Selfies, selfies everywhere, and not a chance to think

Date
Sep
14
20160914

Selfies, selfies everywhere, and not a chance to think

According to a recent report in Spanish, sourced from Univisión on 6 August this year, there was a slight hiccup in the interpreting service provided to Venezuelan television viewers watching the live broadcast of the Olympics opening ceremony. When IOC Chairman Thomas Bach lamented the fact “selfishness is gaining ground”, the unfortunate interpreter told viewers that “los selfies están por todos lados”, i.e. “everywhere you look, people are taking selfies”. While at a deep level these two statements may be more synonymous than they look, our colleague was promptly pilloried on the social and other media, and his or her English skills and intelligence were hung out to dry.

But it may be worth remembering that every time we point the finger at someone or something, there are three fingers pointing straight back at us. I can remember committing a similar offence many years ago on an interpreting assignment in Tahiti, in talks between the French authorities and a mission from Australia and New Zealand. I was interpreting consecutively, i.e. waiting for a stop or pause in the speaker’s flow, then interpreting the chunk of content I had memorised. My Venezuelan colleague would have been translating the speech simultaneously, but either way, I can tell you that the mental processes involved in interpreting are creative and chaotic rather than cool, calm and logical.

My “selfies” type error was to translate the French word indigent – meaning “indigent, not well off”, pronounced something “Andy-John” – as if it had been indigène – meaning “indigenous”, pronounced more like “Andy-Jen”. I remember hearing the word correctly, but that impression was “overridden” by the wider context of the discussion, and I made what looks like a very silly mistake (which was duly corrected by my clients).

The process can also work the other way around – on one occasion when interpreting about some sort of audio or telecom equipment I “heard” the French party say that the device operated with this or that number of voix. Now this normally means “voices”, but remember thinking in a split second “we would say ‘channels’ in this context”, and translating accordingly. The French word actually used was voies, pronounced in exactly the same way, which is indeed glossed as “way” or “channel”. So this time around mental associations of which I was conscious had led me astray, but at some subconscious level my brain had rectified the matter.

Now for a final example of this sort of predicament, let’s turn to a translation error that raised a bit of dust a few years ago (reported by Dr Frank Austermühl, then head of the School of Translation Studies at Auckland University). During the debate on the US and British invasion of Iraq and why they were doing it, an American official had said “We didn’t have any economic options”. Now when reading this sentence an English native hears a stress on the word “economic”, and construes the sense as “we didn’t have any way to influence the situation by economic means, i.e. sanctions” (and therefore military intervention was supposedly necessary).

But this was translated into German (as I recall from Frank’s paper) as “we didn’t have any economic option”. This time the stress goes on the word “option”, and the perceived meaning is “economically there was nothing else we could do”. The German newspaper promptly put two and two together, came up with fifty-three, and produced the headline “See – it was the oil!”.

The moral, dear reader, is that interpreting and translation can be a very delicate business, where all sorts of subtleties, and stress, both linguistic and psychological, can play an important part in the process. As a professional translator and (formerly) interpreter, I am not able to laugh at these anecdotes in the same as an external audience. There but for the grace of God …