Language wordcloud

Why Can’t All Words Be So Simple?

This post was originally published in February 2015. But its subject matter is timeless. We hope you enjoy it.


Thank goodness for words like “judge”. Juez just rolls off the tongue so nicely. I can say it in French with no problem at all, and assuming there is a similar concept in any other language of choice, a bilingual dictionary would probably make me look good on my first try. Yes, thank goodness for words like judge, and apple, and pencil. They leave so little room for error.

Too bad they are not all so simple. Consider, for example, the word “taunt.” Take the following definition: “v. To make fun of or insult, often to get someone to do something. n. A mocking remark, made as a challenge or an insult.” (http://www.wordreference.com/definition/taunt). A quick bilingual search hands you at least three different options. Not only is it difficult to find a word in Spanish that actually captures the idea of “taunting” in its entirety, but let’s just pick provocar and consider the following.

Attorney: Isn’t it true that you taunted the defendant so that he would become angry and strike you?

Interpreter: ¿No es cierto que Ud. provocó al acusado para que se enojara y le golpeara?

Defendant: Pues no, no le provoqué.

Interpreter: Well no, I didn’t… … …

Internal interpreter monologue while all eyes watch his next move: Okay I said provocar, and he answered provocar, and I want to say “provoke” but I’m pretty sure the attorney said something else originally…oh wait I know…

…taunt him. [Interpreter breathes internal self-congratulatory sigh of relief and wonders why no-one is clapping.]

This scenario demonstrates the best possible outcome, even if the interpreter is left feeling slightly deflated, wondering if he actually should have said, “instigar,” “burlarse de” or any other number of insult/tease/provoke-type words.

At the end of the day, nuanced language generates all sorts of challenges. As we have seen, we first have to pick a proper translation in the target language. After that, we must maintain uniformity, within our personal interpretation and harder still, also from partner to partner and day to day on a trial that can have multiple interpreters. This is much easier said than done.

But finally, it is the originality of idiomatic language that has me stymied. At least in this English-Spanish case, the interpreter understood the nuances and used his better judgment to choose “provocar.” But if the utterance had originated in Spanish, he almost certainly would have chosen “provoke” for provocar or “instigate” for instigar. Poor little “taunt” will never be pulled out of the vocabulary hat, and this tends to make our interpretation into English lose the rich color and variation that the language has to offer.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on the matter. In the meantime, I’m just happy when I can stick to interpreting about judges, apples, and pens.


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena 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/

5 Comments
  • Alberto Uribe
    Posted at 15:43h, 16 November Reply

    Thanks for the observation. As I understand it, if the source language word is ‘provocar,” most likely context and proficiency in the target language, in this case English, would’ve prompt the interpreter to use the word “taunt”. But even at the speed of 120/wpm during consecutive interpretation, the tendency to use actual cognates is automatic and the brain tends to go for the “easy” word, specially if stress plays a role.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 15:49h, 16 November Reply

    But was the taunting sarcastic, like sucking rooster at him, or was it more like intesticling him for the sake of ingoating him? Because one would be jeering and the other one would be inciting, but if it ain’t one and it ain’t the other then it’s right in the taint area… ahem, say whaaaat? TGIF

  • Natalia
    Posted at 15:57h, 16 November Reply

    Knowing not all words have exact equivalents in both languages, how appropriate (or not) would it be to interpret the word’s meaning (state the word’s definition)? so that when one needs to render it back in English, in this case, the same word would be used. Hopefully that makes sense.

  • Armida Hernandez
    Posted at 16:30h, 16 November Reply

    And this, my dear colleagues, is why interpretation is truly an art and not a science. Two of my most dreaded words in English to interpret into Spanish (among many!) are “nice”, and “upset”. “It was a nice day” vs. “She was nice to me” vs. “He was wearing nice clothes”, etc. When an attorney asks the witness, “Were you upset?”, does said attorney mean, “molesto”, “enojado”, “disgustado”, “emocionado”, “agitado”, “triste”, or any other variations on what that word could actually mean. These two words strike me as lazy descriptors lacking the shading and precision needed for an interpreter to easily provide an accurate rendition. Just my two cents. Great article Athena!

  • Rosemary Rodriguez
    Posted at 09:53h, 28 November Reply

    I found an interesting word for taunting in the dictionary. “pullar” La Real Academia Española says. “Humilar a alguien con palabras o dichos obscenos. Molestar a alguien con pullas o expresiones agudas y picantes.” This seems like a good match for taunting.

    Thanks Athena for the article, very good.

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