Every now and then, I get an assignment of a very high level: interpreting for a public figure or agency leader, translating an important document, interpreting for a multinational fact-finding group. It’s a challenging and exhilarating change from the day-to-day grind.
I was at an event in El Salvador or Colombia a couple of years ago, and saw a familiar booklet lying on a table. When I picked it up, it struck me: I translated that! It had been assigned to the worst translator in my office in about 2006, and I was the one who had to clean it up after she was done. (Anything we produce that will be published, released to the public, or used in court is always edited by a second linguist.) I leafed through it, impressed with how nice it looked and wincing at one or two of the word choices I had made. The booklet is used all over Latin America now.
The document I’m finishing today is a cooperation agreement between agencies in two countries. Fortunately, it’s not written in heavy legalese, but it has been very challenging nonetheless. After it gets reviewed by another translator, it will be ceremoniously signed by representatives of both agencies involved. There will no doubt be some mention in the media overseas.
My name isn’t on the booklet anywhere, nor will it be linked with the international agreement. Translators are usually invisible, unless you happen to interpret for a press conference or get chosen to work the last round of the Miss Universe pageant.
Every time I take on a tough assignment, I’m more aware of the gaps in my language knowledge. I’m more literate and educated than the average American, but there’s a lot I don’t know about finance, business, law, science, engineering, law enforcement, theology, politics, and so forth. If my ability to talk about these things in English is limited, it’s even more so in Spanish!
When you’re doing simultaneous interpretation, you have to come up with the words in the second language immediately. Some of my colleagues will stop and think, trying to recall the right term, and then they miss the next sentence altogether. I’ve discovered, though, that if I understand a concept, I’m good at improvising an explanation and moving on. One time, for instance, the term “plea bargain” came up. I didn’t know the standard Spanish term for it (turns out there isn’t one), so I said, “plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence” and went on. It wasn’t a perfect translation, but it was adequate.
It struck me that I have spent my whole life doing that: improvising or paraphrasing my way around the holes in my vocabulary in one or the other language. My vocabulary has grown tremendously in the last four years; dating and marrying a very articulate Colombian is helpful that way! My Spanish writing and speech are becoming more polished and of a higher register. But invariably, there will be moments when I have to scratch around for vocabulary, and end up improvising.