Beyond Words - Language Blog

Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation: Trials and Tribulations

It is an unfortunate fact of the profession that translators and interpreters seldom receive the respect they deserve. Beginning interpreters and students are expressly forewarned to never kowtow to employers and to never — never — fetch a cup of coffee or a stack of documents. The implication in this warning is that professional interpreters are asked to do tasks outside the parameters of their jobs, and these tasks are typically neither glamorous nor gratifying. We are taught that if the interpreter agrees to those extraneous requests, he or she does not set up a foundation for respect for the interpreter as an individual or for the profession as a whole.

Interpreters are compelled to act so cautiously because their job is ill-understood by most anyone in other fields. Most people do not quite know how to treat the interpreter. Is he or she a representative of one of the two parties present — a lapdog or mouthpiece for some delegate? Is he or she a bilingual secretary? And does his or her work require any skill other than speaking two languages? Many people seem to think it does not, which means that interpreters fight for respect on a regular basis.

Recently the students at the Monterey Institute had a chance to meet with several NATO interpreters and were given real-life examples of how funny life can be in the working world. One professional mentioned that while he was working in a booth, a secretary approached him with the text of a speech and asked where the "slot" was located. The bewildered interpreter asked what "slot" and received the answer, "the slot that I feed the text into." The secretary assumed that all she needed to do was insert text into a machine and a perfectly feasible interpretation would emerge. Another interpreter cited an incident in which a foreign delegate approached him to say that the consul in the booth "did not work last night." When the interpreter told the delegate that no meetings were held at night, the delegate let him know that the consul did not work when he took it with him to a restaurant, held it to his ear, and expected speech to be interpreted into his language. The interpreter was forced to explain that words are not magically processed by the apparatus and transformed into the target language.

Situations like those mentioned above happen alarmingly frequently. Interpreters deal with all manner of rudeness and disregard, almost entirely due to the fact that the people for whom they interpret know very little about what goes into an apt interpretation. Sooner or later, it seems that all interpreters run into the hilarious pitfalls of a difficult profession.

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