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Say it like you mean it

Sometimes I lie.” — Arabic interpreter for Trump

I’m Trump for the moment while I’m interpreting his words.” — American Sign Language interpreter for Trump

I don’t interpret professionally, and when I do informally for visiting friends and family, I often flub it. I speak the wrong language to the wrong person. I can’t stand not being able to research on Google before I decide how to render an idiom. I have trouble resisting doing the oral equivalent of a translator’s note (“Well, it’s funny because in Italian, they say “cavolo” to avoid swearing like we use “fudge” in English, but they actually use it….”)

I admire interpreters’ ability — bolstered by training — to think on their feet. Not to mention the pressure of possibly being held responsible for a diplomatic crisis, like the infamous case of Khrushchev maybe or maybe not saying, “We will bury you!” to Western leaders in the heat of the Cold War. Or, interpreting for the pope as he speaks off the cuff to try to convince South Sudanese leaders to stop waging war and he makes up his own idiom. Way more high pressure than translating on my computer cozily at home!

Though interpreting and translating (the first is technically only for spoken speech and the latter for written texts) take different skills, many of the challenges have shared features.

Watching this comic bit about interpreting Donald Trump brought to mind one common challenge: how to convey the tone of the source yet be appropriate to the target culture.

“Sometimes I lie…

I have to… I am accurate 97%. Three percent you have to lie because, otherwise, you look like an idiot yourself.”

This has an equivalent in written translation. The ultimate driver of translation decisions is the purpose of the translation. Whereas in literary translation, capturing the tone of the source text and staying as faithful as possible to the feel may be paramount, in a marketing text, selling the product is, naturally, front and center. Academic texts in English are ideally more direct and to the point than Italian ones. As I discussed here, often there is no equivalent and you have to fudge it to make it appropriate to the target context, including in tone.

The American Sign Language interpreter is the exception in The Daily Show video as her facial expressions match the tone of Trump’s words. I’d noticed before how sign language interpreters are often super-expressive in contrast to other interpreters who generally aim for a neutral tone of voice, often in contrast with the content of the words. Facial expressions are an integral part of sign language, just as tone, facial expressions, and body language are key parts of spoken communication.

Interpreters, I assume, are taught to be as neutral in tone as possible to be unobtrusive. In written translation as well, there’s a tendency to seek to blend into the background, conveying the author’s intent and words without standing out, calling attention to the translation. I often try to think what the equivalent native English speaker would say or write in a comparable context. But sometimes to make something even in the ballpark of plausible, effective, or culturally appropriate, you gotta “lie.”

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