Why Can’t all Words Be So Simple?

Thank goodness for words like “judge”. Juez just rolls off the tongue so nicely. I can say it in French with no problem at all, and assuming there is a similar concept in any other language of choice, a bilingual dictionary would probably make me look good on my first try. Yes, thank goodness for words like judge, and apple, and pencil. They leave so little room for error.

Too bad they are not all so simple. Consider, for example, the word “to taunt.” Take the following definition: “v. To make fun of or insult, often to get someone to do something. n. A mocking remark, made as a challenge or an insult.” (http://www.wordreference.com/definition/taunt). A quick bilingual search hands you at least three different options. Not only is it difficult to find a word in Spanish that actually captures the idea of “taunting” in its entirety, but let’s just pick provocar and consider the following.

Attorney: Isn’t it true that you taunted the defendant so that he would become angry and strike you?

Interpreter: ¿No es cierto que Ud. provocó al acusado para que se enojara y le golpeara?

Defendant: Pues no, no le provoqué.

Interpreter: Well no, I didn’t… … …

Internal interpreter monologue while all eyes watch his next move: Okay I said provocar, and he answered provocar, and I want to say “provoke” but I’m pretty sure the attorney said something else originally…oh wait I know…

…taunt him. [Interpreter breathes internal self-congratulatory sigh of relief and wonders why no-one is clapping.]

This scenario demonstrates the best possible outcome, even if the interpreter is left feeling slightly deflated, wondering if he actually should have said, “instigar,” “burlarse de” or any other number of insult/tease/provoke-type words.

At the end of the day, nuanced language generates all sorts of problems. As we have seen, we first have to pick a proper translation in the target language. After that, we must maintain uniformity, just on your own but also from partner to partner and day to day on a trial that can have multiple interpreters. This is much easier said than done.

But finally, it is the guesswork of idiomatic language that has me stymied. At least in this English-Spanish case, the interpreter understood the nuances and used his better judgment to choose “provocar.” But if the utterance had originated in Spanish, he almost certainly would have chosen “provoke” for provocar or “instigate” for instigar. Poor little “taunt” will never be pulled out of the vocabulary hat, and this tends to make our interpretation into English lose the rich color and variation that the language has to offer.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on the matter. In the meantime, I’m just happy when I can stick to interpreting about judges, apples, and pens.

Published at http://najit.org/blog on 2/13/15

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