Pity the court translator. Distrust the market research data. Ponder your Google translation.

Truly, things are lost and gained in translation. Translators, particularly those in possession of that highly prized ability to simultaneously translate are often exceptional in many ways. Frequently products of mixed tongue marriages or of highly peripatetic parents, or unusually linguistically talented.

Similtaneous translators can be in high demand and highly paid, particularly if they have mastered two less common, but commercially or diplomatically important different tongues: Norwegian into Arabic; Russian into Swahili

To translate usually means to repeat an idea, expression, or sentence from one language to another. The problems with translation are the issue of gist and comprehension.

President A proposes an idea to General B at a public forum where two translators are present. It is very important and they speak quickly. The translator’s job is to take the idiosyncratic, colloquial and diplomatic idiom of A to ensure B understands what s/he is saying. They try to deliver the gist of the message.

Translators like to get an indication that the message has not only been received loud and clear but also comprehended. Imagine the frustration of accurately, honestly, and very literally translating a sentence only to see the recipient clearly puzzled. Has the recipient not understood? Was there a problem with the translation? Should one start again and rephrase the sentence? The same idea, thought or proposal can be phrased very differently.

Court translators have to be very well trained. Judges and lawyers ask planned, specific and direct questions. The job of the translator is clear. Render it in the other language exactly. But what if the client is from another culture with a very different educational background, and appears not to understand? And how do you cope with irony or the fact that language A (English) may have half a dozen words of subtly different meaning from language B which has a quarter that number.

There are three no-no’s for the court translator.

The first is exemplify: that is to give (one or more) examples of the phrase or idea to ensure that the meaning is understood. But how prototypical are the examples? To what extent do they in fact convey a very different picture from the one intended.A common problem is differences in the meaning of acts in different cultures: the gift, the joke, the greeting.

Sin number two is to modify: that is, to modify the sentence in terms of the adjectives or sentence structure. Modification by using a slightly different word (=concept) which captures the meaning for the translator. Are you lying, dissimulating, or being economical with the truth? Words in different languages carry very different historical baggage. Was the uncle gay, homosexual or queer? Words are carriers of ideology and the sensitive translator may be tempted to modify ideas to make them more palatable.

The third sin is to simplify. Imagine the well-constructed, multi-clausal, legal question. “I put it to you, that, despite your sensory shortcomings and apparent emotional fragility at the time, you were quite able (if not willing) to identify in significant detail the facial physiognomy and demeanor of the accused”. Would there not be a temptation to say “Did you recognise the murderer”. The problem of simplification results from different levels of articulacy, between the two interlocutors. It can be the difference between formal and informal language; between educated precision-speak and less-educated colloquialism.

So to what extent is it the task of the translator to ensure that the message has come across, the recipient has understood?

Watch one of those border crossing programmes and you see in Australia and New Zealand the officials using a live translator over a speaker phone. Is this simply the result of economic forces? The translator at home, working on a call-by-call basis rather than hanging about at airports must make economic sense.

The vigilant, doubting immigration officer asks a question. The translator does the job. The accused looks angry, puzzled, guilty. Does he/she respond, at least in terms of eye contact, to the telephone (i.e. gazes at and pays exclusive attention to the voice of the translator) or with the immigration officer?

Perhaps seeing the non-verbal leakage of the accused makes it easier for the translator to avoid the sins of exemplify, modify and simplify? Not seeing how the recipient reacts may be an advantage.

And what of the sex of the translator and his/her accent? Does that matter? Do men speak differently from women? Sure do. So what does it sound like having ‘man talk’ coming from a diminutive woman? And then there is accent. What if the extremely competent translator has a strong accent – Mexican say, or West Indian? Does that make a difference?

But perhaps these problems will be solved by technology. Soon we will have software clever enough to do all this without any of the translator transgressions?

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