Matter Matters

Ever felt absolutely unprepared at work? Ever wanted to vanish from the face of the earth?

If you answered “no” to either question, try interpreting for a meeting between Cuban and British engineers discussing technical aspects of a potential joint venture in the field of personal hygiene product manufacture… or an unofficial dissertation by a passionate Australian about different kangaroo breeds, their names, habits and peculiarities.

Let’s assume for a moment that you are the interpreter in both scenarios.

Case #1

Shortly said, you’ll want to die when the number of technical terms and acronyms begins to exceed any reasonable expectations.


Female kangaroo and her joey. Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Case #2

You are at a dinner party. So, put down your fork, you won’t be able to finish that entrée. In fact, if the first piece of appetizer you ate before the marsupial-related question was not enough, you’ll have to buy something to nibble on the way back home. Just as you saw the appetizer taken away and replaced by the main course, you’ll see your full plate gone again only to be followed by the dessert which you won’t be able to touch either.

Hard feelings aside, the Cuban trade unionist had no clue about what he was asking but — as it turns out — his Aussie counterpart happened to have had kangaroos as pets in his childhood and felt strongly about them.

To sum it up, his passion was almost as big as your unquenched appetite and your lack of knowledge of the subject.

These are two real-life cases in which both interpreters painfully learned a basic lesson: knowledge of the subject matter is essential.

No matter how vast and encyclopedic your general knowledge may be, there will always be a subject — or several — you don’t know anything about. Therefore, translators and interpreters never stop learning.

Obviously, this statement applies to other professions too. But when you are a translator, you need to learn about the subject in two languages. Knowledge of translation is not enough. You also need to be familiar with the topic both in the source language and the target language. And I am not only referring to the terminology, but also to a certain depth in the field. Whether theoretical or empirical, such knowledge will always be useful to avoid common mistakes such as countersense (worst one by far), inaccuracies, wrong terms, right terms but in a wrong context (which turns them into wrong terms after all), misinformation and so on and so forth. Besides, it will make your job faster and easier.

Don’t believe me? Take maritime language, for instance.

If you are familiar with it in the source language only, you can understand the text easily and will be able to translate it into the target language. But is it really “sailors and fishermen’s talk” in the target language? Probably not.

Or the other way around, let’s say you are familiar with maritime language in the target language, you’ll still have to do some research and spend quite a good amount of “dictionary time” trying to grasp the message from the original text in the source language.

And if you are interpreting, dictionary time is limited to the previous days or hours and down to zero during the actual process.

Now, that’s when your high school drama club experience could come handy. Hopefully, you mastered the technique to fake fainting. You’ll scare the heck out of everyone but it will spare you the awkwardness.

And if you are among those who persevere and refuse to “faint”, then be ready to cope with embarrassment. On the positive side, it will at least give you something to talk — and laugh — about over a pint or two. You don’t drink? No worries, you can still talk and laugh about it.

Otherwise, there is one simple way to spare yourself the awkward moment, do your homework and learn as much as possible about the subject(s). After all, omission is one of the translation techniques, but it’s certainly not the only one. So you can’t omit too much, you’ll definitely have to translate or interpret something. And that leaves you with two choices: preparation or ridicule.

Which one would you choose?

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