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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Philip Macdonald photoThe first job I ever had in the language business was interpreting a meeting between an American businessman and the management team of a French company in the mid-1970s. Things kicked off in a rather unpromising manner. The American came across as surly and uncooperative as the French chitchatted about all sorts of topics. After an unrewarding first few minutes, the French CEO, who was obviously trying to break the ice, told me “let our dear guest know that we will be having lunch in an excellent restaurant.” Delighted at the idea of a gourmet lunch, I conveyed this information but the American suspiciously asked: “will wine be served”? I suddenly realized that he was expecting their talks to focus on the nuts and bolts of their projected deal and lunch to consist of a sandwich and a Coke, and celebrations to be held at the end of the day after the agreement had been wrapped up. He was worried that these dodgy foreigners were setting him up. For his French counterparts, what mattered most was establishing a friendly and trusting relationship and expected the nitty-gritty to take care of itself. Sadly, I failed to realize that I needed to convince him that he was not dealing with devious Frenchmen out to rip him off.

What we must avoid is a situation where the interpreter / translator tries to steal the show.
At the time, I would have been astounded to learn I would eventually become a translator and subsequently a conference interpreter. Some twenty years later, notwithstanding, I was weighing up the pros and cons of investing—in every sense of the word—in translation as a profession. One question nagged me: would computers soon do away with the need for human translators? A book clinched the argument as far as I was concerned: Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores.


“Speak English! I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!”

A fundamental argument it propounded as to why computers could never replace humans in this field, in any event without the cost being prohibitive, was that language is intrinsically context-bound. At least that’s how I would explain its philosophical standpoint derived from Heidegger in particular, i.e. language is deictic. I wonder how many people have just groaned and stopped reading this paper. Don’t worry, I do not intend to discuss Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (being-in-the-world), not that I could by the way—I am simply interested in the practical consequences of this viewpoint for translators and interpreters.

Deixis “is reference by means of an expression whose interpretation is relative to the (usually) extra-linguistic context of the utterance” (http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsDeixis.htm). For the sake of simplicity, the most obvious deictic words are I, you, he, she, this, and so forth, as opposed to that, there, now, etc. Furthermore, deixis includes the likes of the time or place of speaking, and accordingly tenses, the gestures of the speaker and ways of expressing social distinctions. In this respect, think of the difference in many Indo-European languages between familiar and polite second person pronouns. I am going to focus in this paper on one aspect of the context for translators and interpreters: the audience we work for.

There are obvious differences between translating and interpreting. To state the obvious, translators have time to look up words or phrases, or fine-tune their output, and are consequently expected to be as accurate as possible. Interpreters, by contrast, need to think on their feet. Understandably, interpreters will sometimes skip information given in the source language or paraphrase what has been said. When I interpret at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, a rewarding and challenging work by the way, the court stenographer is transcribing everything I say. When you are interpreting the cross-questioning of a victim of gang rape who has been diagnosed with HIV, the need to be accurate as possible while not letting emotion affect your performance results in great pressure and there is very little room for maneuver.

As a result of the foregoing, it is often claimed that interpreters frequently do not make very good translators. As an interpreter, I am constantly using shortcuts; while translating conversely requires obsessively trying to understand what a chunk of text means or reworking the phrasing or style of my translation. It could be argued, on the other side of the ledger, that interpreters are less prone to get fixated on a specific word and tend to concentrate on the author’s actual meaning. For example, at an International Rugby Board meeting, the debate became rather heated. The English-speaking delegates usually kicked off by saying “Through the Chair.” Now this is a very “English” phrase. The important point is that respect is conveyed by depersonalizing comments made in debate. Consider the following excerpt: “I would like to caution the hon. member for Richmond Hill to address his questions through the Chair, in the third person, to the minister” (http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/P...arl=39&Ses=1). In this case, at times I didn’t translate the phrase since French rugby officials would hardly use it or its equivalent in such a context, while I sometimes said in French at the beginning of an intervention “I really don’t want to make this into a personal issue,” according to what was going on.

There were several examples, on the other hand, of excellent work by translators at one of the most interesting translation conferences I have attended, i.e. the three-day ”université d’été de la traduction financière” sponsored by the French national translators’ association SFT in La Rochelle, France, in July 2002. In her “Comments on the client round table” (http://www.jostrans.org/issue01/art_durban.pdf) Chris Durban quoted a striking example: “translators had recast a fund manager’s coy reference to Karl Marx and investment advice in early spring ( Mars, l’accumulation primitive du capital), to propose a simpler “Make hay while the sun shines”.” The client, a French banker, agreed this was far more likely to “speak” to his global audience than the initial wink and nod. Indeed, this is translating at its best and likely required quite a lot of thinking over. By contrast, the customer said a British translator had stumbled in rendering the heading Zero pointé as a would-be clever ”Out for a duck.” Nice try, said this French banker, but cricket terms mean nothing to investors in Arizona, and the target readership of the English version was global. Likewise, many interpreters know the true story about an eminent colleague who was working from French into English and vice versa. At one point, an English speaker used another cricket phrase and talked about how their company had “hit our competitors for a six.” The interpreter referred to the Tour de France and said “we have taken the yellow jersey.” To his horror, the next French speaker started off by saying that along with every other French person there he deeply appreciated the kindness of his English colleague who had gone out of his way to refer to one of France’s main sporting events…

As far as interpreters are concerned, the foregoing raises issues they constantly have to grasp with. How do you deal with humor or swearing for instance? In both cases, the issue clearly relates to how you adapt to your audience. Recently, at a seminar, one of the participants told me how amusing it was for him to laugh with other English-speaking members of the audience ten seconds after their French-speaking colleagues had. What he didn’t realize was that as an interpreter I am keen on getting the people who are listening to me to laugh if the rest of the audience has. However, all too often puns, for example, are untranslatable. A well-known interpreter is famous for her solution: she tells her listeners that the speaker has just made an appalling/untranslatable joke and they really should laugh to keep her/him happy. The trick usually works. When I can, I prefer to come up with my own dreadful joke.


“Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

For example, I was once interpreting at a European Works Council meeting for a CAC 40 company. The Hungarian interpreters dawdled back after a coffee break and the French secretary was told there was no Hungarian interpretation of what was being said. He came up with a ghastly play on words: “ Hongrois [on croIt] que les interprètes hongrois ne sont pas revenus de la pause.” I reacted by saying: “Are the Hungarian interpreters there? Knock, knock. Anybody home? Lord Lucan?” To my delight the British and Irish delegates roared with laughter. I regularly work as an interpreter for this EWC and I know and get on very well with the English-speaking delegates who are also by the way more or less my age. In other words, I knew they would get the joke. Furthermore, since these meetings last three to four days, we get to socialize with delegates. One of the key phrases in this EWC’s jargon in French is “espace de dialogue social.” English translations talk about a “social dialogue structure.” Talking with the delegates while having a cigarette with them (smoking can be good for your interpreting), I noticed that they freely used an acronym, i.e. SDS. Believe me, as a simultaneous interpreter, being able to say “SDS” in the knowledge that my listeners will immediately understand is a blessing since it saves something like a second and a half every time. In other words, more frequently than translators, interpreters can get to know the people they are working for and adapt their output accordingly.

In the case of swearing, something more likely to occur when people are talking than when they are writing, the rule of thumb for interpreters is to say something that is one degree less coarse than what the speaker has said. Once more, notwithstanding, it all depends on the audience. If I am interpreting for a conference of macroeconomists who are mainly non-native speakers, and the speaker in exasperation says “ Je lui ai dit d’aller se faire foutre,” I would interpret “I told him to go and jump in the lake.” But at the EWC meeting I mentioned above, I would not think twice and use the notorious four-letter word Woody Allen paraphrased by “go forth and be fruitful” in one of his films as the English-speaking unionists use it all the time.


“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”

Similarly, we can also face the murky problem of the speaker’s intentions. For example, a CFO talking at a European Works Council may come across as tedious, muddled and/or excessively technical (bringing to mind the chartered accountant in Monty Python’s “Lion Tamer” sketch). Obviously, as an interpreter, I should try to convey his message in a user-friendly manner, even though doing so may require paraphrasing in order to avoid financial jargon, and so forth. This would be similar to a translator tidying up a poorly written text. Nonetheless, you could have a situation where he may well be deliberately trying to bore the pants off his audience and kill time to ensure the trade unionists don’t start asking pesky questions.

I will illustrate my point by quoting at length from an excellent book, Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short” (pages 217-9). Anybody who still worships at the altar of the awe-inspiring God called “The Invisible Hand” should read it by the way. As the subprime crisis broke out, the CEO of Morgan Stanley talked with investors in a conference call. As Lewis comments “It’s too much to expect the people who run big Wall Street firms to speak plain English, since so much of their livelihood depends on people believing that what they do cannot be translated into plain English.” Now imagine you are an interpreter and you hear this:

John Mack: “Bill, look, let’s be clear. One, this trade was recognized and entered into our accounts. Two, it was entered into our risk management system. It’s very simple. When these got, it’s simple, it’s very painful, so I’m not being glib. When these guys stress loss the scenario on putting on this position, they did not envision… that we could have this degree of default, right. It is fair to say that our risk management division did not stress those losses as well. It’s just simple as that. Those are big fat tail risks that caught us hard, right. That’s what happened. (…) I think VaR is a very good representation of liquid trading risk. But in terms of the (inaudible) of that, I am very happy to get back to you on that when we have been out of this, because I can’t answer that at the moment.”

As Lewis emphasizes, the problem is not that the deep complexity of bond trading requires such arcane terminology. In reality, “(…) not only had (Mack) failed to grasp what his traders were up to, back when they were up to it, he couldn’t even fully explain what they had done after they had lost $9 billion.” A crucial factor for you the interpreter has to be: who is your employer. If you are working for Morgan Stanley, tough luck: all you can hope to do is add a thin veneer of meaningfulness without actually saying what the CEO is hinting at without admitting it, i.e. nobody had a clue, including the traders, of the risks his star bond traders were running. However, if you are interpreting for a financial analyst with whom you work quite often and get on well with, you might consider adding something on the lines of “If what I’m saying doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s because it doesn’t.”

In fact, as interpreters can in some cases chat with the people they are working for, they can acquire useful “background” or “contextual” information. You can tailor your output to fit your audience. You can sometimes ask a speaker what something you have not understood in his/her presentation means. You can work out what kind of English speakers are following the proceedings via your interpretation. Another issue probably concerns interpreters more often than translators: quite frequently the speakers are not using their native language. I once had a German banker who talked several times about “a sober balance sheet” and helped out my bemused colleague who doesn’t speak German and didn’t know the German word sauber by whispering “clean balance sheet.” Such problems evidently do arise for translators though. Last year, I worked on a huge job for which a team of translators were translating into French a web site written in English by Danes. The agency set up a forum on the internet for the people working on the project and one of the first decisions taken was to translate “actual” by “effectif ” in French. I started having doubts and since they are an excellent agency they managed to get access to the German web site and I saw that nine times out of ten “actual” was “aktuell” in German, i.e. “current” in English. In fact, we came to realize that a lot of the stuff we were translating was written in what can be described only as “Danglish.” Accordingly, we often had to decipher the “English” version to work out what was really meant.

By consequence, we can also ask ourselves: “who is writing/speaking”? Should they be doing so in English for instance? Not so long ago, during a coffee break, I went up to a Colombian who was taking part in a seminar and, as tactfully as I could, suggested that since the French and English interpreters could all work from Spanish he might want to speak in his mother tongue. Not only did he heartily agree but his colleague jumped in to ask “So can I speak in Spanish too?” She was going to give her paper in English but had been dreading the idea. Alack, not everybody is willing to consider the idea that they would be better off NOT speaking in English as interpreters know all too well. Another issue can be: who has translated similar texts beforehand? I did a huge job for the French Navy soon after beginning to work as a translator. My client called me to complain that my translations “were too English.” Previously, he had used French speakers and pointed out that my texts were radically different from their admittedly literal translations and asked me to use more of a “word-for-word” approach. In fact, his stance did make sense. If you have 500 manuals written in French with English words put on top, it hardly makes sense to have one written in English as we know it.

I would suggest that this line of thought is also of crucial importance for translators. There is a tendency to overlook the need to work out who our readers are. Note that this viewpoint resembles the one defended in “Dire quasi la stessa cosa” by Umberto Eco. Although he is talking about literary translations, he argues that translating consists in negotiating, i.e. finding one of the many solutions that strikes a balance, for example, between the author’s intention and the reader’s cultural background. He illustrates his point by saying that he suggested to his English translator working on Foucault’s Pendulum to translate “Lo supponevo” by “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Eco explains that the phrase is well known by Italians of his generation: a policeman systematically answered in this way when he was told something he found obvious in a comic strip people of Eco’s age know very well.

Conversely, I am often struck by the use of colloquial words or phrases in translations of “academic” papers. If the overall tone of a paper is very formal, why do some translators use contractions such as “isn’t” or vernacular expressions like “for sure”? If you are translating a text that is aimed at Globish speakers, your text should not be chock a block with bits only English native speakers could be expected to understand. If you are translating a financial analyst’s note aimed at investors focused on the French real estate market, there may be no need to explain what the “Loi Scellier” is. If the Act pops up in a macroeconomic paper discussing the state of the French economy, it might be useful to let your readers know what it consists in. Likewise, when I am translating an analyst’s note from French to English, the typical sort of sentence that reads “the upward trend in sales was confirmed in the second quarter” in French will turn into “sales jumped from $2,650,753 to $2,987,127 in Q2” in my translation and the figures come from the Chart just below in the note. I remember reading somewhere that Freud worked as a translator of medical books and articles when finishing his studies. He explained that he would read a paragraph, go to his comfy armchair, grab his pipe and ask himself “how would a German-speaking doctor write that”? You get my drift: hardly any English-speaking financial analyst would talk about an “upward trend” in this context and many of them would quote the actual figures. Roman Jakobson summed it up by stating that we translate messages and not words. Such an idea may seem obvious but I would argue that we forget it all too often—I know I do.

In a nutshell, working as an interpreter highlights the need to take into account the audience one’s output is aimed at as well as the characteristics of the speaker/writer. We cannot translate/interpret in a vacuum, merely taking into account the source speech act. Translators need to factor in this dimension, insofar as possible, to make sure their work is tailored to their clients’ needs, knowledge and linguistic capability. Increasingly, for example, they will have to deal with the problem of texts written in English, for instance, by non-native speakers while interpreters face this problem all too frequently since people will more easily speak in public in another language than try to write in it.

The ideas I have outlined in this paper are, to a large extent, in agreement with Skopos theory (skopos is the Greek word for aim or purpose,” cf. “Translating Publicity Texts in the Light of the Skopos Theory: Problems and Suggestions” by Wang Baorong in Translation Journal, Volume 13, No. 1, January 2009, for a description of this theory). This is hardly surprising since Skopos theory focuses on translation as a service ordered and paid for by a client, in contrast with translation of literature. It therefore looks at the prospective function of the target text as influenced by the customer’s needs and the end-user’s culture, linguistic ability, expectations, and so forth. Accordingly, Skopos theory does not reduce translating/interpreting to striving to achieve equivalence with another text in another language and describes it as a decision-making process—freeing it from the exclusive need to remain loyal to the original speech act and putting the onus on meeting the needs of our customers.

To sum up, what we must avoid is a situation where “the interpreter/translator who is speaking/writing” tries to steal the show. Our Ego is in fact a dangerous enemy. I was embarrassed to read in David Jemlietyl’s key speech at the 2010 ATA conference that overused words in English translations of French Annual Reports “include, surprisingly, finance jargon such as “year-on-year” and “like-for-like”.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa: I plead guilty as charged. Using such phrases in reports aimed at financial analysts makes sense, but Annual Reports are not exclusively meant to be read by financial experts. I wonder up to what extent I have not sinned by wanting to show off when doing so.

At least I didn’t feel any such feeling of shared guilt when I read a comic strip portraying an extreme case of an interpreter putting his interest ahead of his professional obligations. You first saw a Rambo-like G.I. speaking to a group of elderly Afghans. He told them that the Americans had come to make sure they could live in liberty, free of any tyranny, ensure their youth could get a great education and everybody would enjoy the benefits of a free and prosperous society. He broke off to say that his friend, the interpreter, would now translate what he had told them. The rather shifty looking interpreter simply asked: “How much money have you got?”


Published - January 2013












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