Lost in translerpretation

That I don’t know the right word in my native tongue shows how fraught this activity can be. I’ve googled ‘journalist translator’ and other variations of these words for weeks. The results are not what I’m looking for. Finally one link takes me to another and I realise my problem: what I’m trying to understand is the process of working with an interpreter. Although related, translator and interpreter are two different things. So just in case you’re as naïve as me, let’s get this difference sorted: a translator works with a printed text and translates it into a different language (also of printed text), an interpreter works in an interpersonal situation interpreting real-time speech from one language to the other.

Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.
Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.

Nic Low, Manager of the International Writing Program at Asialink, says the process of working with an interpreter can be challenging. ‘When writers get together they’re some of the most excitable and talkative people you could ever hope to meet. It’s in that fluid exchange of ideas through conversation that connections are made [and] that parallels in your work are formed,’ he says. Introduce an interpreter and that fluidity can feel a little swampy.

‘It’s like being underwater. It all happens in slow motion because after everything you say you have to stop and wait while the interpreter translates,’ says Low. Yet a change of pace can also be helpful: waiting half a minute between exchanges gives writers the opportunity to formulate stronger questions. ‘It can [also] allow for some of the most succinct and concise conversation,’ Low says.

I try to imagine this painstaking exchange in the context of the questions writers must ask. ‘Some people find it incredibly difficult. It’s like having an intimate conversation with someone but having someone else in the room,’ says Low. I feel the awkwardness of putting the hard questions to an interviewee, and then picture that with an interpreter. Are there times when an interpreter fudges or slightly rephrases something contentious or culturally sensitive?

‘My observation is that their training is all about staying neutral,’ says Low. If you ask a personal or culturally challenging question, your interpreter must also ask it. Qualified interpreters are fluent in both languages. This means writers working with these interpreters should feel confident not only about their questions getting through (eventually) but also about the quality of responses. ‘With a good interpreter there won’t be any broken English or odd turns of phrase. It’ll all come to you crystal clear in either language,’ says Low.

The emphasis on neutrality means that interpreters can’t be expected to help navigate the cultural terrain. What you need for this is a fixer. ‘This is someone who can walk you through the potential pitfalls and can show you how you can do what you need to do in a way that’s respectful,’ says Low. These folks have connections and ideally some knowledge in the field you’re researching in. They’ll help you get around a foreign country, linguistically, culturally, geographically and bureaucratically.

There are various grades to interpretation. Cost will depend on your location and other factors. At times Low says, a top-grade interpreter can charge in the order of AUD$700 to $900 per day. ‘But it’s very unlikely that any [writers] would be able to afford them,’ he says. Instead he recommends we find our own champions. ‘If you’ve got someone whose English you trust, who can come along with you voluntarily, that’s the most feasible way of doing it,’ he says. [See also this post on International Research].

Low advises writers on the Asialink program to learn as much of their soon-to-be local language as possible before leaving Australia. No matter how organised or cashed-up you may be there will invariably be times when you will be without an interpreter (or getting by with the help of someone who has English as a second language). He also tells writers to, ‘be constantly signaling your intention to communicate, your intention to listen and to understand, to not show impatience or frustration… Be very present in your listening, maintain eye contact to give the kind of phatic communion signals that we give in everyday conversation.’ These non-verbal signals can take you a long way.

Dealing with translation may sound far less complicated but Low warns us not to underestimate this work either. ‘There is a real creativity to good literary translation,’ he says. ‘It’s not about creating your own work but it’s about having sufficient expertise, depth of knowledge and being a really good writer yourself.’ Literary translators need an ear for a writer’s rhythm and emphasis, and for the music of language.

Appreciating the difference between translators and interpreters has captured me in a semantic loop. I realise that many times I’ve said ‘lost in translation’ when ‘lost in interpretation’ would be more correct (but something more is surely lost in applying the words correctly!) For now I’m going with ‘lost in translerpretation’.

For a great long form read follow this link to Nic Low's piece about the Christchurch earthquake in the Griffith Review.