The seemingly straightforward question ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ sends professional interpreters into an existential quandary; we struggle how to best answer this polite enquiry. Should we describe ourselves as translators or interpreters? The reason this question poses such a conundrum is that it is never easy to explain to others what professional conference interpreting truly involves. As it turns out, the most typical response to our carefully thought-through and well-delivered explanation is, ‘Ah, so you are a translator!’ This oft-heard response reveals that the line separating the disciplines of translation and interpreting remains blurred for many people, but if we explore each in a little more detail it will soon become clear that the professionals from each discipline engage quite different skills.
Defining translation and conference interpreting
By defining both translation and conference interpreting as disciplines that allow multilingual communication, whether oral or written, we acknowledge that the common denominator is language. However, there are some important differences in the ways in which language is used. The written word requires quite different techniques from the spoken word, so that professionals from each discipline work in contexts that appear as different to each other as night and day. This is one of the reasons why it is rare to find individuals working across both disciplines. When putting pen to paper, the professional translator must express the source text’s ideas in the foreign language with precision, remaining faithful to the content, style, and form of the original. The translator is focused on dissecting a written text and scrutinizing it to identify its meanings, intricacies, shapes, and colours. It is an activity that requires time, reflection, and constant rewriting to ensure nothing is ‘lost in translation’.
Interpreters, however, are permitted a margin of artistic licence in order to overcome one of the major constraints of dealing with the spoken word: time, or the lack thereof. The interpreter must work quickly and demonstrate spontaneity, working both in simultaneous and consecutive interpreting modes (that is, translating while or after the speaker is talking). In simultaneous interpreting the interpreter must listen and speak at the same time, whilst in consecutive interpreting the interpreter must be able to listen, use specialist note-taking techniques, and reformulate the units of information in the foreign language on the spot.
In fact, it is this real-time comprehension, analysis, and accurate reformulation of one language into another that poses the greatest challenge. The interpreter is both listener and speaker, working in real-time, without a safety net, and with little room to correct errors. The simultaneous, or virtually simultaneous, nature of the work combined with a lack of control over the content of the original speeches mean that the interpreter performs his or her work in demanding conditions that leave little room for error.
The importance of the translator’s work
However, the importance of the translator’s work must not be overlooked: the absence of immediate time constraints allows the translator to apply more mental resources to the task of finding the correct solution. The translator always seeks rigorous solutions, not solutions that will just ‘get the job done’. To do so, the translator applies thorough research and consulting techniques and uses specialist databases to broaden their understanding of the subject matter. As a result, the translator often ends up being quite an expert of the subject matter in question. From a client’s perspective, the translation process and the editing and proofing involved thereafter reduce the margins for error, thus the final product is far more polished than an interpretation.
Many interpreters have never tried their hand at translation and vice versa, even though the two disciplines complement each other. The work of the translator, seeking perfection and precise meaning, involves scrupulously analyzing the meaning of words, laying them down on paper, and then letting them settle a while for later analysis and revision. This offers a perfect complement to the work of the interpreter, which involves taking a bird’s eye view of the original utterance in order to capture its essence. Such a partnership of skills would capacitate us with enviable abilities: the ability to capture the minute details of language and the ability to perform the lightning fast analysis of a message to ensure its faithful rendition in a foreign language.
Both translators and interpreters are language craftsmen, and to recognize the things we share in common and the things that separate us is to recognize the complexity of what both groups do as professionals.