Friday, 4 May 2012

Words don’t (always) come easy

Working as a translator for two decades, I inevitably became a ‘Jill of all trades and master of none’. Over the years, I morphed overnight into an expert on zip manufacture (70,000 words – riveting...), raising geese for pâté de foie gras (revolting practice – wouldn’t eat the stuff if you paid me!), MBAs (reckon I’m probably in line for an honorary degree after proofreading all those course materials) and multifarious other topics.
This aspect of the work is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, because often just as you begin to grasp the rudiments of one topic, the project’s suddenly over and you have to start from scratch again, mugging up on another area of expertise.
Interpreting (ie converting the spoken, not written, word into another language) is similar – only worse.  As you can imagine, if you’re in a board meeting or at a conference there’s no time to pore painstakingly over a dictionary to find that elusive and clever ‘jeu de mots’ the speaker has just used to conclude their speech triumphantly.
You need to have the right words ready immediately to hand (or, better still, to tongue), no matter how technical the terminology that’s being bandied about by delegates,  who – let’s not forget – probably eat, sleep and breath their specialism. They’ve had years to accumulate all the jargon in their mother tongue, while you’ve had a couple of days to ‘cram’ it all in your own beleaguered brain – in both your mother tongue plus a foreign language.
And, as I’ve discovered to my cost, one thing is for sure: no matter how long you immerse yourself in the subject matter for a forthcoming assignment, there’s always a phrase or two guaranteed to catch you out.
One of my more memorable jobs occurred early in my career, when I was sent to interpret at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London (not a place I’m planning on returning to any time soon – those pneumatic doors nearly frightened the life out of me).
I’d been warned that the prisoner for whom I’d be interpreting (a French-speaking African) had allegedly been involved in practising voodoo, so I’d compiled an extensive - if rather alarming - list of vocabulary,  so I was pretty confident that I knew my gris-gris from my Ouija... What I wasn’t prepared for was when the lawyer asked me to put the following question to the accused party: “And did you at any point push Mr X’s face into a bowl of chicken entrails?” It was then that I realised that sometimes in life, no amount of preparation is ever going to be enough...

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