possible. This necessitates thorough preparation before leaving on the trip. A professional interpreter should liaise with the experts who prepare the background papers for official talks and study the issues that are expected to be discussed, so as to understand the context, know the terminology, the names and places that are likely to be mentioned, etc. The more an interpreter learns before the actual work begins the easier it is to handle the stress that comes with the profession, especially when interpreting at high-level meetings or during delicate negotiations.

Furthermore, an interpreter must acquaint himself or herself with the detailed program of the visit, including particulars such as the dress code prescribed for individual events, so at to have proper clothes ready for each occasion. This is not just a minor detail – an interpreter who would find himself or herself improperly dressed at an official event would most probably feel uncomfortable and this would affect his or her performance. In my case, this would be certainly true.

As regards creating impressions of the visited countries, an official visit is never long enough to get to know a country. It is true that official delegations are often admitted to places that are not open to the general public; on the other hand, the time that they can spend touring places of interest and talking to people from different walks of life apart from the official talks is very limited. President Havel always wished that the program of his State Visits should include opportunities for less formal conversations with intellectuals, students, etc. or visits to places that do not belong to the standard routes for official trips, such as a visit to the Aborigines in the north of Australia or a tour into the country in India.

You studied foreign languages before 1989. Learning English and German as you did was by no means usual under the former regime. At present English is in most cases the first choice of language learners; on the other hand, knowledge of German is of crucial significance too, given the volume of German investments in the Czech Republic. Can you say that one of the two languages is closer to your heart?

I have never given either of the two languages preference over the other. Each of them has presented me with different challenges during my studies as well as my work, and each of them has enriched me. While I use mostly English in my work now, I have maintained contact with the German language through my membership in the Rotary Club Prag Bohemia which unites German-speaking Rotarians in Prague. And I enjoy reading books in both languages. When I have the time I simultaneously read the original as well as a translation, compare the two texts and think of alternative solutions for the translation of the tricky phrases.

Compared to some other nations, knowledge of foreign languages among the Czech population is still rather limited; many Czechs fall into the category of constant beginners. Is there something you would recommend to those who seek to learn a foreign language?

Learning a foreign language properly is a long-term process, therefore, determination, perseverance and patience are a sine qua non for success. To make the hard work somewhat less hard, I would advise everybody to choose topics that they enjoy reading about, and try to read texts about these topics in the language they are seeking to learn. Listening to foreign songs and watching foreign movies can help in the same way. When you want to understand a text because you are interested in the content you will have the motivation to look up the unknown words or phrases, and you will get a better feeling for the language generally. The opportunities that are available now (which were not there before the change of regime in 1989) for meeting foreigners and travelling to foreign countries are an additional incentive for, and a great help in, learning languages.

Are there any recommendations that you would give to the readership of Prague Leaders based on your experience as an interpreter? What should be done to ensure the best performance of an interpreter when interpreting is used at business meetings, and what is most often done wrong?

An interpreter is expected to deliver a top class performance; therefore, those who hire an interpreter should provide conditions allowing him or her to do so.

As I mentioned before, it is essential that an interpreter is well prepared. For this purpose, the organisers of the meetings should grant him or her the necessary level of access to the conference materials. People who hire interpreters often fail to realize this. Many times, an interpreter asking for background material is told that the papers are confidential, that they are not yet finished or approved, etc. To my mind, none of these arguments is really valid. You should trust your interpreter like you trust other people who take part in confidential talks; obviously, this means that you have to choose a trustworthy person for the job. Professional interpreters are bound by the rules of the ethics of the profession and these include the obligation to keep all information obtained in connection with their work confidential – and the interpreter is privy to the “top secret” information anyway during the talks. When a larger volume of material is to be processed an interpreter needs to have enough time to study it – therefore, it is much better to provide your collaborator with a paper that is not quite finished well in advance of the event instead of saddling the unfortunate interpreter with dozens of pages five minutes before a meeting begins. When a written speech is to be interpreted it is even more important that the interpreter is given the speech on paper. Written language is quite different from impromptu spoken language, and interpreting a written statement if you do not see it with your own eyes can be truly difficult.

Secondly, when interpreting is done in a consecutive fashion, i.e. without headphones, those conducting the talks and the interpreter must be assured of being able to hear each other very well. So do not put an interpreter in a distant corner or behind a column – bad acoustics can thwart the best effort. The same is true for seating interpreters. When the conversation is expected to include all those seated at the table the interpreter should not be given a chair behind the principal speaker’s back as is often the case – guests seated farther away often have difficulty hearing him or her, and the same is true vice versa.

And as regards the lunches and dinners that you mentioned earlier: While an interpreter certainly cannot expect to enjoy a full meal, neither should the organisers expect a top class performance from a person who has had nothing to eat nor drink for the whole day.

You presently serve as Executive Director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic. What are your principal activities now? Don’t you miss interpreting? And can you listen e.g. to a lecture without silently interpreting?

My role in the Chamber involves organising its event‘s program – business breakfasts with guest speakers, expert seminars, business mixers, social events, tennis and golf tournaments, etc. All these events provide multiple opportunities for business networking, and I very much enjoy bringing together people or companies who have a potential for possibly working together. I also compile, edit and proofread texts for the Chamber’s publications – the GoCanada magazine, the Membership Directory and announcements for our website,

My work as an interpreter has taught me a great deal, both as regards language skills and otherwise, and the years that I spent interpreting for Václav Havel were truly special and unforgettable. I treasure these memories but I would not want to go back to interpreting now. The main mason I quit lies in the nature of the profession. An interpreter can never express his or her own opinions or suggestions; his or her role is limited to conveying somebody else’s thoughts. As the years passed I found it increasingly difficult to cope with this inherent restriction. I stopped working as an interpreter after President Havel left office, more than ten years ago. When I listen to a lecture now I no longer feel any strong inclination to interpret it; I rather focus on the content. When a speech is interpreted, though, I may feel a tendency to judge my colleague’s performance.

When I organise seminars about inter-cultural communication and talk with the participants about countries that are close to Czech people Canada is usually named among the three most favourite countries, in spite of the geographical distance and the fact that only a minority of Czechs actually visit Canada. Can you explain the reasons for this closeness, and what would you say about Canada-Czech relations at present?

One of the reasons Czechs feel a special affinity for Canada lies clearly in the essential role that has been played by the Czech Canadian community. Without those Czechs who found a new home in Canada after they left the Czech lands escaping from Nazi rule, from the rising Communist regime or after the 1968 occupation, the relationship between our two nations would never be what it is now. Active Czech-Canadian business people established our Chamber of Commerce 17 years ago; one of them – the Chamber’s first President – was Otto Jelinek who is now Canada’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and another, Peter P. Formanek, led the Chamber for 12 years during which it grew into one of the most highly-appreciated business networking organizations in Prague. Members of the Chamber have played a most important role in advancing trade between the two countries. A number of major Canadian companies have come to do business in the Czech Republic and some of them – such as Magna or Bombardier – have established a long-term presence here, creating job opportunities for Czech people. Canadian owners and managers were the driving force behind the success of Oskar, the Czech Republic’s third mobile operator that was later integrated into the Vodafone group. Canadian brands such as McCain or Barnys are widely appreciated by Czech consumers. A major Czech-Canadian software company, Adastra, has successfully operated in both countries. Czechs can now get to know the quality of a diverse range of Canadian products, be it software solutions, such as the products of the OpenText Corporation, brought to the Czech market by Ixtent, or pet food – one of the most significant items on the list of Canadian imports to the Czech Republic. One of Prague’s top-class hotels – Four Seasons – is under Canadian management. The Sunny Canadian International School located near Prague draws on Canadian educational expertise in its teaching programs. Kelly & Associates provide Canadian English language, communications and soft skills expertise to Czech companies. And we must not forget Baťa – one of the finest chapters in the history of Canada Czech cooperation. Mr. Tomáš J. Baťa was one of the greatest supporters of our Chamber in its early days, and we are proud to host every year a sports event bearing his name – Tomáš J. Baťa Memorial. The relationship has also been fostered at the level of personal initiative, both by the Czech-Canadians who have returned to their former home country from Canadian exile and by Canadians who have come to live here, doing business on their own, working for international companies or retiring after having had successful careers.

Furthermore, cooperation has been developing in the diverse fields of science and technology. There have been active cultural links too, and a number of Canadian artists have brought wonderful experiences to Czech audiences. One such occasion was the closing night of the popular Tanec Praha Festival at the end of June this year, with a Canadian star of modern dance – Marie Chouinard of Québec and her ensemble. Moreover, Czechs are obviously aware of the beauty of the Canadian countryside and many of those who have never been there would wish to go to Canada one day. And there is also ice hockey – a permanent feature of the Canada-Czech relationship.

Recent months have brought auspicious news for Canada-Czech relations in a number of areas. The visa requirement for Czech citizens travelling to Canada has been lifted. A Canadian airline, Air Transat, has announced the launch of direct Prague-Toronto and Prague-Montreal flights during the summer season this year. New Canadian investments have come to the Czech Republic recently; Borealis Infrastructure has become a co-owner of Net4Gas and the Molson Coors Brewing Company has completed an acquisition that includes Staropramen. Canada and the European Union finalized talks on the content of a Canada-EU free trade agreement last autumn. As Ambassador Jelinek pointed out when addressing members of the Chamber shortly after his arrival, this is the time for Czech companies to get positioned for the new opportunities that will open up once the agreement enters into force. Another encouraging trend that augurs well for the future of Canada Czech relations is clearly visible in the area of contacts among young people. Canada offers programs facilitating the travel of young foreigners to Canada for study stays or travel & work visits, and a growing number of Czechs are becoming interested in advancing their education and professional experience in Canada.

Let me finish where we began this interview. The friendships and partnerships that have been developing between Czechs and Canadians contribute, to my mind, to the pursuit of the mission that I see as a crucial task for the human race: sharing and spreading the many good things that humankind is capable of doing. 

Source: Prague Leaders Magazine

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