The Legacy of the Linguist

Following on from my last post on the fundamental differences between translation and interpretation, in this entry I shall consider the life span of each, and the traces the professional linguist leaves in each case.

Every translation we read has a unique effect on us – especially if we have knowledge of the source language. This is particularly true in the case of literary translation. Many of us have been excited to read a book in translation only to find ourselves disappointed by its quality, and feeling like we are missing out on the beauty of the original. Yet many of us have also experienced the pleasure of ingenious translations of books. However we react to translations, each leaves us with a lasting impression.

This leads us to a distinction that has been recognized as existing between translation and interpretation: a translation can be viewed as a tangible product that endures, whereas interpretation is arguably not so much a product as a service that is consumed as it is offered. In the same way that as consumers we may buy an item of clothing and evaluate its various features after using it, we also consume and evaluate translations. However, in the case of interpretation, once the interpreter has spoken there is no way of turning back the clock and making alterations to the service provided. In many cases, there is no physical trace of interpretation either, if it hasn’t been recorded or transcribed.

It’s for this reason that the world’s finest literary translators spend years producing foreign-language versions of famous works, and that interpreters cannot constantly pursue perfection, a point illustrated by an interpreter for the European Court of Justice whose talk I heard a few years ago at Language Show Live in London, an annual event for linguists and language-learners. When asked what the difficult aspects of being an interpreter were, she responded with “working under pressure.” She mentioned that sometimes interpreters don’t have enough time to fully explain something to their audience, and said how when interpreting in a conference and, for example, the speaker makes a joke, the interpreter’s only option may be to tell the listener, “that was funny – you should laugh now,” instead of attempting to render the joke in the target language in such a short amount of time. Interpretation’s rapid production and consumption imposes its constraints on interpreters’ abilities.

Once again we see that, despite their similarities, translation and interpretation do have marked differences: that’s why it’s important to always use qualified professionals when seeking these services.