Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Interpreting, translating and explaining

I admire the work of simultaneous translators, sitting in cabins throughout long and often technical conferences. Equally at home with renewable energy, healthcare reform or financial markets regulation, the interpreter will charge along at the speed of the expert speaker, rendering an accurate Polish (or English) version of the often-ad libbed speech, delivered in English (or Polish).

As a regular moderator of seminars, forums or conferences, I will slip on an ear-piece to the check the quality of what's being interpreted, and more often than not I will be amazed by what I hear. The sheer speed of the interpreters' minds, at being able to turn what's being said in one language into another, is impressive. I'm left thinking - I couldn't do that. "Such an elegant turn of phrase." "Wow! I'd forgotten that word!" "Goodness - I never knew that!"

So whenever I'm signing off a seminar, I always remember to thank the interpreters along with the organisers, hosts, sponsors, and speakers. Simultaneous translation is a high art, and simply knowing two languages does not mean you can do it. Years of experience are needed. I've met interpreters who've done Polish-English for heads of state, members of the Royal Family or prime ministers, and was struck by their humility; they stay in the background rather than try to let their egos shine. An interpreter trying to be a bigger star than the politician or business leader he's translating for will not go far in his career.

I haven't the aptitude to be an interpreter. Translating the written word is a different matter. It's not about instant, there's more time to reflect. My mind is not good at spur-of-the-moment; with me, the penny drops after a while. Whether it's articles or longer pieces, I enjoy the challenge; in particular getting the tone and nuances right. I'll let you into a little secret - these days, I start off copying and pasting into Google Translate, then I spend time getting it right, buffing and polishing the words until they shine. I only translate from Polish into English. My Polish is nowhere near good enough ever be the target language; for me it can only be the source language. Good translation is all about style and tone; the rhythm must be right in the target language. It must sound right to another native speaker when read out aloud. [Deeper thoughts about the subject here]

To translate might not require the same instantaneous presence of mind that interpreting does, but it should still be done quickly. No room here for etymological asides or historical diversions. Get to the point Mr Dembinski, turn those sentences around - we're not in a classroom here, this translation is needed now.

I have learnt that explanations are best left to your students, to the classroom. For those who are genuinely curious as to why it's this and not that, those who require deeper insight into the structure and meaning of language. (And here, more often than not, the internet is a great source of back-up knowledge.) At school, I was taught that there were five verbs of incomplete predication - to be, to look, to appear, to become, to seem. Nonsense! These are all indeed verbs of incomplete predication, but there's more than five ('to sound', for example). What's a verb of incomplete predication? You can't just say 'I become.' You must complete the sentence with an adjective; 'I become happy'. Why not 'I become happily'? 'Happily' is an adverb, adverbs describe verbs (I walk happily). But then 'to walk' is not a verb of incomplete predication... I hope I've explained that clearly!

Clearly. Clarity. Clarity is all - whether you are interpreting, translating or explaining. Communicating clearly what's in your mind to another person. If we could all do that well, the world would be a less exasperating place. Edit. Edit what you're writing - make it sharper, more to the point. And when you're about to speak - edit (in your mind) - get to the point, don't beat about the bush. All this, I have learnt. Or learned.

This time last year:
More than just an Iluzjon

This time two years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time four years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready


Kolin S. Murray said...

I learned an interesting trick from a simultaneous interpreter - useful for that moment when one sneezes, coughs, lapses in attention, or simply doesn't know how to translate a word or phrase. Scrape a toothbrush (part of your interpreter's toolkit) across your microphone for a moment. Sound just like a little static or radio interference on the radio! Oops!

Bob said...

Kolin - great idea!

Michael, I remember when we had a person doing live translation of CNN in 1991 in Poland. The toughest thing for him was American sports - in baseball there is a play called stealing a base - he was confounded and made it sound as though the base runner was a thief and stole a base. Quite funny.

Michael Dembinski said...

Bob - Brits fund American sports jargon impenetrable too. I'm reading William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and it's peppered with phrases like "Monday quarterbacking", "spitballing", "World Series playoffs" etc. Two nations divided by a common language indeed.

student SGH said...

Excellent musings!

Sorry for the delay - was kind of more than busy over the week...

Anonymous said...

God, no. The toothbrush is a joke, and a cruel one. I am a professional simul interpreter and you must never touch you mic. Or maybe the person who told you that just has great sense of humor!