Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Romanian: More Unrecognized Translation

In a post way back in March 2010, I remarked that “a tremendous amount of translating and interpreting goes on unrecognized because it’s given another name or it constitutes just one part, whether explicit or implicit, of another job or function.” (To find the post, enter unrecognized in the Search box on the right.) I was reminded of it by the very end of the post previous to this one. Although mainly about interpreting between Japanese and English for the deaf, it finished:
“Interestingly, a hearing man in the meeting was taking notes so he was asked for a copy of his notes for clarification. He replied it would be of no benefit, because he had written the notes in his native language, Romanian.”
Clearly it involved translating, and it satisfied the requirement for translatology that there be an observable source input and an observable output. However, there are no readers of this kind of translation other than the translator, and so it goes unrecognized. Judging from my own experience taking notes of lectures and at meetings, it must in fact be quite commonplace. But I can see no way of telling precisely how much of it there is. And what to call it? I thought of closed-loop translating but there should be something better. Suggestions welcome.

One activity that produces considerable quantities of it is consecutive interpreting. Consecutive interpreters use notes as a memory aid, and they have a choice between taking their notes in the speaker’s language or in the target language, as well as in non-language symbols. Student interpreters often ask which is better. My inclination is to reply, “In whichever language you find easier,” because, as an experienced teacher, Wilhelm Weber, wrote:“It does not matter in which language the notes are taken, since notes are only symbols that contain a message.” In other words, the notes are not in the language form in which the interpreters deliver the message to their audience but only an intermediate stage. In the note-taking there is not only translating, there is adaptation in the form of compression. The translating may take place either before or after the note-taking, in the phase of compression or of decompression. Indeed the notes may well be a mixture of translated and untranslated elements, something that is not allowed by the current norm of Expert Translation. The closed-loop translators, translating only for themselves, have more latitude.

Consecutive interpretation notes are by no means the only product of translation combined with adaptation by compression. (The ability to condense and summarise information is another marvel of human information processing with its own questions about how people learn to do it, but that’s another story.) Everyone knows there are translators and interpreters at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, but few people are aware that there’s also a career of Summary and Précis Writer.
“At the United Nations, a summary refers to a condensed version of a written text; a précis refers to a condensed version of a spoken text. Generally, summaries and précis are about one-third the length of the original text. The writer must therefore be able to identify the major ideas in a text and then rephrase them in his/her own words.”
In 2009, for instance, a UN competitive examination was held specifically for Spanish-language Translators/Précis Writers. Applicants were required to
“Have a perfect command of Spanish and an excellent knowledge of English and one of the other official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, French or Russian)….
Hold at least a three-year first-level degree or an equivalent qualification from a university or institution of equivalent status in which Spanish is the language of instruction or hold a university degree from a recognized school of translation.”
It’s definitely work at the Expert level. It’s not unrecognized, but it’s little known.

Andrew Owen. Not Hearers Only: A Practical Ministry for Deaf People in the Local Church. London UK and Oberlin OH: Wakeman, 2007. 135 pages, paperback. UK £9.95.

Wilhelm K. Weber. Training Translators and Conference Interpreters. Orlando: Harcourt for Center for Applied Linguistics and ERIC Clearinghouse on Language and Linguistics, 1984. 70 p.

Summary and précis writing. Course Code: E4W5/1. United Nations Language and Communications Programme, OHRM. www.un.org/Depts/OHRM./COURSE/SummaryPrecisWriting.

United Nations / Nations Unies. Notice: 2009 competitive examination for Spanish-language translators/précis writers. http://www.un.org/Depts/OHRM/examin/exam.htm.


  1. Typically my children would never admit to translating or interpreting in school. However, they will happily say that they exlained maths, or Social Studies or Science to a friend. The "explanation" will then be given in e.g. French, while the instruction was given in English.

  2. Yes, interesting but not surprising. Indeed with very young children you can’t say to them, “Translate this” or “Interpret that” because the words aren’t in their vocabulary yet. You have to say something like, “Tell me in English” or “Say it the way Mummy does.” I think I’ll have to do another post on unrecognized translation.

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