Secrets of an Interpreter (2)


Apart from the online course “Behaving Ethically”, I am also participating in a workshop called “Insight into Interpreting Theory & Practice”, which lasts four weeks. The instructor is Mr Dave Deck, who has more than 20 years of experience as a professional translator and interpreter and teaches in Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

It feels good to sit among people who try to get accredited as (para)professional interpreters in order to better serve their communities. In a multicultural society such as Australia, people of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds collaborate to make life better. Such collaboration also demonstrates how important it is for individuals to reach out and understand each other.

However, being able to speak two languages is not enough for one to become a proper interpreter. Neither is sufficient vocabulary in both “source” and “target” languages. Rather, one needs to be an effective communicator, with enough “transfer skills” to convey the meaning of words from one language to the other without distortion, omission or addition of any details. Also crucial is one’s ability to do so quickly and without hesitation.

A lot of people confuse interpretation with translation. Interpretation deals with spoken words and involves different dialects and accents, while translation handles written words. For example, I often receive inquiries from authors who want to translate their books into “Mandarin”, the official SPOKEN language of the People’s Republic of China (capital Beijing) and the Republic of China (capital Taipei, Taiwan). Surely these authors mean to have their books translate into Simplified Chinese and/or Traditional Chinese, which are the two standard character sets of the contemporary Chinese WRITTEN language?

In the normal communication process between two people speaking the same language, ideas are turned into words (“coding”) and then conveyed by Person A, with Person B receiving these words and then turning them into ideas again (“decoding”). However, in the communication between two people speaking different languages, such “coding-encoding” process takes place twice. The first time is for Person A to code his ideas into words and for the interpreter to decode these words into ideas, all in the same language. The second time is for the interpreter to code these ideas into words in a different language and for Person B to decode these words into ideas in that language.

Therefore, interpreters are not simply “translation machines” as a lot of people seem to believe. It is their ability to decode ideas in one language and then to code them in another language that makes interpreters valuable. More importantly, interpreters pay attention to “paralinguistic features” such as one’s tone of voice, gesture and body language. Such special skills can never be replaced by machines. (As a translator, I must add here that the same principle also applies to translation. Authors, NEVER entrust your writing to Google Translate!)

I have learned two very important lessons so far. Firstly, the interpreter’s job is to help both parties of a conversion to overcome their language differences, so the two parties will not suffer any disadvantage or disruption as a result of not knowing each other’s language. It is NOT the interpreter’s job to participate in the conversation or to help to resolve any other difficulties.

More importantly, in order to become a professional interpreter, one needs to have sufficient language skills and knowledge in a wide range of subjects in both languages. This means one has to maintain constant contact with the cultures and communities on both sides! As I reflect upon my own life, I realize that throughout the past 17 years, I have indeed maintained constant contact with both WRITTEN English and Chinese languages and with SPOKEN English language, but NOT with SPOKEN Chinese language. How am I to overcome this problem? I should think hard on this.

(Note: For my participation in the above-mentioned workshop, I thank Australia’s Copyright Agency for its provision of a Creative Industries Career Fund. The Copyright Agency is renowned for its support for individuals working in the publishing and visual arts sectors to develop skills and enhance their careers.)

Image thanks to: “The Interpreter” movie (2005), directed by the late Sydney Pollack and starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.

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