Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

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§ 22 Responses to Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

  • Bora Shpuza-Kasapolli says:

    Great topic and very accurate analysis. I have always felt that one cannot expect absolute coldness and total linguistic impartiality from an interpreter for exactly the same reasons laid out in the article. It is natural to expect changes, as meaning reaches the listeners through a human being, not through a machine, and different words are used to convey the same meaning. One excellent example is the translation/adaptation of idiomatic expressions from one language to another – quite an art in itself 🙂

  • Carmen M. says:

    Absolutely on target Bora, I would like suggestions exercises, of book/course/workshop/video for the interpretation/translation of idiomatic phrases, Spanish or language neutral. There is a great deal to learn about interpreting accurate anger, bias, aggression….equally difficult is to interpret for committed hearings for individuals who are on medication and/or not cognitively capable. Thank you.

    • Bora Shpuza-Kasapolli says:

      Unfortunately Carmen, I am unable to give you any actual suggestions as Spanish is not my language of specialty (I do Albanian-English/English-Albanian). I personally never went into it deeply, although the topic always fascinated me. The translation of idiomatic expressions is language-specific, and I have been able to figure out a few idioms on my own when need rose, but I’ve never gone deeper than that. Maybe I should… and, when I do, I will be sure to share stuff with you – for fun’s sake, if nothing else 🙂 It would be interesting, though, to compare with more than one language.

  • Diana Coada says:

    I agree will decisions except with the last one. I’m sorry, but if someone is insulting me while I’m trying to negotiate with them, I want to know it and I have every right to know it.

    So, as interpreters, it’s not our place to sugar-coat anything. When a party is actually saying ”You’re a woman and I don’t want to work with you” that’s what I’ll interpret.

    • Renata Korpak says:

      I agree with Diana 100%. While toning down when rendering an insult in another language may be necessary – as the only other choice sometimes is “overshooting”, i.e. using an equivalent term which could be perceived more offensive than the original – leaving out part of the message altogether is unacceptable, if you still want to call yourself an interpreter rather than an advocate, facilitator, negotiator or simply a fellow diplomat! While it may be flattering for the interpreter to think that negotiations did not falter thanks to him/her, our mission to help communication cannot go at the expense of the full message. Even a painful, seemingly rude or inappropriate statement may have a role in the overall picture – e.g. in the development of relations between the parties, be it at some later stage, possibly without our knowledge or participation. Apart from that, let us (interpreters) be wary of thinking that we understand the full meaning and implications of what we interpret. There may be more between the lines that we realise – there may be hints at some previous events, for example, in-jokes, or other indirect hidden messages providing additional information that we aren’t able to “read” but our client can. They will go through if we stick to our job.

  • Spot on and right on the money from a research perspective too. I would agree with absolutely all the decisions. I would put it all down to the skopos or purpose of the event and what you are being paid to do.

  • Marcia Pinheiro says:

    Look, what you say is extremely important. You say all with elegance and through examples that really teach. It all aligns with what I have been thinking. We could try to write a scientific paper about this.

    • There are already several papers on this. Here are a few accessible (ie. free to access) ones to start you off:
      Is Fidelity Ethical?. The Social Role of the Healthcare Interpreter, Andrew Clifford, TTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction, vol 17, issue 2, 2004, online at:
      On omission in simultaneous interpreting, Anthony Pym, Efforts and Models in Interpreting and Translation Research: a tribute to Daniel Gile, edited by Hansen et al, available on his website:
      Simultaneous interpreting: A functionalist perspective, Franz Poechhacker, Hermes, vol 14, 1995, available on google scholar.

      What we could really do with, I think, is a few more interpreters brave enough to publish this idea in professional publications such as the AIIC webzine and other association newsletters and to speak about it at conferences.

  • Bora Shpuza-Kasapolli says:

    I understand your point, Diana.

    Besides the interpreter’s personal professional tenets, it also depends a lot on the individual party (I’ve worked with judges who simply wanted the gist of what a witness or defendant was saying, and prosecutors who wanted every breath translated), as well as on the situation and the type of detail necessary for the achievement of the end in question.

    In my opinion, however, the ultimate purpose of interpretation is facilitating communication between parties, and if there is something that could thwart mutual understanding, something which, if omitted, will not have a detrimental or significant bearing on the outcome, then I would trade ‘faithfulness’ in favor of constructive (and culturally sensitive) conveyance of a message, which will serve its purpose anyway.

  • Great posting, Tony, as usual. Can you share the video of the military interpreter?

  • […] Dear colleagues: We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not…  […]

  • There is another circumstance where I usually add something. In the criminal courts, one is interpreting for people who are not exactly university professors and they rarely understand the concept of reported speech. If the question to a defendant is “Did XXX accuse you of stealing the item?” The answer usually is “I did NOT steal the item!”. So if I have to repeat the question due to the answer being wrong, much to the frustration of the judges and lawyers, I usually add “Listen carefully!”. This often does the trick, and especially if the language is Hebrew, no one else in the court notices.

  • isahudgins says:

    Interesting, Tony. As both a judicial and conference interpreter, I can certainly relate. My opinion is that in the legal realm we just have to “say it as it is”. Conference interpreting is another ballgame altogether.

  • hybridee says:

    Very enlightening piece. Thank you!
    For me, it all comes down to the type of work at hand. There have been times when I have toned down crude language that added nothing to what was being said (and my listener’s would not have cared to have relayed at full impact), and I have also used just as forceful counterparts in the target language when they were indeed part of the message.

  • […] To Shape One’s View Of The World Rules for Translators: Andrea Labinger (Spanish-English) Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything? The Emerging Literary Translators Network in America Now This Is How Translation Reviews Should Be […]

  • Roger Phillips says:

    I am a native English speaker and I have no idea what “three and two wuth two outs in the bottom of the nine” means. I think that concept also applies when communicating across English speaking cultures as well as other languages, something which our American friends often forget…

  • […] Bilingual English-Spanish blog on issues important to the professional interpreter. PUBLICACIONES …  […]

  • ester says:

    Is it possible to know something more aboute the episode you quoted above?
    “a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern”
    Thank you

  • […] “ Bilingual English-Spanish blog on issues important to the professional interpreter. PUBLICACIONES …”  […]

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