Interpreting is like…

Two veteran interpreters arrive at an assignment with plenty of time to spare. The client greets them and then invites them to a cup of coffee before the day’s activities begin.

“I’ve always been really fascinated by the work that interpreters do,” says the client. “How do you do it?”

“Well,” says one of the interpreters, “it’s not so difficult. Interpreting is like a bridge, and interpreters travel back and forth across the bridge delivering the messages between the two languages.”

Everyone took a sip of coffee and let the image play for a while in their minds.

“My colleague is right to an extent,” added the other interpreter, “but I don’t agree entirely with that analogy. After all, engineers do not say ‘a bridge is like interpreting’. Interpreting is so much more. Sure, one may cart the word house across without much complication, but what about delivering a foreign remark such as eating beetles for breakfast? Certainly the interpreter must make some modification or clarification, or else lose her audience. The interpreter cannot simply replace one word with another. She must find something similar, something familiar to the listener on which to anchor the interpretation. No, interpreting is like dismantling and rebuilding a statue: the same elements are there, but the figure is somewhat different.”

The client listened attentively.

“That may be, that may be,” replied the first interpreter as he took a sip from his cup, then set it down. “However, that cannot entirely capture the essence of interpreting. After all, sculptors do not say ‘rebuilding a statue is like interpreting’. Interpreting is so much more. Perhaps a word like reconvene can be deconstructed and rebuilt with all its parts intact, but what about a rhythmic fragment such as beautiful, baby-blue bells? Something will have to be added or taken away in the process to make the interpretation seem natural and convey the same feel, or else the result will be unsightly. The interpreter must find something similar, something familiar to the listener which can frame the interpretation. That is the sad truth about interpretations: they either sound horrible, but preserve the elements of the original speaker, or they sound pleasant and natural, but commit a few betrayals along the way. They are either a beautiful and unfaithful woman, or an ugly but loyal one.”

The second interpreter, a woman, took offense. “I understand your point, but one cannot relate the beauty and fidelity of women to interpreting. I’ve met uncomely women who seem to have forgotten than they even have a husband and, better yet, beautiful women who act as one with their companion. Interpretations cannot be likened to a woman and her fidelity—or to a man and his for that matter. No, interpreting is like…”

“…it’s own thing?” interjected the client.

“Yes.” The interpreters let the word slide slowly out of their mouths in unison as it made its way to the center of the small table, where its realization grew until it engulfed all three participants.

The client continued: “It seems not one metaphor is big enough to fully explain what you do and, surprisingly, I think now that interpreting is like finding metaphors for interpreting. You must find something similar, something familiar in order to help me see what you know and I do not know.”

“That is true,” said one of the interpreters. “We cannot teach you the other person’s language or culture, but we can, for a moment, show you what it is like.”

More people started to arrive; the room began to bustle with activity in preparation for the day. The three pushed away from the table, satisfied with the morning’s conversation, and got to work.

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