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Because Our Job is too Easy

            I find that there are two types of people in this world: Those who find interpreting to be awe-inspiring, and those who think it’s as simple as opening up Google Translate. Usually the ones who think it is simple haven’t actually tried it. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that ours is a tough job. Furthermore, we constantly need to explain ourselves to people who think we should be walking dictionaries; people who don’t understand why we may need to look up a term, or why we should have a partner with us for a trial. There are also times when we render extremely difficult interpretations and wish people realized! Sadly, people only ever seem to notice us when we’re messing up.

            The last time I wrote, I discussed mistakes we make, and how to correct them. This month, I thought of something similar but different: The mistakes we don’t make, but which could be perceived as such to the lay observer. I’ll explain what I mean: Sometimes we need to clarify, and it’s not obvious why. Especially if our clients are monolingual, there will be issues we need to resolve that they wouldn’t even know about.

            Here are three examples:

  • A word has been invented: My famous example, which I believe I’ve mentioned here before, occurred when a Puerto Rican defendant told the judge he was staying in a “cheta.” I’ve since learned that this has an obscure meaning in a specific country. But in this case, I had to stop the entire proceeding in order to clarify that actually, this was a Spanglicized version of the English word, shelter. Voila an interpreter who looks bad for not knowing something so simple and yet…it wasn’t my fault! (I resisted the temptation to tell this to the judge.)
  • Need for clarification: Sometimes we get a word like “child” in English, which is gender neutral. The trouble is that to render this word in Spanish (and, I’m sure, in other languages as well), we need to know the gender of the child. Asking for it is bound to get us some weird looks from people who just don’t get our job! (Since I interpreted on a daily basis in one family judge’s courtroom, I explained the predicament to her. After that, every time I interpreted for her, she gave me the children’s genders beforehand.)
  • Words that have more than one meaning: There are lots and lots and lots of words like this. For example, if you climbed the escalera in Spanish, it would be unclear whether to interpret this as ladder or stairs. Further clarification would be needed, and someone not familiar with the conundrum wouldn’t understand why.

My recommendation is to have a formula for providing a quick explanation, just so that your clients know what you are trying to accomplish. I’m sure that my examples are just a drop in the ocean. Feel free to put yours below!


Portrait of Athena Matilsky

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

8 Comments
  • Helen Eby
    Posted at 14:46h, 07 June Reply

    Hey! I grew up in a group they called “chetos” in Buenos Aires. That meaning is not obscure to me! All kidding aside, I was sure caught by surprise to see it as an example in your article!

  • RAMON DEL VILLAR
    Posted at 14:59h, 07 June Reply

    Excellent article, Athena! I just remember one instance in which they used the word “drive” without context and I asked for context and the attorney looked at me like if I were a retard. I explained to him that drive means at least 17 different things depending on the context, one of them being a golf club.

  • Carlos Cerecedo
    Posted at 16:39h, 07 June Reply

    Athena ..when I “clarify” on the record …usually if it’s done professionally ..I get a great deal of appreciation…I recommend to go ahead and educate as much as possible ….the profession becomes more respected …

  • Damaris Lajas
    Posted at 19:39h, 07 June Reply

    Early in my career, i found myself in a conundrum when a Dominican grandfather referred to his granddaughter, of whom he was seeking custody, as “mi negrita linda”. “ my little——-“ is what popped into my head. I could see the bilingual people in the courtroom chuckle as I struggled with the phrase. A bilingual attorney bailed me out with an explanation to the judge. .. i gained respect for my profession that day.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 08:32h, 10 June Reply

    Language is such a beautiful thing. I used to think anything could be translated/interpreted in context. Well, after many years I’ve come to accept that some things are just impossible to translate. It’s the Tower of Babel curse or something. This clip below is a little insolent, but it is an absolutely brilliant play on words in English that, if it ever came up in court… I can’t think of any way outside of a long lunch and a bottle of wine to render its meaning into Spanish, let alone translate it,. You’d have to make it all up, forget context and even meaning, and it would end up like one of those old Hannah Barbera cartoon voiceover translations done by those geniuses that used to do them in Mexico in the 70’s. More of a creation than a translation, I mean. Check it out. Try and render it in your head as if you were in court. LOL… I’d freak out.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QhCa57JSmkY

  • Krystal Mondor
    Posted at 18:46h, 15 June Reply

    Incorrect use of actual Spanish words, ie: intoxicado being used for “intoxication” rather than “poisoning”. Or the difficulty of interpreting for semi-bilingual patients suffering from dementia.

  • Aquillia
    Posted at 13:42h, 17 June Reply

    This article speaks so much truth. So often I will have LEPs who nervously say words in English that I don’t understand.

  • Izabel Souza
    Posted at 16:53h, 19 June Reply

    Interpreting seems easy because we make it look to easy. The examples are way too simplistic. Of course we need to request clarifications and give clarifications of why we are asking for them from either party as well. If interpreters actually interpreted their side conversations maybe participants would be more aware of the nuances. If we gave better pre-session briefings to all parties about our role and work, people would understand. Not having this paralinguistic professional verbiage ready at the tip of one’s tongue is causing many users not to know the difference between professional and non-professional interpreters. I guess what I am trying to say is that it is up to interpreters to do client education before, during, and after the encounter. Many are afraid to speak up in their own professional voice. Interpreters are afraid to ‘interrupt’ the flow of communication, when in reality the best interpreters ‘intervene as needed’ to improve the flow of communication.

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