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Interpreters are just talking dictionaries? Think twice.

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

I worked with an 'interpreter' a while back at a diplomatic occasion. She had received the transcript of the speech given by the governor of a Chinese province in advance. She wrote down the translation of the speech and read it from her notebook word by word. She had no idea the governor was improvising and she still clung to the script. The audience consisted of many scholars with knowledge of both Chinese and English, who were shocked to hear one thing from the governor and completely something else from the 'interpreter'. Later on, I learnt that she was a cheaper option because the delegation wanted to save money.

This is but one example of many peculiar experiences I have encountered in my interpreting career. In another occasion, I was arranged to work with a fellow interpreter who showed up with zero preparation. He was booked only 2 days in advance and charged 1/3 of my fees. I recommended a colleague to work with me but she was considered 'too expensive' and the client 'could not afford another interpreter' that matches my fees. It is worth noting that the client is a world renowned company with thousands of employees and annual turnovers in millions. As you have probably imagined, the assignment did not go as smoothly as I had planned. I had to take his place many times as he could not have interpreted what was being said. I have heard clients saying how ridiculous it is to pay "that much money" for a "talking dictionary" (i.e. me), and that I can easily be replaced by someone far cheaper. I have seen so many instances of interpreting gone wrong and ideas lost in translation.

Of course, there are no shortages of wonderful experiences. I have helped many clients sign life-changing contracts. I, together with trusted colleagues, facilitated effective communication in international conferences and events aiming at forging partnership and resolving disputes. This is easily achievable when one realises the actual value of professional interpreting (and translation) services. I've had the fortune of meeting so many interesting people in my profession. I've worked with passionate speakers who take pride in their jobs and with people in desperate situations. Interpreters change people's lives as much as people can change theirs. I was not a fan of Liverpool FC until I took on a job to interpret the Anfield Stadium guide introducing the club history with so much enthusiasm and love for the club.

Getting ideas as well as the attitude and passion across in another language is wildly different from and far more difficult than being a 'talking dictionary'. Words and meaning are merely the superficial elements of interpreting. The same expression can be uttered with so many different intended purposes. The nuances of languages can only be conveyed with the help of persistent practice, accumulated experience and dedicated learning. When you pay for an interpreting service, you're not merely paying for translation of utterances, but also hours and even days of preparation. I spend on average 24 working hours preparing for every assignment I accept. Preparation typically entails researching the subject matter in both languages, compiling glossaries, learning about the background of the conference/event, learning the names and organisations of speakers and key participants by heart, researching the agenda, anticipating the questions and problems that may occur in the event, searching for videos of the speakers online in case they have an accent unfamiliar to the interpreter and practising talking about the subject in both languages (i.e. giving the tongue a warm-up exercise). The list goes on.

Professional interpreters go through rigorous training and interpreting is a profession that requires life-long commitment. As you may happily pay for lawyers and doctors for their expertise, please kindly think twice before you define interpreters as 'talking dictionaries'.

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