Interpreting and Translating For Peace

An interpreter is not the same as a translator. I saw "The Interpreter" with a friend over the weekend and I want to recommend it to all drama/suspense or conspiracy theory buffs. The Interpreter with Nicole KidmanThe actual reason for this post is that I can relate to the character and setting of the movie in a couple of ways.
Synopsis (paraphrase from the official movie website): Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) is an African-born U.N. interpreter who overhears a plot to assassinate an African head of state in a language only a handful of people can understand. It is due to take place when he delivers a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. However, U.S. Federal Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) doesn't believe her story. Silvia's suspicious behaviour and dark past make it hard to tell if she's a victim or a suspect.
Though I've lost the skills to interpret and translate multiple languages now, I performed this service for my family in countless situations while growing up; it's true, children are like sponges when it comes to learning languages. I was in auto-interpret mode most of the time: I couldn't help but eavesdrop on people speaking nearby; they often didn't think twice that someone within earshot might actually know their "secret" chattering. With all the current cloak & dagger activities coming from our government, I should have kept up with my languages; I hope to reawaken these skills in the near future.

United Nations logoThe other connection I have to the film is my brush with the United Nations. In college, I had a couple of friends who worked for the UN as interpreters. I met Sophie and Marcus when they enrolled at the University's Summer Language Program; I was a Conversation "Ambassador" and they were in my group. The program is popular for overseas students (mostly from Japan and Northern Europe) looking to enhance their language skills; placed with conversationalists allow language students to pick up on cultural references, idioms, vernaculars, and proverbs not likely encountered in classroom settings. I kept up with them after the end of the program.

During my year as an Education Abroad Program student to Norwich, England (go UEA!), I went to visit them in Geneva, Switzerland at Winter Break. UEA: The Ziggurat Residence HallBoth Sophie and Marcus were interpreters at the U.N., and they gave me a tour of the facilities. I admit it was a bit juvinile: I sat in the "Big Chair" when we came to the General Assembly hall.

During lunch, our converstaion was about the demands of being an interpreter and working at the U.N. I had made the mistake of calling them translators, and was politely, yet firmly, corrected. They made it very clear that an interpreter and a translator require different trainings and skills. The media is the most obvious difference between the two: interpreters deal with the oral language, while translators deal with written text. Beyond this, the differences in the training, skills, and talents needed for each job are vast.

Interpreters are expected to translate orally on-the-fly with context and tone to guide the choice of words they use. They are expected to translate in two or more languages on the spot. Interpreters can work in "simultaneous" or "consecutive" mode. The Interpreter with Nicole KidmanSimultaneous interpreting is the more popular form, where the interpreter speaks as soon as s/he comprehends the speaker. Think of it as paraphrasing for a monolinguist. Consecutive interpreting is when the speaker takes long pauses to allow the interpreter to translate what has been said.

Translators, on the other hand, are much more context-base and often subject-experts. Professional translators translate only in one direction (usually to their native language); bi- and multi-lingual individuals are proficient to a degree but often need the aid of dictionaries and reference materials to translate text in multiple languages. Translators often need to have a solid knowledge of the source and target cultures to be effective in their work.

I dedicate this post to my friends Sophie and Marcus, they are still interpreters at the U.N.

tags: ...........
another point of view ...

Anonymous Michelle

Yeah, I have a translator friend and she told me all about the difference between translating and interpreting. She said the pay is better for interpreting, but there was too much stress. She's happy as a translator, though.

At one place where she worked, there were rows of desks and she just checked in and did her work. But at another company, she could just take take the work home (unless they were classified information).

I've not seen "The Interpreter" but it does sound like it's a good movie.
- Michelle B.

Anonymous Kelly

We were suppose to see it this weekend, but one of the kids got sick. So we rented a bunch of DVDs and just relaxed at home. Oh well, if we don't make it to the theater next weekend, then I think we'll just have to wait for DVD rental. - Kelly

Anonymous Miguel

I have a similiar experience with you. My family counted on me to interpret and translate for them when we first came to this country.

I still do it for them for important stuff - like having to talk to the real estate agent (we should have gotten a Spanish-speaking agent!). - Miguel

Blogger yudeology

i see this is the movie u mentioned.. sounds like a good one. but i dun think they're going to show it over here during the film fest. it's not in the schedule. maybe it might come into the movie theatres! i will keep a lookout for it.

Blogger AmerAzn

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Nam LaMore

michelle: i hope you go see it. i suppose some companies see its employees as just faceless bodies, hence the rows of dsks. but, what i've learned is that most for-profit companies place their priorities elsewhere, hence employee loyalty is always in question :-)

kelly: to be honest, you won't loose much on the small screen. i happen to see it on the big screen; i can't see you getting more out of the big screen. save your $$ for something that deserves the big screen (like the up-coming, last episode of 'star wars')

miguel: isn't it always up to the kids to look after the family in such situations? tell me, are you a first- or second-generation immigrant? i hear that's a common thread with for those of us of the first- or second-generation kids. i guess this need phases out by the third-generation.

yudeology: 'the interpreter' is a hollywood-, big budget-movie (nikki commands a hefty sums!) and sounds like the filmfest you're at is for shoe-string budget movies. when you do see it, do come back and let me know - i'm always curious about how people react to languages, whether they are mono-, bi-, or poly-lingual.

amerazn: you're welcome. i was actually hoping to get your perspective on what it means when people say 'translator' or 'interpreter' - does it bother you when people use them interchangeably? or do you just brush it off as ignorance? sounds like you do get annoyed, i hope that you do take the time to explain the difference to them. you know, you probably can still work fo rthe state dept. why not think about working for the foriegn affairs, it's one place where language skills is an absolute requirement.

Blogger AmerAzn

Well...I deleted my previous comment...I took your advice. I do want to say that I get very annoyed when people get the 2 mixed up!~!~!

Anonymous Dave

I really liked the movie, but I hear it's not getting the best reviews out there. It makes me think, "I don't always agree with reviewers, so I'll have to check out others they don't like!" - Dave

Blogger sojourning crow

this movie looks horrible. "i think someone is going to get killed at the U.N...."

yes, Ms. Kidman, it's a portion of your career.

Blogger Nam LaMore

amerazn: yeah, i agree with you, it gets very frustrating. and as you've observed, sometimes i would like an interpreter for the tech support!

dave: yeah, i tend to pay attention to reviewers, but don't always count on them. we've had our differences.

sojourning crow: i do like the movie, but it's absolutely true that you can spot the clips that will be used for the awards ceremonies. :-)

speak up!

previous 10 posts:

[index of posts within each monthly archive]

disclaimer: some rights reserved. trademarks belong to their respective holders. inaccuracies are entirely unintentional. except where noted, this site is under a creative commons license. reuse, redistribution and/or excerpt permitted only with proper credit. linkback permitted without credit. if you find something offensive, then just stop reading. emails directly to me or comments posted here become my property. you have been notified.

the contents of this blog/web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the u.s. government or the peace corps.