Thursday, 30 August 2012

Translation v interpreting: Freelance translator / interpreter Lara Warburton explains how to spot the differences

Translation and interpreting - they're the same thing, aren't they? No! They're very different: but how exactly do they differ? In this article, Interpret the Future team member Lara Warburton analyses the main factors that distinguish the two activities. She also provides an insider's view of the different skills required and the subtle differences in character between translators and interpreters.


A: Translation deals with written texts, while interpreting is spoken. People sometimes use the word translation to mean one, both, or either of the above, but I think it's a significant distinction to make, if only from the point of the skills involved. 


Language differences go beyond words
Speakers of different languages perceive the world in different ways, and for this reason, languages don't map onto each other word-for-word, or even concept-for-concept. For example, westerners imagine time as horizontal, with the future ahead and the past behind. Chinese speakers, on the other hand, imagine time as vertical, with the past above and the future below. So a translator is dealing with the translation not only of words but of perceptions of the world.

Apart from different perceptions of the world, languages also have their preferred styles of expression. For example, flowery, convoluted language is considered beautiful in French but ridiculous in English, while simple, direct language is considered satisfying and organised in English but brutal and primitive in French.


a) Skills
A translator is above all a writer. She (because more often than not it is a she!) understands what the original writer is trying to express, and then expresses that in the target language, in a style which sounds natural in that language. This will often require some adjustments of style, vocabulary, and structure. The translator is, in essence, creating a new text. For this reason, a translator is, above all, a writer, and is discouraged from translating into anything other than her mother tongue. 

An example: An advert for a restaurant in France publicised the smoking room, where customers could "se donner au plaisir de fumer" - which is a very French concept. No English restaurant would ever talk about a room where you could "give yourself over to the pleasure of smoking". If anything, it would say something like "we are slightly embarrassed to inform you that we have a Room of Shame, where you can sneak a guilty cigarette." So the whole concept of the text doesn't really transfer into English, let alone the individual words, and it takes a skilled writer to make it sound convincing.

b) Character
Translators are solitary creatures, perfectionists who spend inordinate amounts of time at their computers, rewriting and polishing every sentence and researching the topic of the text. Translators also tend to specialise in a specific field - medical, industrial, certificates, etc. 


a) Types of interpreting

Public services interpreting (also called community interpreting) is used in situations such as medical appointments, applying for welfare, court cases, etc. The interpreter is the intermediary between two or more parties, working in both directions between the languages. This overlaps with business interpreting, which is a similar process used but in business contexts.

Conference interpreting is divided into consecutive interpreting (taking notes while listening to a speech, and then giving the speech in the other language) and simultaneous interpreting (speaking at the same time as the speaker).

In conference interpreting, in the majority of cases, the interpreter works into her mother tongue only, because this is the language in which we are most in control and best able to express subtleties of tone and shades of meaning.

Lara interpreting at the Social Business Forum, Milan 2012

b) The process
Just as a translator is first and foremost a writer, an interpreter is first and foremost a public speaker. Her job is not to say “what the speaker said”, because, as we know, that is generally awkward-sounding and frequently impossible. The interpreter’s job is to tell the listeners what the speaker is talking about, and to do it in natural-sounding, eloquent language.

The process is as follows:

(a)   Listen actively to what the speaker is saying. (Try and listen actively to someone for three minutes yourself and you’ll see how unnatural it is.)

(b)   Analyse the speaker’s ideas – not what the speaker is saying, but what he or she means.

(c)   Analyse the structure of the speech, paying careful attention to links – words such as and, but, however, in addition, in conclusion, etc., which signpost the direction that the speech is taking and make it easier for the listener to follow.

Part of the analysis of the structure is differentiating between major and minor ideas (you don’t want to over-emphasise a passing point, nor do you want to detract from an important point), identifying repetition and deciding whether it is important, and establishing the function of the idea within the speech – is it to emphasise the last point, to provide a contrast, to start a new topic…?

You also have to be on guard for contradictions. Speakers sometimes include contradictions intentionally, for example to express sarcasm or to quote somebody else’s viewpoint. So you need to decide whether it was intentional or accidental – and if you are sure it was accidental, you need to decide whether or not to correct it.

Above all, you need to understand – not just the words, but the intention behind those words. The interpreter’s job is to explain to the listeners what the speaker is talking about. And how can you hope to explain something to someone so that they understand if you don’t understand it yourself?

(d)   If you are working in consecutive, you need to take notes.

The notes are not a transcription of the speech. Apart from anything else, who can write that fast? You retain most of the speech in your memory, and the notes – symbols, abbreviations and short phrases – serve simply to jog your memory. (All the more reason to carry out a careful analysis of meaning and structure.) Fundamentally, your notes record the speaker’s ideas and not his words.

(e)   You now need to render the ideas, in a natural, controlled, elegant manner in your mother tongue. If you are speaking from notes, you need to develop the skill of converting a pageful of symbols and isolated words into eloquent speech. You also need to make sure you convey the speaker’s attitude – emotional, angry, neutral, sarcastic*. And if you are working in simultaneous, while you are doing speaking, you need to keep part of your brain free to be listening to and analysing the speech which is still coming in.

(*Note on sarcasm. Being sarcastic involves saying the opposite of what you mean, as in, “What a fantastic idea!” meaning “What a stupid idea!” This is not a universal concept . In many languages, if you say something, then that is precisely what you mean. It is not even universal within English. Americans, for example, do not make frequent use of sarcastic language.

It is a problem if the interpreter fails to recognise sarcasm. She could end up saying, “Yes, chairman, we absolutely agree with you, and we think these measures should be put in place immediately,” when the speaker really means, “That’s a dumb idea, chairman, and if we implement these measures, havoc will break out.”  Do you see the implications of working with ideas, not words?)

And of course, while you’re doing this, you must remember you are a public speaker, so you must not say “Um”, you must not self-commentate (as in, “Oh dear, I’ve lost my place. I’m not doing very well here!”), you must project your voice and engage with your listeners, you must maintain an appropriately formal register, and you must not start speaking until you can finish a sentence. Indeed, the interpreter’s version is often an improvement on the original, because it is an analysed, tidied-up version, and because the interpreter is a trained public speaker while the original speaker may not be.

c) Character
Interpreters, in contrast with translators, are not solitary creatures. They work consists of interacting with people. They are not perfectionists either, because they cannot afford to be. When you are giving a live speech, you cannot stop to go and do a bit of background research (you are supposed to have done all your research beforehand!), neither can you produce a second, polished, draft. In consecutive, you may be able to ask the speaker one or two questions if you have not quite caught something, but in simultaneous, you obviously cannot.

Another difference is that interpreters do not generally specialise in any field. They can be called upon to interpret in a meeting about anything. And when the speaker opens his mouth, there is no telling what is going to come out of it – and whatever comes out, the interpreter must be prepared to deal with it. For this reason, having a vast general knowledge is fundamental for an interpreter, and it is vital to study of the subject of the conference carefully beforehand.

Lara (centre) with the Interpret the Future team at the SBF

A frequently asked question. But, as you know by now, interpreters don’t work at the level of words but at the level of ideas.

If someone is talking to you in your language and you don’t catch a word, does that necessarily stop you understanding what they are telling you? Of course not. You can often still understand the idea, even if a word is missing.

There are several courses of action available if you miss a word. Frequently, the word itself is not crucial to the overall meaning. If somebody is speaking to you in your language and you miss a word, does that necessarily stop you understanding what they are telling you? Of course not. You fill in the gaps with logic and deduction. Otherwise, you can generalise – for example “Production increased by X per cent” can become “Production increased considerably”. You may choose to omit that section, continuing with the next idea, and then when the speaker repeats the elusive word – because if it is such a crucial word, he probably will repeat it – then you work the omitted information back in. And in some cases, the idea can be omitted entirely without doing any significant damage.

In the words of one interpreter I know: “People think that I work for months and months, doing conferences on all sorts of specialist subjects, and then one day, I don’t understand one word! If only!”

Lara Warburton is a freelance translator and interpreter. A native speaker of English she translates and interprets from French, Italian and Portuguese into English. She has experience in translating technical, journalistic, administrative and literary texts. Her interpreting experience includes providing simultaneous, consecutive and liaison interpreting in a range of situations including conferences and meetings. She is very familiar with public-services and charity-sector interpreting as well as in international business contexts.

Lara was a member of the Interpret the Future team which provided interpreting services at the Social Business Forum in Milan in June 2012.

With a BA (Hons) in Modern Languages and Translation and Interpreting Studies from the University of Salford (which included one year’s residence in Portugal and France), Lara also holds an MA in Conference Interpreting and Translation Studies from the University of Leeds, which is an AIIC-approved institution. She is a member of the Associate of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Having obtained her CELTA (Cambridge Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults), Lara has gained considerable experience in teaching English as a Foreign Language in a number of countries including Brazil and Italy.

Lara’s blog is both a lively and informative diary of her impressions of the countries she has lived in (Zimbabwe, the UK, Portugal, France and Italy, etc) as well as a cultural and linguistic voyage of discovery. You can also follow her on Twitter: @larawarburton

You can contact Lara by sending her an email to:

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