When the foreign language speaker and the interpreter don’t use the same terminology.

November 19, 2012 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Although this is not new, it seems to me that technological advances and globalization have generated a more hybrid sui-generis type of terminology that is practically used and applied all over the world.  We had always seen certain terms and expressions cross-over to languages other than their original, but it was not as pervasive as it is now.

In the last few months I have interpreted conferences on many topics where the translation of a word or term we find in the dictionary has nothing to do with the ones used by the native speakers I am interpreting for. In fact, the word in the dictionary is not even known to them.  Of course, the overwhelming majority of these cases have to do with the English language and scientific terminology, but not all.

When confronted by this real-life situation the interpreter needs to decide how to interpret a word, a term and a concept. I have seen some of my colleagues go with the dictionary and use the term in the books, others have chosen the foreign language better-known term. This is not a mere academic distinction as the interpreter is faced with a very serious question for all linguists: Do you select the correct term in the foreign language and educate the listener when he does not recognize the term in his native language, or you adopt the English term and use it just like the foreign language speakers do?  To me this fork on the road is a no-brainer; I always go with the expedient efficient live language, so I use the English or anglicized term that those listening to my rendition understand, even if it is not in the dictionary.  I believe that our role as interpreters is to allow foreign language speakers to receive information as if it were provided in their native language. This way they can concentrate on the substance of the presentation, proposal, or lecture instead of having to divide their attention between their real scientific job and learning new vocabulary in their native language.  I know some colleagues disagree. They think that as interpreters our first loyalty is to the word. They also believe that it is important to point out the real words in a foreign language so that language is preserved for the future.  I don’t find this latter approach useful to the listener who is counting on me to “hear” what he is being told in another language.  Please share your comments and let us know what you think about this issue.

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§ 13 Responses to When the foreign language speaker and the interpreter don’t use the same terminology.

  • Agata McCrindle says:

    I agree with you. Interpreters role is to transfer the meaning. We are not there to “translate word for word” – there is no such thing.

  • Sasha says:

    Once upon a time there was this very colorful person who insisted on using the words Wishful thinking without realizing the true, vocabulary, sense. But all of us knew what he really meant and delivered his message. I think many of my colleagues still miss him…

  • jocelyne marchand says:

    an example would have been useful

  • cynthia says:

    Interesting. Could you give us a few examples?

  • Thanks for the interesting topic. I teach community interpreting and I teach my students that in most cases they would probably use for instance “folketrygden” and not something more or less equivalent in their source language (Social Security in this case) and if necessary ask the clerk/official/agent to clarify. We do this because the users of the service is often not helped with the approximate translation, they are more likely to need the exact term used in this context. Now, the difference between “folketrygden” and the Social Security may not be too big between Norway/Sweden and the UK for instance, but if Kunami or Amhari is you mother tongue then your understanding of social security, if it exist at all in your mother tongue, may be very different.

  • jeff says:

    Language is always changing and evolving; meanings change. A geek used to be a circus performer that bit the heads off of animals. Now a geek is a nerd. Interpreters cannot be stiff, we need to adjust to the lingual flow. That flow is determined by the speech of common men.

  • Edgar says:

    I agree completely, interpreting is the meaning which is important but of course in a Court this could be a bit tricky.

  • Ivelina Vaykova says:

    It is easy, when the audience knows already something about the topic. Even if I use a new word they do understand the meaning and co-operate. But in the case when the native language has more the one term for the same word? I had the problem when only two men were in front of the device, both competent, both native speakers, but from different universities. They did agree with all the information, but not with the basic term!

  • I agree wholeheartedly with using the term the audience is familiar with, because, like you do, I believe my first responsibility is towards the listeners. Anything I can do to make communication run smoothly, I will do.
    I believe language preservation and adaptation is better served through translation, since the written word remains and allows the reader to think and interpret.

  • Ivanka says:

    Hi! Thanks to everyone participating, as topic really interesting.
    I was a school teacher of English, so it was obligatory to teach pupils to use correct English words.
    Now i am an interpreter working for Danish company, It is very interesting and a bit challenge to find a compromise between duty (correct translation) and willing to help others to be understood (as it influence on production process).
    As for my experience (depends on situation and target) you can implement correct word usage in your translation/ interpreting with kind of short explanation. It is working.
    e.g. Danish ammeso/ English nursing sow. But still in production line often was used Danish equivalent even when people were talking Ukrainian language as we have no precise word or word combination reflecting the meaning of it. But when you start to use it in your translating/interpreting Danish speakers start to use it as they want to improve their English literacy too.

  • Sharon Cole says:

    I find this article VERY interesting and challenging. I do agree that as an interpreter our role is, essentially, to convey the meaning from one language to another and to easy understanding, provided that the understanding is mutual from linguistic parties. I hope I’ve put that one down clearly. What I intend is that, whether foreignizing or domesticating a term , we need to make sure that the target audience is following the rendition without any interruptions, and that the language is flawless and adheres to the basic meaning of the information communicated in the source language. I believe that there is no “right” or wrong” translation, merely different versions of translations. It depends on the interpreter and on the style s/he uses. Words do have a conventional meaning which is established in dictionaries, however, words also have an interactive purpose which the professional ought to recognize and the translate/interpret/mediate. Point is that, it’s all relative 🙂
    interpreting services

  • Bozena Gilewska says:

    A very interesting article and discussion.
    I agree that the interpreter’s role is to convey the meaning from one language to another without any interruptions. It’s probably not a good time to divide the listeners’ attention by introducing a new word for them to learn. Most conference audiences are very familiar with the subject area and the issues being presented. However, sometimes one unfamiliar word can be detrimental to following the presentation. Some explanation may be necessary.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    Very relevant topic to my work–I was thinking about this issue just this week.

    As an example I interpreted at a deposition recently where a lot of construction terms were being used by the deponent and in many instances his vocabulary in Spanish included words adapted from the English of his coworkers on the job. So for instance he would say “concreto” instead of “hormigón” for “concrete” and “esquefo” instead of “andamio” for “scaffold” (the latter a new one to me). I was already familiar or able to guess at the meanings of the new hybrid terms in most cases, and so provide a smooth interpretation, but we ran into trouble at one point when he began referring to a “forklif” which is a pretty common adaptation of the English word “forklift” except that he was actually referring to a much smaller piece of machinery, a “lift dolly” or “hand truck.” Not knowing I went ahead and said “forklift” in English and it caused some puzzlement given the context. What a convoluted train of language evolution! I suppose some confusion is inevitable because the interpreter unless she works in the same field as the speaker is unlikely to know all the hybrid terms just as they are emerging and particularly when they are used imprecisely.

    In addition to wanting to provide a smooth and accurate rendition I sometimes also experience other concerns in this regard: the possibility of losing face with the English-speaking client who hears me using the hybrid terms that are obviously adapted from English, or struggling to decipher non-standard terms on the spot, and whether my attempts to use “correct” terms with the Spanish-speaker may leave that person feeling embarrassed. I’ve gotten more comfortable over the years with abandoning the traditional terms in order to “speak the language” of the individual so as to grease the wheels of our communication, but I find I will also alternate the terms in Spanish, just to keep myself comfortable as well. Perhaps this practice of alternating hybrid and traditional terms helps create a sturdier language bridge as well since it provides a kind of cross-checking to help ensure that the intended meaning is being conveyed accurately.

    In regards to the first concern, how it looks to the other parties to the conversation, occasionally when I must confer extensively with the speaker over these types of differences I will comment in English “We’re having a pot-ay-toes pot-ah-toes moment!” to indicate that we were sorting out some minor language discrepancies between our usages.

    I would imagine that conference interpreters do not engage in the same types of conversational dynamics as I do during a deposition or interview, which leads me to think they are more often guessing at which terms are going to be most readily understood. In that case, or when I am using simultaneous mode, I would just use the most standard, common terms I know.

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