Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When Interpreters Dream

I spend a lot of my time looking up words.

When I translate, I have plenty of time to research terminology. I’ve gotten good at Google searches, I have several specialized go-to dictionaries, and in a pinch, I can e-mail or call colleagues from a particular country and ask for their opinion. Sometimes, even when I think I’ve researched something thoroughly, the perfect word will come to me when I’m editing my work, after I’ve set the translation aside for a little while.

Interpreting is different that way—you do it on the fly. If I’m working by myself, I can look things up as I go, or weave words in later or correct myself if I need to. If I’m lucky enough to have a colleague who’s got my back, he or she will jot down words for me and help me out as I go along.

And sometimes, picking someone’s brain is really the best solution. No matter how many dictionaries you own or how many search results you find online, the results can be unsatisfying. There’s nothing like asking your audience. Your clients are, after all, experts in their field, and they can often clear things up for you in an instant.

A difficult word came up recently, one I’d had to interpret many times before. I’d found acceptable—and correct—solutions, but I still wasn’t happy. The conference was on sexual violence and the word was “advocate.” When it’s a noun, you can use the words defensor, partidario, or you can turn the word into a phrase, which can be clumsy, not to mention difficult to fit in your interpretation. When it’s a noun, you can use the word abogar. The problem is, those words can be confusing if the context is legal, because a defensor can be a defense attorney and an abogado is an attorney, whereas the word advocate has a different connotation. I’ve searched message boards and there are long threads devoted to the word, but no one has the perfect answer.

After the role of an advocate (in the context of rape and sexual violence) had been described at the conference, I went up to the women who were my clients. “See that woman over there?” I asked, pointing at one of the advocates. “In your field, what would you call someone who does her job?”

One of them then proceeded to give me the perfect word, a word that had never turned up in all my searching. It was such an elegant solution, so smack-yourself-on-the-forehead obvious, a word that was a complete revelation. I immediately jotted it down in my steno pad and thanked the woman profusely. It came up many, many more times that day, and I loved having the perfect word to use.

And then I forgot it.

I have absolutely no idea what it is. I know from experience I won’t find it online, though I’ve looked, hoping I missed something the first time. I look at the stack of dozens of steno pads in my office and am daunted by the prospect of looking through all of them, and I curse the fact that I didn’t label the pad, that my system is so haphazard. I’m always hopeful that someday the word might just come to me again, or that it will reveal itself to me in a dream. Seriously.

Lesson learned. Ever since, I’ve recorded those notes on my iPod Touch when I’m on the go, so I won't forget them again. But I still mourn the loss of that perfect, perfect word.


Snickollet said...

Words like "advocate" are so tough. I hope the perfect translation comes back to you . . . losing a word like that is painful!

Anna said...

Keen -

I just found my way to your blog via snickollet's blog. I am reading a book about words, which I find both interesting and amusing. You might enjoy it - Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr.

Love your writing.