“Do You Want Me To Interpret or Translate?”

The first time I noticed the difference between a translator and an interpreter was during the 1996 Miss Universe pageant. Alicia Machado, Miss Venezuela, was answering the questions in Spanish but what the assigned translator said in English was a better, more polished interpretation of what she had mentioned. The realization that the person communicating on her behalf was making her look smarter and more charming felt like a betrayal to the intent of the contest. To this day I think the interpreter won the crown for her.

Since Spanish is my mother tongue, I find myself in this situation all the time. Should I interpret or translate instead? There is a difference: verbatim vs the gist of it. I can translate word for word what was exactly said or I could just give you an idea of what the discussion was like thus simplifying it for you. In business transactions, interpreting can give both parties a negotiating edge if the person communicating for them has tact and grace. Translating a conversation full of negative remarks, rudeness or temperamental threats can hinder the overall discussion and will have the opposite effect. I’ve been in this situation many times and I let the mood suggest the appropriate response.

The translate vs. interpret conundrum surfaced again when I watched the movie Race. To lighten a very bad exchange between the USA Olympic Commission envoy Avery Brundage and Dr Goebbels of Nazi Germany during the 1936 Olympic Games, Leni Reinfenstahl played by Carice Van Houten (Melissandre, Game of Thrones) asked the American if he wanted her to translate or interpret. It was evident from his tone and posture that German had nothing of value to say, just insults and threats, that were inflammatory. To the movie viewer the subtitles provided a clue as to what the translation would have revealed but Mr Brundage got the gist of it from the remark. For all I know he was never told what was exactly hurled his way. In this case ignorance was bliss, if only temporarily.

This got me to realize that if in matters of political importance translation and interpretation are still a problem, imagine what these can do to personal and professional relationships. Even if someone translates for you or on your behalf, you couldn’t really check if what was said was what was intended. Did the person convey the proper emotion and emphasis that the body language put into the words? Even the power of Google Translate falls short when it tries to translate and interpret the meaning of a sentence, text or phrase. Unless the author can shed light on their own words in many languages we will never effectively know what was communicated. If only we could all speak the same language…

At some point we will get better technology and more accurate speech pattern recognition software that will enable true interpretation and translation of the conversations occuring in real time. Until then, make sure that you have clear direction as to whether your group or peep wants you to translate or interpret. With translation, the listeners are the ones interpreting which can be problematic if you want to be specific and precise. With interpretation you can narrow the discussion towards a desired result. Be careful and ensure that you were as close to the intention as possible, especially if there is written or recorded records of the conversation. The difference could help you win or lose big time! When in doubt remain honest and direct. Your diligence can earn someone else a crown. 😉

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