August 3, 2010

Reaction: "High cost of interpreters hits local courts"

There has been predictably negative reaction among the linguistic community in response to an article published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reporting on how some councils in the US are apparently bemoaning the cost of court interpreters. One councilman is quoted to have reacted to interpreters' pay by saying: "I need to get a Rosetta Stone [CD]. That's not a bad gig." Nobody on the other hand is reported to have commented on councillors' or lawyers' pay (or are people saying they really get paid less than interpreters?) by saying "I need to get myself a few law books."

The reaction from the translation and interpreting community echoes a longfelt feeling that clients and the public at large severely underestimate the high level of skill and training required to carry out this type of language work. Taking written translation first (and I should say that most of my own work involves this type of translation rather than spoken interpreting), it is worth reminding ourselves of what the task entails: one is generally expecting the translator to have a perfect understanding of the source text, to be able to convey the content of that source text in the target language not only extremely accurately, but with a quality of writing that disguises the fact that the new text is even a translation at all. The translator must be continually questioning their translation with issues such as, "what ambiguities am I potentially introducing into my translation that weren't there in the original?", or "in what way does my translation need cultural adaptation?". These can sometimes involve subtle nuances that take a great deal of linguistic experience and aptitude to spot and resolve.

When it comes to interpreting, the interpreter is generally expected to carry out much of this process on the fly, and in a courtroom, the potential implications of an accidental misunderstanding, omission or ambiguity may be all the more serious. As our learned friend embarks upon his "teach yourself Spanish in X weeks" course, I and many other linguists suspect he will discover that translating "anything thrown at him" to a standard admissible as court evidence is a bit more involved than ordering a coffee and asking directions to the station.

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