Language, Multiculturality, Translation

High-level translation and paraphrase

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.


19 thoughts on “High-level translation and paraphrase

  1. Another entry which cries out for a response: (I’ve been so occupied lately that I missed several others of yours)
    I do happen to know ‘plea bargain’ in Hebrew, perhaps because it’s a daily occurrence in the press here.
    Hmm.. thinking about how you could surreptitiously insert your name in the document for posterity. perhaps just a ‘TG/RS’ appending a particularly soporific sentence.?
    I’m presently unsure whether my fluency is ‘above’ or ‘below’ average here. Street folk often react as if they’ve never heard ‘perfect’ Hebrew vocalized, and demand a second opinion, in slang, which changes day to day of course.

    I guess I’ll just have to get a job doing what you do… and enjoy the accolades/ suffer the slings and arrows in order to find out.
    meanwhile a pleasure to know that your presence didn’t die with Xanga’s demise. Kinda like finding your childhood beloved doll in the burnt-out wreckage after a catastrophic house-fire. Yeah, say *that* en espanol, ha

    • Como encontrar la muñeca adorada de tu infancia entre los escombros después de un incendio catastrófico. I would have said it more or less that way even if I were interpreting simultaneously. Maybe not as smoothly.

      My dad’s parents spoke German to each other and to the kids, so Dad grew up understanding it but speaking English. He worked on his German as an adult. When we visited Germany 30 years ago, he was constantly baffling the natives by saying things that weren’t quite right, but with impeccable pronunciation. My Spanish is occasionally that way.

      I think sometimes people ignore my mistakes because I make them so fluidly that they don’t believe they heard what they heard. It’s like the time I accidentally wore mismatched shoes to work; I made and held eye contact with the few people I encountered in the hall, and that kept them from looking down.

      • Yes, at times it does pay to just step on the verbal gas and see where the car goes. Oh, and so much of the communication is done, here at least and I suspect in Latin America, with the hands and ‘grimaces. I can spot all the Hebrew speakers in a crowded airport terminal just by sight.
        Ok, Google translate liked your ‘burnt doll-baby’ version just fine, except for substituting ‘How to’ for ‘Like’ in their reverse trans. Odd that hebrew’s ‘like’ (as in ‘similar to’) is also ‘c’mo’ , of course with our typical lack of an initial vowel, who needs ’em, ha. Anyway, it’s one word I never needed to work to remember
        I do love your writings on language. To me it’s about the sexiest job around, right up there with being a performing musician. I’m sure you can see the parallels.

        • I should have put “Es” at the beginning of that phrase to turn it into a sentence, and Google wouldn’t have been confused. The question word “how” would have an accent on the first O:

          Language and music are both very satisfying. Your music is mostly about language anyway.

  2. i find your career to be quite amazing and i can only imagine how much it opens up a wide world before you. i am glad you got this job and that it’s keeping you busy.

    that being said, your improvisation is inspiring – as opposed to the guy who was doing obama’s sign language translation. that was just strange.

    • I was once interpreting and the speaker was startled by the audience chuckling when he hadn’t said anything funny. I was reading the PowerPoint slide as I interpreted, and I interjected, “apoyo with double L?” “Apoyo” means support but the speaker had done his own translation and spelled it “apollo” which resembles the word “pollo” or ‘chicken’.

      It would be fun sometime to provide an interpretation that has nothing to do with the speech being given.

  3. ordinarybutloud says:

    Such an interesting job. It’s great that you can see your work lying around. I hope that happens to me some day. 😀

  4. That’d be fun, finding past work in unexpected places, and knowing that it’s in widespread use. I don’t know anything at all about your field, but I’m guessing that a guy who’s meticulous about tile setting is probably just as meticulous about sentence fragments so you’re probably very, very good at what you do.

    • I’m the most meticulous translator I know, at least with written material. In interpreting, I’m not as meticulous because I focus more on getting the meaning across than with including every meaningless thing that comes out of the speaker’s mouth. For instance, “In the name of all of my esteemed colleagues I want to thank you for this fine presentation, and I would like to ask the following question: What, in your considered and well-informed opinion, is the true significance of…” might become “Thanks for the presentation. What do you think of…”

  5. It’s amazing your ability to rapid fire interpret. Today, I was able to attend an assembly at the bilingual elementary school where I will be finishing out the year. The music teacher spoke in English, then interpreter spoke following her. It was amazing. Not being anywhere close to fluent, but understanding well enough that it was quite a marvelous feat to translate after a whole twenty some sentences of speech! I don’t know how the gal did it, but it was impressive and inspiring. I am not working with bilingual students though – i wish! =)

    It’s so wonderful how Alicia sharpens you too — I’m sure you do the same for her language skills too.

    Kudos! what a wonderful gift to have. I enjoyed this post.

    • Yeah, when the speaker rambles on and on, and you’re interpreting consecutively, you have to have a good memory. Consecutive translators often do a lot of summarizing.

      Thank you. Alicia has been wonderful for me. Unfortunately I haven’t taught her English. We just use Spanish all the time.

  6. You job sounds so interesting and fun! And I know you are good, and meticulous, at it!
    It sounds like you have to be quick thinking! That will keep your brain healthy!
    So did your growing-up years prepare you and give you and interest in your current job?!
    It’s so cool that Alicia is a help..she will keep you sharp! 🙂
    HUGS for both of you and Happy Mother’s Day to Alicia! 🙂

    • My family spoke better Spanish than most of the other missionaries, primarily because we lived in the community instead of on a commpound. My earliest memories are of my childhood in a jungle town where we were the only English speakers.

      After we moved to the city, I always paid close attention when there was a visiting English-speaking preacher and someone had to interpret. Most of the time, the interpreters were quite good, but occasionally there were mistakes. In college, I got interested in translation as a possible career, but didn’t start doing it professionally until I was almost 40.

  7. I thought of that as I read a elisha sparkling water company lychee ramune/soda/beverage can. it clearly reads “carbonated carbon dioxide.” i would sure hope so! is all I can laughingly say. I swear it is like someone translated it then then again back and forth .

  8. How interesting to read of your work as a translator. I’ve done a couple of written translations and found them time consuming. Often the reason was – as you found – there was not a word in Spanish for the term I was searching for. Simultaneous translation I find almost impossible as my brain gets stuck in one language and doesn’t want to shift back and forth – more than once I found myself speechless! You have my admiration.

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