By Daniel Tamayo
Interpreting, which is oral translation, is an increasingly important profession, as it connects people across cultures, space and time, in a world that is ever more interconnected. For those of us who love language, enjoy being challenged intellectually and emotionally, and are passionate about constantly learning new things, interpreting is nothing less than the vocational love of our lives.
However, our profession is often underestimated and, thus, undervalued by the general public. Most people believe that being “bilingual” is enough to be a competent interpreter, and this cannot be further from the truth.
Like with many intellectual endeavors, there can be as many ways to interpret a text as there are ways to eat a kiwi. In interpreting, not all roads lead to Rome. And if they do, you may arrive in a carriage, a train, or perhaps in an airplane, feeling tired, carefree, wonderful, or none—or all—of the above, depending on how the author of the original text would like his or her audience to feel when reaching the Eternal City.
In his book White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation, Harry Obst, the conference interpreter that communicated seven American presidents with other international dignitaries stated: “In challenging situations, accurate interpretation is no less sophisticated, complex, and intellectually demanding than brain surgery. The professional interpreter is required to carry more general knowledge into each job than architects and engineers need in the daily exercise of their profession. It requires the analytical skills of trial lawyers and their acting ability in the courtroom.” I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, most people have little familiarity with professional interpreting, even though we are everywhere: from courthouses to hospitals, from the military to our schools, from the public to the private sector. The general public’s experience with interpreters is typically limited to seeing a colleague in action during beauty pageants, having watched the movie The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman, watching Monsignor Mark Miles interpret for Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States, or watching Thamsanqa Jantjie, the man who became infamously famous after his fake “interpretation” during the funeral service of the great Nelson Mandela.
Thus, few people around the world get to experience—first or second hand—what we do and what it truly takes to do it right. This is certainly the case in the United States, where many of its citizens do not support the idea of paying for language services with their tax dollars. Despite and perhaps because of this challenge, I have felt the urgency to strive to become a better interpreter, a better bridge between cultures. Fortunately, I enjoy communicating people and the rush of finding equivalents and, even better, adaptations for different concepts that don’t have a direct translation in my working languages. Thus, I have dedicated much of my adult life to the practice and analysis of translation and interpreting.
Since one of the biggest challenges we face in our profession is lack of knowledge about what we do and what it takes to do it well, I will now share what I believe are four areas, the pillars as I often call them, that all interpreters must develop in order to become competent professionals.
In no particular order, although it may seem to be the most foundational, we have language ability. This one is a major source of challenges, since many aspiring or even practicing interpreters are not aware of their true level of proficiency in their working languages. Also, they often don’t know the actual level of competency required to do our job proficiently. Add to this that there is generally lack of quality monitoring in Interpreting, and we have a perfect storm. Put simply, many people don’t realize that interpreting is many times more difficult that speaking in another language.
Many common interpreting errors could be easily avoided if aspiring professionals were trained to avoid linguistic traps, which can result in texts that contain serious meaning errors to ones that “just don’t sound right,” or anything in between. It may even result in the creation of a “third language,” one that is neither the source nor the target language. They are often unaware that every language has its own “personality,” a way that it behaves under certain conditions, in the mouths of different people, as native or non-native speakers.
Closely intertwined with the previous pillar are interpreting skills. You might have heard one of the many analogies that are often used to make this point: “Just because you know how to drive, it doesn’t mean you are a race car driver.” And, it’s true: you may have the language ability, but if you haven’t learned how to interpret, at the right time, speed, register, extracting meaning from oral renditions that may be even difficult for the general audience to follow, etc., you will be quickly at a loss.
Many interpreters whose output has not been evaluated by an experienced professional do not realize that they are failing even in the most basic requirement of interpreting: communicating the message. Competent interpreting, on the other hand, involves several mental tasks executed simultaneously, one of them being rendering the message as if it had been originally created in the target language. Although competent interpreters can truly make it “look easy,” it takes a great deal of conscious practice and self-monitoring to interpret well.
This article was reprinted with the express written permission of its author, Daniel Tamayo. ©2016. Any further use or reproduction of this article requires the copyright permission of the author. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel Tamayo began interpreting for the life insurance industry in 1993. Independently or through his company, GlobalTradu Language Services, he serves as an English<>Spanish technical translator and conference interpreter. He frequently interprets and translates for international organizations within the United Nations framework, specializing in sustainable development, environmental policy, education and human rights. Since 2006, he teaches Translation and Interpreting at Cal State University, Fullerton. He has a master’s degree in Translation Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a master’s degree in Spanish, and graduate studies and a bachelor’s degree in International Management and Economics.
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