Friday, December 7, 2018

Translational Licence for Conference Interpreters

Three posts ago I introduced the term translational licence (TL) to mean the divergences from the source text that are commonly allowed to translators (accidental errors and omissions excluded). To retrieve the post, enter licence in the 'Search This Blog' box on the right. Recently a friend who's a skilled literary translator told me that she makes "small corrections for greater acceptability," It's a good example. A lot of emphasis is put in the translatology literature on closeness to the source (aka fidelity, completeness), and students and examination candidates are penalised for not achieving it. But they aren't taught about the ways, nor to what extent, they may overrule it.

Admittedly there are circumstances where there is no such licence. When I was translating medical school transcripts they were vetted for any discrepancy, and the slightest difference would result in my translation being sent back to me. But those texts were exceptional because of their legal implications, and a far cry from everyday messages or the creative art of literary translation.

Moreover the degree of licence varies not only with the type of text but also according to the culture and the times and even with the type of reader. As T. S. Eliot said, "Each generation must translate for itself."

Now let's take a look at another application of TL: conference interpreting. I learned the hard way that it operates there too, and here's how it happened.
I was interpreting at an international conference of journalists in Ottawa. After the plenary, the participants split up into small groups in side rooms that were not equipped for simultaneous interpreting. The interpreting therefore had to be done in consecutive. I was assigned to a group that was addressed in French by a lady journalist from France. She spoke for about ten minutes. As I had learned to do, I took notes of what she was saying. She was a perfect speaker from my point of view: clear articulation, logical and not too fast. So I was able to note down everything she said. When she'd finished, I took my notes and translated them all. It likewise took ten minutes. Then I turned to her, expecting her to be pleased. Not at all. On the contrary, she scowled and hissed, "Mais monsieur, vous n'aviez pas besoin de dire tout ça!" (My dear sir, you didn't have to say all that again.) I was deflated. But later I had an opportunity to speak with her, so I asked her what I ought to have left out. She replied, "Vous êtes interprète. C'est votre affaire." (You're an interpreter. It's up to you,)
That day I learned that conference interpreters have a licence to abbreviate provided the omission doesn't disrupt the message. And thus I would teach my students to do so. For example, I taught them that if the speaker gives three examples of something, it's probable most of the audience is only paying attention to two of them and so the interpreter can skip the third. In simultaneous interpreting, this is a useful 'trick of the trade' for keeping up with the speaker.

Lest you think my experience was unique, let me add that a university colleague of mine, a senior Canadian parliamentary interpreter, used to reduce the mark he awarded if a student's consecutive interpretation wasn't substantially shorter than the original.

Here's another example.

Every interpretation teacher gets asked what to do if the speaker utters something insulting, vulgar, obscene or blasphemous. In court interpreting, it must be reproduced whatever the interpreter feels about it. But the conference interpreter has licence. There the interpreter should follow his or her own standards and conscience and avoid aggravating bad feelings.

Though TL is forbidden in some contexts, it's so prevalent that it qualifies as a quasi-universal of both written and oral translation.


  1. I agree with you that interpreters are at liberty to use minimal expressions to convey the same message for economy sake either in terms of time or lexical and semantic economy.

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