Tag Archives: Interpreting

Beautiful, but not faithful: The invaluable role of translation and interpreting


There is an apocryphal story about a young interpreter (when I first heard it, he was Korean) who is assigned to interpret during a speech by the president of an American company. The president opens with a joke with which he is clearly pleased, but the novice interpreter cannot fathom how to render it in his native language. Looking distraught, he says to the audience, “The president has just made a joke which he thinks is quite funny, but I am new at this job and cannot possibly tell it for you. For my sake, please, laugh anyway.” The audience, of course, bursts into laughter.

This particular episode may not have happened as such, but countless similar situations certainly have. Our increasingly globalized world demands the routine use of translators and interpreters, yet many people do not fully understand what these activities entail. In this and the following article, we will explore what translating and interpreting are, why we need them, and how they can best be put to use.

What are Translation and Interpreting?

It is fairly common for non-practitioners to use the words “translator” and “interpreter” more or less interchangeably, which can cause confusion as to who does what. To begin with, let’s take a look at what each of these roles involves.

Both activities involve taking discourse in one language (the “source language”) and representing it as discourse in another language (the “target language”). In general, translation refers to doing this in writing, sometimes using a printed source text, while interpreting means transforming one oral discourse into another (such as the young man in our opening paragraph). Thus, a company that wants an instruction manual rendered into another language will hire a translator, while one that wants their CEO to be understood on an overseas visit will get an interpreter. (Many professionals handle both tasks to one extent or another.)

A note on usage: commonly, the act of a translator is referred to as “translation” (sometimes “translating”), and the act of an interpreter is referred to as “interpreting.” The parallel construction “interpretation” is not often used, probably to avoid confusion with the word meaning “an explanation” (as in “Let me give my interpretation of this passage”).

Degrees of Translation

An old saw has it that “translations are like either a wife or a mistress: faithful, but not beautiful, or beautiful, but not faithful.” Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it is true that in translation, a choice must be made about the kind of representation desired in the end product. Translation occurs along a spectrum that runs from “literal” (sometimes called “word-for-word”) on one end to “dynamic” (or “meaning-driven”) on the other. (In principle, the same choice is open to an interpreter, but interpreting by its nature tends to favor certain kinds of rendering.)

Theoretically, a “literal” translation reflects the usage and vocabulary of the original (source language) text precisely, while a “dynamic” translation takes the ideas of the source text and expresses them in a way that sounds natural in the target language. This can be a useful distinction on some level, but it can also create the impression that there is a black and white distinction between these two modes, when in fact translation is always a delicate balance between fidelity and clarity.

For example, the French word bonjour is used as a greeting, usually during the day. It literally means “good day” (bon = good, jour = day), which happens to be an accepted expression in English as well. There are times when “good day” might be a reasonable translation of bonjour, but there are others when it may sound too stilted as compared with the more common “hello.”

A more pointed case is the Japanese expression o-kage-sama de. The “literal” translation of this expression is “by [your] most honorable shadow,” but the English equivalent is “Thanks to you” (as in “Thanks to you, we were able to raise the money we needed”). In this case, the meaning of the “literal” translation is almost completely incomprehensible. And though I refer to it as “literal,” it is only approximately so, since, though kage does mean “shadow,” the honorifics o- and –sama simply don’t have precise counterparts in English. This points up one of the pitfalls of so-called “word-for-word” translation, which is that it implies that for most or even many words there exists an exact equivalent in another language, which often is simply not true.

Nonetheless, it is possible to remain more or less close to the range of vocabulary used in the source text. In addition, there are considerations such as whether a given word in the source text should always be rendered with the same word in the target language, or if the rendering should vary depending on the context. This is a particular concern in, among other situations, translating sacred texts. For example, should the Greek word sarx, which appears throughout the New Testament, be rendered in each case with its basic meaning of “the flesh”? Or should the translation change according to the rhetorical usage—“the flesh,” “the body,” “the sinful nature,” and so on?

Lying at the far “dynamic” end of the translation spectrum is paraphrase, in which the main ideas of the source text are communicated, but in which the translator may also add some embellishment or rephrase the source text in a way he believes makes it more meaningful or communicative in the target language. In the United States, a popular paraphrase translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible. Here is Genesis 1:1-2 in the New International Version, a translation which sits comfortably in the middle of the literal/dynamic scale:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Here is the same passage in The Message:

“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

We can see how details (“like a bird”) and commentary (“all you see, all you don’t see”) might be added into a paraphrase. This is different from the shaping of a non-paraphrase translation, which might require the inclusion of asides or notes in the target language to clarify, e.g., cultural facets of the original text. For example, a translator working on a Japanese novel might translate “kare wa shouji wo hiraita” as “He opened the sliding shoji door.” Neither “sliding” nor “door” are technically in the original, as these are understood within the term “shoji,” but they are added for the convenience of English-speaking readers.

There is a third practice which is similar to but distinct from translation, called localization. In localization, a product description, ad campaign, or other text is completely reconfigured to meet the expectations and needs of a foreign audience. This sometimes looks like translation, but often goes beyond even paraphrase in reimagining the text in the target language. So when Nintendo launched its Pokémon franchise in the US, the Japanese tagline “Pokémon getto da ze!” (literally, “I got a Pokémon!”) became the English “Gotta catch ’em all!” Similarly, the names of the characters, which were all puns in Japanese, were recreated as puns in English. For example, a dinosaur-like creature with a large plant bulb on its back was called Fushigidane (sounds like “mysterious seed”) in Japanese, and Bulbasaur in English.

While localization may involve translation, it is ultimately separate, and we will not deal further with it here. Still, anyone embarking on a foreign venture would do well to consider whether translation alone will suffice, or if a broader project is called for.

Kinds of Interpreting

Those who work between languages with spoken texts may do so in a variety of situations and with any of several methods. Below is a brief overview of the forms interpreting may take.

There are two broad types of interpreting, consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpreting, the speaker speaks, then pauses while the interpreter interprets. The amount of speaking done at a stretch will vary; it can be as brief as one thought or sentence or as long as an entire speech. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter speaks at the same time as the main speaker.

Simultaneous interpreting can be further broken down based on how the simultaneous speaking is performed. At the United Nations, for example, interpreters work from a booth in which they listen to the speaker through an ear piece, and interpret into a microphone; their words are broadcast to the ear pieces of listeners in the audience. In other situations, an interpreter may stand next to the person who wishes to understand the source language and whisper the interpretation into his or her ear; this is called whispered interpreting.

The simplest form of interpreting is a sort of hybrid of interpreting and translating. In this form, the interpreter is given the text (of a speech, say) ahead of time, and has time to do an initial translation into the target language. During the event proper, the interpreter will mainly read the prepared text, still paying attention to the speaker to allow for any impromptu changes in content. In many cases, however, the content of the source-language discourse is not fixed, such as at a conference or a court trial. In these cases the interpreter will listen to the source-language speaker and immediately render his or her words into the target language (whether consecutively or simultaneously).

Furthermore, the number of languages the interpreter handles may vary. Ideally an interpreter works into just one language (often her native or “A” language); so for example, at a discussion between a Japanese CEO and his American head of US operations, there will be one interpreter rendering the CEO’s remarks into English and another rendering the American’s into Japanese. Sometimes, however, a single interpreter will have to work in both directions. (Let me be clear that I am not casting aspersions on this position; it often happens and many interpreters are perfectly capable of it. It’s simply that much more work for them!)

Translation and Interpreting in a Global Era

All this talk about the “how” of translating and interpreting might leave us asking: why? Why should we know any of this, why should non-practitioners bother to understand what these specialized roles are?

The short answer is that we all need translation and interpreting. Our world is inescapably globalized, and growing more so every day. We read novels originally written in foreign languages, watch movies made in other countries, use products that were conceived in the US and manufactured in China from parts fabricated in half a dozen other places.

That means these practices are relevant to all of us, but especially so for people involved in business, finance, global security or international relations. In any case in which you yourself do not speak or read the other language capably, you will need to rely on a translator or interpreter to help you understand a foreign source text or get your meaning across to an overseas audience.

Anything that used to be in one language and is now in another—from movies to motorcycle manuals—has been translated. We will be better users and consumers of translation and interpreting services if we understand what is involved in the process. We are less likely to make embarrassing language-based mistakes and more likely to succeed in communicating with the other party.

And taking the time to learn something about these practices makes us not just better workers but better global citizens. Any time we reach out in a genuine attempt to communicate with another person, we are showing them our kindness and love—and translators and interpreters can be invaluable partners in reaching out with understanding.

A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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