Unlike at least 250 million people in English speaking countries, I know the difference between an interpreter and a translator. Translators translate written documents and interpreters interpret spoken word from one language to another – for instance in a deposition where you answer lawyer’s questions. This difference seems to be always respected in some languages, for instance in Japanese (通訳 tsuyaku = interpreting, 翻訳 honyaku = translating), but not in English. Translators love to lament this dire status quo on blogs: we have to educate the public, they say. For some reason, translators take it very personally that the public at large is unaware of the fundamental difference between these two professions.
One reason why the situation may be so confusing is that some translators also interpret and I assume that some interpreters also translate sometime. I am a translator but I also used to interpret when I was younger. In fact my first job just after graduating with a degree in Japanese and English studies was interpreting for a whole month for a Czech-Japanese movie coproduction in Prague back in 1980. I did not really speak much Japanese back then but nobody seemed to have noticed because the Japanese actors and a Japanese film producer, who was my main client, were tolerant people. Also, since I was the only one there who spoke Japanese and Czech during the shooting of that film, they had no choice anyway. When the film director asked me to tell the actor to kiss the actress, I said in my impeccable Japanese:”kissu”.
Over the years, I mean decades, I had my share of interpreting jobs. I once interpreted in a German restaurant between a Pole and a German – I sort of spoke fake Polish back then and my German was not bad. The Polish guy wanted to beat up the German guy because he felt slighted for some reason and the German guy wanted to get out of the fight because he knew that the Polish guy, his name was Andrzej, was a boxer. Somehow I was able to diffuse that precarious situation because the German guy apologized (or so I said). That was probably my best interpreting job ever, based on the results. I did not get paid, of course, but I might have gotten beaten up too had I mishandled that job.
In the eighties I interpreted a few depositions, as well as one hearing at the Immigration Court in San Francisco. I absolutely hated that interpreting job. The judge was mumbling something incomprehensible under his breath while looking at me as if I was a criminal or something. After that, I never accepted another interpreting job at immigration hearings, no matter how hungry for work I was.
Once I interpreted a deposition of a Japanese millionaire who was sold a race horse that did not win any race by some American horse breeder. So the Japanese buyer sued the American seller. The key moment of that deposition came when the Japanese buyer had to answer the question: “Why did you buy that horse?” He looked at the lawyer, gave it some thought for a few seconds, and then said:”国際仲間” (kokusai nakama), which, properly translated, means something like “out of a spirit of international camaraderie.” Since I did not do a very good job on that deposition, I realized that interpreting was not for me.
Unlike translating in the familiar comfort of your cozy home office, interpreting means a lot of pressure that you have to deal with in an unfamiliar environment, which can be outright hostile in some cases. Just after the fall of communism I was interpreting in Silicon Valley for a group of about 20 Czech and Polish government employees who were sent there to buy great American technology. There was no Polish interpreter. The guy who hired me knew that Czech is similar to Polish and that the Polish people there might be able to understand some of what I was saying in Czech. But there was no microphone. So he told me to speak loud enough so that the Poles could listen to me if they wanted to do that, but not so loud that I would be disturbing the Poles who perhaps understood some English and did not want to be disturbed by me. I swear to God, that was what that moron told me.
I think that was my last interpreting job. No, I’m sure that was it.
I did go to a few “on-site” translating jobs in Silicon Valley after that, which I found rather burdensome and stressful too, almost like interpreting. I had to drive 50 miles from Santa Rosa to Palo Alto and then spend 6 hours or so looking at a bunch of Japanese and German patents and describing them in English to patent lawyers. Every time when I had to open a dictionary I felt like an imposter. And then I had to drive 50 miles back again, fighting the traffic during the rush hour from San Francisco all the way to Petaluma, which was a very unfamiliar and unnerving feeling for me.
I don’t interpret anymore. Interpreting is for people who have really strong nerves. You have to deal with people in real time, and that can be very, very tricky. Most interpreters are in fact women because women are much tougher than men, of course.
I don’t know how they do it. I just don’t have the nerves for it anymore.