Words, Words, and More Words

Have you ever stopped to think about how many words you know and use? The average adult’s vocabulary in their native language runs into many thousands of words. Those of us who are monolingual may have never consciously reflected on our vocabulary size, but it is important for linguists to do so. How do they retain a seemingly endless number of words in their own language, let alone a foreign one? And let’s not forget that some professional linguists speak three or four foreign languages – that’s a lot of words. How do translators and interpreters, who depend on these words the most, remember them all?

In my last post, I talked about some of the differences between the work of these two types of linguists. As can be expected, the ways in which they deal with this need to know as much vocabulary as possible differ, too. How?

Fortunately for translators, they aren’t required to remember all of the words that make up a foreign language at all times. They regularly use what is called a translation memory – that is, a function in the computer program they use to produce their translation which calculates the degree of similitude between the portion of the source text they are working on and any other portion of text that has previously been translated in projects from the same area (i.e. marketing or law) or from the same client. If the memory finds a past portion of text with a significant degree of similitude, the program compares them, and helps the translator decide how to translate that portion.

Translation memories offer possible translations, but the translator inevitably needs to use their own judgment when deciding on the final translation of a portion of source text. On the other hand, a term base, which, as the name suggests, is a list of source-language terms and their translations in the target language, directly instructs the translator which word or phrase to use. As such, term bases can be very helpful in highly technical translations. However, both term bases and translation memories are only useful if they remain ‘unpolluted.’ A ‘polluted’ translation memory or term base is one with an excessive number of entries for each term or portion of text, which leaves the translator with too large a number of possible options.

Unfortunately, interpreters don’t often have the same wealth of information at their fingertips. While they tend to prepare the best they can before an interpreting session, since they generally work under much more pressure than translators, they frequently have a matter of seconds to produce their best translation of often complex terminology as they interpret, with the sole aid of their experience and memory.

Despite there being various differences between the tasks of translators and interpreters, what unites their work is its need for the acquisition and application of an immense number of words in order to effectively express the complexities of the world we live in.