Secrets of an Interpreter (3)


The aim of an interpreter is to achieve both accuracy and naturalness, temporarily representing the speaker in the source language and conveying the equivalent meaning of his/her words in the target language as if the speaker has spoken them by him/herself in that language.

In this process, the interpreter should strive to avoid any unnecessary distortion, omission or addition of any details. One very important issue I have learned so far is that as an interpreter, one is allowed to request repetitions and/or clarifications by the speaker. One can also correct oneself as soon as one realizes a mistake has occurred.

Those who are not familiar with interpreting services need to know that people’s memories do fail. Even the most professional interpreter cannot successfully remember and convey all of the speaker’s words if he/she simply continues speaking for an unreasonably long time.

Worse, people often have problem remembering exactly what they have said. On occasions where people speak at length, many of them become unable to answer adequately when asked to repeat and/or clarify the specific points of their speech.

Therefore, it is important for an interpreter to “control the flow” while keeping the communication flowing. This means the interpreter serves a “pipeline” through which information flows back and forth, and only interrupts when the communication process becomes ineffective.

Another issue I have learned is that in ANY transfer of meaning between languages, there will INEVITABLY be components or elements of meaning that are necessarily omitted, changed or added. More importantly, such changes do not reduce the accuracy; rather, they improve it.

For example, in English, there is not a single word to describe the relationship between two sets of parents whose children are married to each other. Also in English, we need more than one word to specify what “bagasse” is – not to mention how to convey the meaning of this word in another language.

It is common knowledge that idioms (e.g. “raining cats and dogs”) and “fixed expressions” (e.g. “for the long and the short of it”) are hard to translate – they simply cannot be translated word-by-word. However, one needs to understand that interpreting problems often occur at grammatical, discourse and/or pragmatic levels.

For example, some languages do not differentiate verb tenses, while others lack the use of personal and/or possessive pronouns. Still others render objects to be male and female, or relocate the verbs to the start or the end of their sentences. (For example, it must be really hard to interpret for Yoda.) When asked “Excuse me, do you have the time?” one simply does not answer “Yes, I do.”

As a result, interpreters need to use not only specific subject and language knowledge but also COMMON SENSE to choose the best way to convey the equivalent meaning of everything in a conversation between two languages. An acute awareness of how language is used in specific cultural circumstances is also useful.

(Note: For my participation in the “Insight into Interpreting Theory & Practice” 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: “Yoda” at Wikia.


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