Monday, May 5, 2008


I’m going to consider this a public service announcement, since this is something most people don’t know: Translation and interpretation are not the same thing. The difference between the two is simple. The written word is translated, the spoken word is interpreted. (If there are any translators or interpreters in your life, they will likely be very, very impressed if you know this.) Thus, there is no such thing as a court translator or simultaneous translation. When I work in court, I am interpreting for people all day, not translating, and when I’m at home translating documents on the computer, trust me, it is anything but simultaneous. The fact that so few people know the difference is kind of a pet peeve of mine, although I suppose I can’t really fault them, since I didn’t know the difference myself until I decided I wanted to get into the field and began researching graduate schools.

My first year, I studied both translation and interpretation, and my second year, I was faced with the decision to specialize in either one or the other. I chose interpretation. This was partly because I couldn’t see myself in front of the computer doing translations all the time, and partly because my professors advised that I would really benefit from the specialized training in interpretation that my school offered and that I would be unable to find anywhere else.

But mostly, it was because I loved interpreting. Once I started interpreting, I was hooked, quite simply. I love the adrenaline rush that I get from interpreting. When I interpret, every speaker is different and it’s like I’m on a ride at the amusement park—I have no idea if it will be the equivalent of the merry-go-round, predictable and kind of boring, or if it will be like one of those insane roller coasters with all the loops that will make me feel nauseated and regret I ever got on in the first place. I love the variety of jobs I do, and the fact that virtually no two days are the same. I love that I’ve interpreted in the strangest places, at conferences, on shooting ranges, for weddings and during births, during trade negotiations, at a hootenanny in the Ozarks, the World Trade Center, in jail, in court, hospitals, museums, for people who are household names and for countless others who are not. It requires a specific set of skills, including diligent preparation and the ability to think on your feet. And there are many advantages, such as getting out of the house (don’t laugh, I’ve been stuck in the house for days at a time), but mostly the fact that once you’re done, whether you were absolutely brilliant or merely adequate, you’re done. You can go look up the things that gave you trouble later (and if you’ve made an embarrassing mistake, trust me, that word will be burned into your brain forever and EVER), and you can correct things on the spot if you have a colleague to help you out, but usually once the words are out of your mouth, you’re done and you can’t go back.

Translation, I’m discovering, is an entirely different animal. I’ve only started doing more of it in the last year or so. And it requires a completely different set of skills than interpreting does. It requires the ability to sit at your desk and stay on task, and the ability to move on when enough is enough, because really, if you’re earning cents per word, spending one hour obsessing over one word, a word that may not even be all that important in the grand scheme of things, does not make much financial sense. Even though I feel like I’m never quite done with a translation, I’m always working against a deadline and at some point I have to turn it in. (Though I’ve always been happy with the work I’ve turned in, I think that you’re never really done with a translation). And though I think every translator has his or her own style, I’ve discovered that I need to just finish my translation and take a break and do something else for a while, make sure there’s a clean mental break, because when I go back and edit my work later, the distance between the translating and the editing makes a huge difference and a lot of things become much clearer the second time around. There are many advantages as well, such as the fact that I can sit at home and translate in my pajamas, I don’t have to rushrushrush in the morning and run to catch the bus, I have no commute so I get to spend more time with my kids, I can work less during the day and more at night if I have to (and often I have to), and I can work translations around interpreting jobs.

The whole reason for this post? I’m looking at an entire week of translating, without a single interpreting gig to break it up, for the first time in my career. I’m working on an interesting project, so I’m looking forward to it, but as I said, I’m new to the hard-core translating. I feel like I need to set some goals for myself. I am not the most disciplined person, so I think this will help.

I will treat this as my full-time job for this week. I will manage my time well. I will start at 8:00 a.m. I will stop at 5:00 p.m. I will limit my use of the Internet to work-related sites for research purposes (oh, this is a hard one). I will take a break for lunch, and I will take two 15-minute breaks during the day, which I will use to go downstairs for coffee, check my e-mail and aimlessly surf the Internet. This all may sound obvious to full-time translators, but I need to get this all straight so I can stay on track tomorrow.

Maybe I’ll post an update tomorrow. During one of my fifteen-minute breaks, of course.

1 comment:

Snickollet said...

I've often thought about posting on the difference between translation and interpretation, but have never gotten around to it. It's so simple, and yet I hear it messed up all the time--most recently on NPR. Grr.

Good luck with your discipline. I could learn a few lessons from you. Perhaps I will try to stay on task at my 9-5 job this week. Scary.