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The beauty of language diversity is also the source of many challenges, especially when interpreters are faced with words and expressions that are difficult to translate, do not have a direct correspondence or take three times longer to convey into another language. During simultaneous interpretation, the immediacy of the delivery adds to the complication. We have asked a few interpreters to share their stories with us and how they manage this incredibly taxing decision-making process.

Sarinya Wood, Thai - "We will bounce back!"

"This happened during the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. Thailand and USA’s first match was the last pair of the 32 team group stage. The defending champion, USA, wanted to tell the world that they had arrived at the World Cup, and Thailand was on the other hand excited to play their idols. USA beat Thailand 13-0 and as you could imagine, the Thai players were so devastated at the end of the match they could not appear on the stage for a post match interview. The Thai coach was left on her own to give a 5-min post match press conference. I, as the Thai team interpreter working for FIFA, was also devastated and I expected it to be a challenging assignment. Soon came a moment I will never forget, when the Thai coach was asked by a reporter how she would encourage her team after this big loss. She replied in Thai what was equivalent to “We will get up and fight again.” At that moment I knew this would sound quite bland in English, although this was how Thai people would say it. I had not much time to think as I was interpreting simultaneously through Interprefy platform, so I said it into the English channel “We will bounce back!”. In less than an hour I found articles on BBC and the Guardian websites that “Thailand boss urges her side to bounce back!”. I felt really proud that day."


Eugenia Strazzolini, Spanish - Diplomatic buzzwords

"Words such as “engagement” or “insight” which are very frequently used in diplomatic speeches do not have an exact Spanish equivalent, and therefore require paraphrasing and very, very quick thinking. I normally use a doublet to try and convey the whole meaning, so for instance, depending on the context, “engagement” could become “participación e inclusión [participation and inclusion]”."


Andrea Brocanelli, Spanish - "Empoderar?"

"I always struggle with the English and Spanish terms “empower/empoderar” which do not have a unique translation into Italian and always require analyzing the context to render the most accurate semantic meaning."


Dina Rashad, Arabic - Housekeeping? 

"A recurrent buzzword in online meetings and webinars is “housekeeping”, which often the moderators refer to at the start of the meeting to lay down some ground rules for the upcoming meeting. In Arabic this has no direct meaning for that context, so we also explain that it will some logistics like setting the formate of the webinar, setting the list of recommendations for the participants etc. which makes it much longer."


Camille Ogawa, Japanese - "Have you seen many aliens?"

"Japanese has a lot of homophonous words, as the language has much fewer sounds compared to English. You often need to see the word written to know exactly what it means, especially for compounds or technical terms, that are not common language. That's why interpreters insist on having scripts when it comes to highly specialized content! There is a well-known anecdote of a Japanese journalist asking astronauts coming back from one of the early space outings in the late 70s if they had seen "uchujin" while in space. The first thing that comes to mind when you hear this word is "alien", as it "uchu"means "space" and "jin" means "person". But actually the journalist was asking about "cosmic dust", because "dust" can also be pronounced as "jin"."


Ta Quang Dong, Vietnamese - Conveying the socio-political impact

"I recall an example of a word that has commonly been incorrectly translated. In English, there are verbs ending with –ize such as normalize, formalize, democratize… For these where the roots are adjectives, the Vietnamese versions are often structured as “the adjective + hóa” (“hóa” = to turn an adjective into something).  When Vietnam opened its doors to the world, introducing its Đổi mới (Renovation) policy in 1986, it encouraged 4 more economic sectors to become active and provide capital and resources for work and projects for which the State alone had insufficient budget. The process in Vietnamese is referred to as “xã hội hóa” (“xã hội” = society), so the majority of translators/interpreters in Vietnam translate these words into English as “socialize”, or “socialization”. Having studied the English words, I know that they were not conveying the sociopolitical meaning of the term. So, I tirelessly contributed in various fora of journalists and translators, informing them of such misinterpretations and providing the correct translations. In the above example, I suggested to paraphrase, “mobilizing non-State capital/resources to do something”, as well as keeping Vietnamese original word."


"Welcome to Duling where the sweet-scented osmanthus smells so good!"

Alessia Levi, Chinese: "The most challenging recurring situations are when I have to interpret into Chinese. Proper names and names of cities are hard to interpret because they use the Chinese version, so for instance Turin, my hometown, becomes Duling in Chinese."

Yan Sifan, Chinese: "In Chinese, there are lots of “成语” - set phrases. They usually come in 4 characters. When Chinese people give welcoming speeches or opening remarks, they love using those set phrases. For example, in autumn, Chinese people will say “在这秋高气爽、丹桂飘香的美好日子里” which literally means “On such a beautiful day when the sky is high, air is cool and sweet-scented osmanthus smells so good”. The problem is that, it only takes 4-5 seconds for Chinese but 12-15 seconds for the English translation. So literal translation is almost impossible in a simultaneous interpreting setting.  My strategy is to simplify the above translation to “On such a lovely autumn day” or something similar so that I have enough time to catch up with what the speaker is going to say next."


JL Villanueva-Senchuk, Spanish - "Y’all clean out pretty and ready?"

"I remember a conference about Alzheimer’s in Buenos Aires where the speaker used a couple of "Lunfardo" idioms (Lunfardo is an argot originated in the early 20th century in the lower classes in Buenos Aires). He first mentioned participants were surely hungry “seguro que nos pica el bagre” to signal an upcoming break and warned them not to eat too much, “no lastren mucho” as the conference would resume early next day. Both are Lunfardo idioms. He then immediately apologized to the interpreters, but the pun was obviously lost in translation as I rendered it to something like “I am sure you are all hungry... without further delay let us watch the show, chat during dinner and enjoy our Argentine wines, but don't overdo it, we start tomorrow at 9”. With RSI and interpreters being from all around the world, I’m not sure a Spanish interpreter unfamiliar with Argentine speakers would have known how to manage this. At another event a delegate from Texas started his speech with “Y’all clean out pretty and ready?”. We could write a book..."

Getting creative with swearwords

Francesco Saina, Italian: "Among the many online events held during the Covid era, I interpreted for the three-day general council of a political party with several international members. After a long and intense exchange, the discussion became animated and the tension among the various groups inside the party started to rise. The debate had been on thin ice for too long, and eventually one of the representatives of the council lost his cool and started yelling at one of his fellows. They soon began cursing and swearing at each other, and I was the one interpreting at that moment. I had to show off my entire repertoire of swear words in my target (foreign) language, and after a while even had to look up on-the-fly for more terms and synonyms to keep up with the creativity of speakers! It was rather unusual for me to see the embarrassed and puzzled faces of my listeners in their little squares on the videoconferencing platform."

JL Villanueva-Senchuk, Spanish: "High level meetings get interesting when delegates disrespect each other in the most politically correct, politest possible way, often resorting to complex linguistic choices to do so. One must really struggle for the appropriate words and register to render the same offense without changing the tone of the message." 


Enrieta Hasanaj, Albanian - May you reach 100 years!

"A particularly interesting challenge is also the use of congratulatory words from Albanian into English. E.g. when complimenting someone’s new clothes, we say "e gezofsh", which in English would need to be transformed into a very long "may you be pleased/enjoy wearing it”; or the general congratulatory "u befsh 100" becomes "may you reach 100 years"."


Camille Ogawa, Japanese - Interpreters or mathematicians?

"Translating numbers and years can be challenging for Japanese interpreters. There is a word for "10,000" ("man"), another for "100 million" ("oku"), but no Word for “million” or “billion”. So, when you hear "25 million", be ready to make some maths in your head, to say 250 oku! As for years, Japanese calendar, based on the reign of Emperors, is often preferred in conversation. Each reign has a name: thus 2021 is 3rd year of Reiwa, or Reiwa 3. Before Reiwa, Heisei ran from 1989 to 2018, and Showa from 1926 to 1989, so Heisei 12 must be translated by 2000, and Showa 20 by 1945."


The importance of context

Jan Rauch, German: "In German there are nouns that have a very common meaning but also very different ones that are less frequently used, where you need to know the exact context to spot what is being referred to. Two examples: "Ansatz", usually = "approach", but can also mean "batch"/"preparation" in chemical production; "Ausschuss", usually = "committee", but can also mean "reject"/"scrap" in manufacturing."

Camille Ogawa, Japanese. "While Japanese grammar is quite simple, this simplicity can oftentimes present a challenge when interpreting. Japanese has no singular or plural, no masculine or feminine and no future tense. Is it "I eat", "you eat", "they eat", "you will eat"? You only hear "eat" in Japanese... so the context will decide."

Elisabetta landolo, Italian: "I feel that the most difficult expressions to interpret are sometimes common words that have a corresponding generic term in the target language, but at the same time a number of different possible translations, depending on the context. Sometimes it is possible to get away by using that generic term, because the audience will be able to understand the meaning of the sentence. However, if we are less specific and neglect to use the variety of expressions at our disposal when interpreting, the speaker may sound less interesting or less eloquent. An example is the word “assessment”, which, out of context, is translated into the generic “valutazione” into Italian. However, when paired with another word such as “medical, risk, professional, situation assessment” it becomes “esame, analisi, giudizio, stima”."

Dina Rashad, Arabic: "Phrases like "disruptive technology", in Arabic translate as "Destroying technology". So I usually tend to illustrate the terminology, explaining it as smart, agile technology, technology that changed the core communities etc. based on the context."


Samira Saedi, Farsi. - When your etymology knowledge pays off

"Interpreting jargons are always challenging. My recent experience in interpreting for a Covid-19 vaccine consultation exemplify interpreters’ greatest fear: facing the never-heard-before word. It was a consultation where a Persian speaker patient was seeking advice on Covid-19 vaccines. During the consultation, the GP was advising the patient of the vaccines’ potential side effects with “myocarditis” being as the improbable one. “Myocarditis?” I thought to myself and paused. Immediately, my etymological knowledge came in for help. How? I recalled that “myo-“ means anything related to muscles, “cardi” which comes from the Greek word “Kardia” refers to heart and the suffix -itis signifies inflammatory diseases. Yes, it should refer to inflammation of the heart muscle. To mitigate the risk of misinterpretation though, I confirmed this with the GP and then relayed the message in Persian."


Elisabetta landolo, Italian - 12 syllables become 29

"Simultaneous interpretation has a lot to do with speed: while listening, the interpreter strives to find the best expressions before the speaker moves on to the next phrase. If speakers talk too fast, it may impact the accuracy of the interpretation and the interpreter’s delivery, especially in some language pairs where sentences in the source language are often shorter than their equivalent in the target language, such as English into Italian. A simple example like “Last week we picked up Emmanuel’s stepson from school” has 12 syllables in English but 29 in Italian “La settimana scorsa siamo andati a prendere il figlio adottivo di Emanuele a scuola”."


Camille Ogawa, Japanese. - "Mr or Ms?"

"In Japanese, when you hear the last name of a person, you cannot know whether it is a he or a she. So when interpreting, should you say Ms. or Mr.? You might guess with the first name, but not always. The Japanese like to call the people by their title rather than by their name, so even if you hear a first name in English (because the speaker is trying to show friendliness), as an interpreter, you should be ready to know that person's last name or title while interpreting. That is why we are so fussy about having participants’ lists!"

A myriad of challenges - solved in a split second

Each language brings in a myriad of new challenges, all of which have to be solved in a split second, all the while actively listening to the speaker and speaking for an attentive audience. Interpreters do it without missing a beat! Yet another proof of the incredibly complex work they perform, every day, behind the "choose your language" button.

Interprefy wishes to thank all interpreters who have generously contributed with their examples.


Dora Murgu

Written by Dora Murgu

Learn about the latest developments at Interprefy by Dora Murgu, Head of Training and Engagement at Interprefy