Why Can’t All Words Be So Simple?

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 “to 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.

7 Comments
  • Susan
    Posted at 15:28h, 14 February Reply

    I am new at this, but I believe that provocar was the best choice. The lawyer said “taunted the defendant,” or provoked him. It seems to me that the first thing that comes to mind 90% of the time is the best choice.

  • Josefina Font
    Posted at 17:05h, 14 February Reply

    I think ‘azuzar’ would work nicely for taunting. Or a more colloquial word would be ‘cucar.’ This word is used in Mexico.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 12:06h, 18 February Reply

    Athena, nuance is one of the things about words that most attract me. The first one is their sound.

    And our endless search for the perfect word to fill in a blank is an endless source of joy to me.

    Thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel but can’t enunciate.

  • Carlos cerecedo
    Posted at 12:53h, 18 February Reply

    That is what makes good interpreters and excellent interpreters…plus been able to say on the record…”I have used the best possible equivalent but I could not find the exact word….”

  • Abel
    Posted at 16:33h, 25 February Reply

    No linguistic equivalent available Your Honor. I used (give synonym you used) has worked for me in the past.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 18:30h, 25 February Reply

    Thanks for your comments everyone! I do like your suggestions and I will add them to my interpreter “arsenal”. One of the points I am trying to make, though, is that each of our languages offers a large variety of options, and as court interpreters I think that we limit ourselves to a very narrow range of vocabulary. I don’t think there is any way to avoid it necessarily, but even if there are several words to choose from when someone says, for example, “provocar” in Spanish, I will probably always choose “provoke” in English. If you listen to a court session in English, you will hear not only idioms, which you may at least attempt to interpret, but turns-of-phrase that are so unique that it wouldn’t occur to us to use them when English is our target language. Things like, “whoo, boy, that’s not quite what I had in mind!” I’m not sure if I am explaining myself correctly, but this is the deeper point I am trying to make when it comes to nuanced language.

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