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By Priti Bhatia, PhD Scholar at University of Mumbai
What is interpretation? Isn’t it the same as translation? Isn’t basic linguistic knowledge enough to become an interpreter without acquiring any special skills? These questions are symptomatic of some the myths surrounding the profession of interpretation, particularly in India, a multilingual country, where everyone knows a minimum of three languages. Contrary to common belief, it is not easy to find someone who has the requisite skill to be able to “translate” what another person is saying, unless he acquires special skills required for translation.
This scenario is true not only of India, but also of all societies where people speak many languages and are used to switching from one language to another with great ease. In such societies, it is difficult to explain the intricacies of interpretation to someone who does not have specialized knowledge about such intricacies. Be it India, or the Republic of South Africa, for example, another multilingual country, there is the same misconception about interpretation: that anyone can do it providing they know the languages involved.
This paper will attempt to identify some of the myths with a view to removing common misconceptions surrounding the profession of interpretation.
Let us examine these myths one by one:
Myth no.1: “Basic knowledge of languages is enough to interpret.”
Reality: In order to interpret, one needs to have complete mastery over the working languages. Basic linguistic knowledge is insufficient.
In order to master a language, it is essential to know the history, geography, culture, traditions, and social conditions of the country where the language is spoken because language is influenced by all these factors.
 A speaker can refer to any event, historical, political or social and use any idiom. The interpreter’s role is to assume the identity of the speaker. This point is best illustrated by taking the example of a person interpreting from say French into English. The interpreter naturally requires thorough understanding of the French language, history, geography, culture, etc., to be able to fully comprehend what the speaker is saying. In addition, he also has to have an equally thorough knowledge of English so that he can adequately convey the speaker’s thoughts to the English–speaking audience.
Here is an example to illustrate the above-mentioned point: if a French President refers to “the Hexagon”, he is not referring to the geometrical figure, but to France which has six-sides and is therefore also known as “Hexagon”. An interpreter who is not aware of French geography may not understand the actual meaning of the word and may simply interpret it as “the hexagon”, which detracts from its real meaning.
Myth no. 2: “Interpretation is translation”
Reality: Interpretation is not translation.
Here are some major differences between translation and interpretation:
  • - The Technique:
“The translator reads and writes, the interpreter listens and speaks”:
The translator reads a document and writes the translated version, the interpreter listens to a speech and interprets on the spot, be it consecutive, simultaneous or whispering interpretation.
  • - The time factor:
The translator has time to read the document, study it, and fully understand the subject before undertaking the task of translation. On the other hand, the interpreter has to familiarise himself/herself with the subject before the assignment, little knowing what to expect as he/she normally does not get the documents before the speaker starts to speak.
  • - Consulting dictionaries, glossaries:
The translator gets time to consult dictionaries, glossaries, or even consult other colleagues in order to get the correct terminology. The interpreter has no such luxury and has to come fully prepared with all the terminology at his/her finger-tips, as no time is given to the interpreter to “translate” and to check vocabulary lists etc. In the case of interpretation, the terminology has to come naturally and instantaneously.
  • - The place:
Unlike the interpreter, the translator never gets to meet the client, while the interpreter is often in the very same room as the client. Very often, the interpreter sits in a sound-proof booth, big enough to hold only two people. In certain scenarios, the interpreter gets to interact with the clients directly and can judge from the expression on the faces of the listeners whether or not this interpretation is clear and would try to rectify any problem, so that the listeners understand what is being said, whereas the translator does not have such opportunity, and has to submit his translated version before finding out whether or not the translation is clear.
Myth no. 3: “Anyone can interpret.”
Reality: Many specific skills are required to be an interpreter. Some of these have been alluded to above. However, a comprehensive list is given hereunder:
  • - Mastery of the working languages
  • - Good general knowledge
  • - Oratorical skills
  • - Analytical skills
  • - Communication skills, both to understand what the speaker is saying as well as to convey those thoughts to the listeners
  • - Knowledge of various cultures
According to a survey carried out by this author, these are the skills that trainers of interpretation would like to see in their students, the highest ranking skills being linguistic skills, analytical skills and general knowledge. The results of this survey confirm not only the general lack of such skills, but also the need for specialized training for their acquisition.
According to the European Masters in Conference Interpreting website, a candidate seeking admission to a course in interpretation must have the above-mentioned skills, should be able to handle stress and have a high level of concentration.
Myth no. 4: “No training required.”
Reality: Specialized training in interpretation is essential in order to become an efficient interpreter. This was made abundantly clear when the Paris School of Interpretation and Translation was set up in order to train interpreters. In their book, Pédagogie raisonnée de l’interprétation (1989), Danica Seleskovitch and Marianne Lederer elaborated a particular methodology to teach interpretation. Danica Seleskovitch and Marianne Lederer are both considered leading world authorities on the teaching of interpretation. This book was translated into English in 1995 by Jacolyn Harmer entitled “A systematic approach to teaching interpretation”. The pedagogy suggested by Seleskovitch and Lederer is still followed by most of the interpretation schools found in different parts of the world.
In India, the same methodology is used, to some degree, by the Centre of French and Francophone Studies in the School of Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, but not necessarily by the other Centres teaching interpretation. Those teaching interpretation in JNU are, by and large, professional interpreters who can impart a certain type of training to their students since they are aware of what is required.
There are some other institutes and two other universities in India, namely the University of Pune and the University of Puduchery which provide courses in interpretation. In some of these institutes, the trainers may or may not be professional interpreters. Those who have undergone a course in interpretation can guide their students in the right direction. A study carried out by this author reveals that some people who are training aspiring interpreters are not interpreters themselves. There is thus considerable scope for improvement in the methodology followed in India.
Apart from Jawaharlal Nehru University which offers a two-year course in interpretation as part of the Master’s programme in various foreign languages, (but none whatsoever in Indian languages) there is no other university in India where interpretation is taught for more than one semester and that too only consecutive interpretation in French. The only other language apart from French in which training in interpretation is provided, outside of the foreign languages taught in Jawaharlal Nehru University, is Japanese at the Indo-Japanese Association in Pune.
From the above it is apparent that one semester in consecutive interpretation is not enough – a full-length two year course is required in all languages for which there is demand.
Myth no 5: “One or two interpreters are enough for any language combination.”
 Reality: In reality two interpreters cannot cope with the work load with any degree of efficiency. The reason for this is very simple: studies have shown that the concentration levels of any interpreter start declining after approximately twenty minutes. When concentration levels drop, it can affect the quality of interpretation. Therefore, there is need for a change of interpreters every twenty minutes or so.
However, in India, according to a survey carried out by this author, some Indian interpreters feel that they can carry on interpreting for approximately thirty minutes or longer without it affecting the quality of their interpretation. Which brings us to the following questions: Do Indians have a higher degree of concentration than the rest of the world, or have they absolutely no clue what they are talking about. It appears to be more of the latter for the simple reason that many Indian interpreters are untrained, and know very little about interpretation.
Myth no. 6: “The interpreter can work a minimum of eight hours on any number of consecutive days.”
Reality: Interpreters, in teams of two, are expected to work for a duration of at least eight hours, and sometimes even ten or eleven hours at a stretch during the entire duration of the assignment. However it is difficult to sustain such intensive work for more the three or four days, unless there is a break, for which there is no time if there are only two interpreters. This has been borne out by many studies carried out by different institutes/universities in Europe, China and Japan, where research in interpretation is still being undertaken, such as the University of Salamanca (Salamanca, Spain), Ecole Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (Paris, France), University of Trieste, Italy, Hong Kong Baptist University (Hong Kong) to cite a few.
Myth no.7: “The interpreter can work into either A or B language.”
Reality: Interpreters are only expected to interpret into their A language (normally considered the mother-tongue). In India, it is expected that interpreters work into their A, B or even C languages, which once again could affect the quality of their interpretation as the proficiency in the B or C languages may not be the same as that in the A language.
It is true that today, interpreters even at the European Parliament, have started working into their B language; something that was unheard of earlier. This trend started with the break-up of the USSR in 1991. As countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union started joining the European Union, they also became members of the European Parliament, where all parliamentarians have the right to speak in their own mother-tongue. Since the European Parliament did not, at the time, have interpreters with many of the languages as A language, interpreters having those languages as their B languages were hired to interpret therein.
The major difference between Indian interpreters and the ones at the European Parliament who interpret into their B or C languages (as might be the case with some Indian interpreters) is that the European Parliament, unlike the Indian Parliament, only recruits interpreters having undergone a course in interpretation and having some amount of experience in it. Naturally, there is considerable difference in the quality of interpretation.
Myth no. 8: “No preparation is required before an assignment.”
Reality: Getting the documents used in the event in advance, is essential to enable the interpreter to prepare the terminology. As mentioned earlier, unlike the translator, the interpreter has no time to hunt for the terminology. However, the speakers are not aware of how important it is to hand over a copy of their speech/presentation to the interpreter in advance, and the documents rarely reach the interpreter in time.
Myth no. 9: “Interpretation will become obsolete in another fifteen or twenty years thanks to machine translation.”
Reality: It is true that machine translation and interpretation is coming up in a big way. The question is: can machines ever replace human beings completely? Here is an example of what happened when machine translation took over the job of an interpreter:
A machine was being used as an interpreter between an English man and a Russian. All went well until the former cited the proverb: “Out of sight, out of mind”. This brought a puzzled look on the Russian’s face. When the machine was reversed, it transpired that the proverb was being translated as “blind idiot”!
Machine translation definitely makes it easier to find terminology, but will the interpreter have time to hunt for the terminology?
Matthew Perret, an AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters) interpreter, believes that machine translation will surely become more important, but will never be able to understand human emotion. Intonation, he explains, is a very important factor in communication. Since interpretation is all about helping people communicate, it has to do with communication. In English, intonation can change the very meaning of the sentence.
Let us look at the following example:
This shirt is nice.
Now read this sentence again putting the emphasis on the first word:
This shirt is nice.
Read it again, shifting the emphasis on the next word:
This shirt is nice.
This shirt is nice.
This shirt is nice.
In each case, there is a nuance in what exactly the speaker is trying to convey, and therefore cannot be interpreted in the same way.
Which is why machine translation or any other technical gadgets will not be able to replace the interpreter for a very long time.
Myth no. 10: “English spoken is everywhere.”
Reality: True, English has become a global language and everyone in the world speaks it. We hear of words like Chinglish, Spanglish, Hinglish, etc. Each of these is influenced by the local languages, and culture of the people who speak them. Each one has certain accents which may, or may not, be difficult to comprehend. English may have become a global language thanks to globalisation, but the English language is so different from place to place that it may not always be possible for people from different regions to understand each other.
Consider, for example, the sign “We fix flats”. In England it signifies a property dealer, and in U.S. someone who repairs burst tyres! In India, the word “backside” is used frequently. Let us look at the following example: “You’ll get it in the backside!” (Indian English). To Indians, it simply means “You will find it at the back”, which is definitely not what it would mean to other nationalities who speak English.
This simply shows how, although English is indeed spoken by people around the world, it may, in some cases, not be that simple to understand, and could be misunderstood.
Global English is very different the world over, and in some countries, is a different language all together. In India, interpreters are already needed to interpret from Hinglish into English! This only proves that interpreters are here to stay.
The persistence of the kind of myths described above leads to the conclusion that India has a long way to go in rectifying the deficiencies with regard to training, working conditions, even basic awareness of what interpretation really is all about. There is urgent need to make a beginning by creating awareness in the country with regard to interpretation, not only on the part of the general public, but also on the part of the government agencies that use interpretation almost on a daily basis, for example in the Indian Parliament, during the visits of foreign dignitaries or when Indian dignitaries go abroad. Proper training in interpretation will certainly improve the quality of interpretation in India.
Some may argue that this step may not be required as interpretation involving human interpreters is on its way out. This is however not true as explained above. There is a huge market not only for language combinations with English and other foreign languages, but also for Hindi. There is also a market for regional languages. This was brought out very clearly in a survey referred to eariler, as many agencies recruiting interpreters confirmed that they could never find qualified interpreters for interpreting regional languages into foreign languages.
Proper training with different language combinations including Hindi and other regional languages, as well as foreign languages would go a long way in, not only in producing world-class interpreters, but also in reviving Indian languages.
Currently, India has very few interpreters who can compete with other interpreters in the world. This is obvious from the fact that India has only one interpreter who is a member of the AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters). This points to a very sorry state of affairs which definitely needs to be corrected. The question that remains is: do Indian interpreters want to be among the best, and if so, are they ready to do what is necessary to achieve that status?
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Author’s Profile
Priti Bhatia is a translator and interpreter with over thirty years’ experience. She has done her MA and M.Phil. in French from Jawaharlal Nehru University, having specialised in Scientific and Technical Translation and Conference Interpretation. Currently, she is teaching Translation at the Department of French, University of Mumbai. She is also pursuing her Ph.D in French from the University of Mumbai.
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