The right word in the right place

Interpreting - a profession once dangerous, now demanding!

There was a time when interpreting could be considered a dangerous profession. Unscrupulous interpreters who misinterpreted for their own gain were imprisoned or executed and in China a punishment decreed against wilful misinterpretation was a form of bamboo torture.

Today, interpreting has no such dangers now that it has its own official international body, the AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters), to set and maintain standards. It does however remain one of the most demanding occupations requiring a degree of accuracy, speed and understanding of the culture, which along with the feelings of the speaker must be conveyed in a different language.

The interpreter must be alert to think and react instantaneously, delivering the speakers message with the right expressions, emphasis and accuracy - all in a matter of seconds. There can be no interrupting of head-of-state to ask what he said!

Misunderstanding do occur. Take for example the German interpreter who when trying to convey to Englishmen the expression "Early to bed, early to rise", actually said "Early to bed, up with the cock."

When Jimmy Carter was President of the United States, he mystified the Poles when instead of saying "I came to Poland because I love you people" his interpreter said "I came to Poland because I want to make love with you people".

The opening up of Eastern Europe has presented a particular challenge for interpreters when it comes to translating western business terms. The Poles, Russians, East Germans and others in the Eastern bloc, having been used to strictly collective institutions, have no direct translation in their own language of many of the private market and commercial terms in common use in the West.

Interpreting has many challenges, but few greater than those caused by different cultures. The Japanese for example never directly say "no" because it is considered impolite. To overcome this they have in their language many untranslatable sounds to avoid the direct negative. This is a case where the interpreter must have a deep understanding of the culture.

Conversely, politicians who are perfectly fluent in a foreign language will often use an interpreter to make it appear they don't understand a word, enabling them to buy time and consider their response while the interpreter is speaking.

In their profession, interpreters face many challenges - to them it's all in a day's work.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "The right word in the right place". March 11, 2004. Accessed April 3, 2020. <>.

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