AIB

AIB
We Say What You Mean

Friday, May 30, 2014

Translator, interpreter, whatever…

   by Catherine Sherry
                                                                                 
A generally invisible cog in the machine of global communications, we perhaps have Nicole Kidman to thank for clarifying who The Interpreter is, although it has to be said that our daily work life tends not to be quite so dramatic (at least mine anyway). Interpreting and translating are two distinct professions; they do share some common features but there are many more that set them apart.

Interpreters work with the spoken word, translators with the written. Naturally, both groups have an excellent command of more than one language. We are lovers of all things linguistic, wordsmiths if you will (though sometimes described less favourably by those who know and love us as being pedantic about language). Both interpreting and translating are fundamentally about conveying another person’s message accurately, faithfully and eloquently in a different language, usually into our own mother tongue. So where do they diverge?

Human communication is wonderfully rich. Unlike the basically descriptive, present-tense language of most other species (‘Lion! Run for it lads!’), we have honed the capacity to joke, provoke, profess, digress, condone, bemoan, imply, deny… and so on. To do their jobs well, interpreters and translators must first work out exactly what message their client wants to get across by carefully dissecting each and every sentence or utterance and making a decision on the intention encapsulated in it. This is usually easier for interpreters because the speaker is right there, conveying their message not only through words but also posture, tone of voice, facial expressions and so forth.

Whereas translators have as much time as their deadline permits to ponder the matter and consult dictionaries, colleagues and perhaps even the author, interpreters generally have to make split-second decisions, drawing on their experience and prior research of waste management in smart cities, say. In their delivery, translators often burn the midnight oil revising and reformulating, by which time interpreters have finished their meeting and are tucked up in bed, exhausted from yet another day saving the planet from evil dictators.

Translators need time and long-lasting concentration, because the written word perdures and must be carefully constructed to be crystal-clear to another person at another time. Interpreters need to generate surges of maximum brainpower to listen, analyse meaning and speak all at once, as well as the physical stamina to perform a role – to become (temporarily) the person who they are interpreting.


In sum, although these twin professions have the same aim of enabling cross-cultural communication, the delights and difficulties they entail are vastly different. One last word about Microsoft’s recently unveiled ‘Skype Translator’. LOL. (And by the way guys that would be ‘Skype Interpreter’, if anything.) Progress is great, but let us not pretend we can preserve the richness and subtlety of human communication by having machines do this job. 

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