Being There

What’s the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

Most people reading this blog probably already know the answer. Interpreters work with signed and/or spoken language; translators work with written language.

Still, for the most part, there is an even more obvious difference. Despite the growth of remote and video interpreting, it is still typically the case that interpreters work in the situation where their output will be used and translators (normally) don’t. For the most part, interpreters are there: in the doctor’s surgery, in the conference, in the factory; while translators are somewhere else: in a different office, in a different city or even on an entirely different continent!

Those of us have done both translation and interpreting will tell you that this makes a big difference. For some, the extra space and time that being separated from the place your text will be used is a real blessing. Without the constant pressure of being watched while you work and with the time to really think about what is needed, you stand a better chance of catching all those tricky details that take time to get right. Nevertheless, this separation can lead to problems of its own. How much of your work do you get to see being used? There might be nothing better than receiving pay for a job and then getting to see it displayed on a website, on a poster or even in a museum but for most translators, however, it’s all too rare to see their work there.

Interpreters don’t have this problem. Even when working remotely, they have the privilege of receiving instant feedback from their work, written on the faces of those they work with. They get to see their work in use almost as soon as they have produced it. It doesn’t take much work, even at the biggest conference, to observe people using what you are saying.

Yet there are risks attached to this privilege of being there. Being there with your clients brings severe time pressure. Split second decisions have to be made. Research during the assignment has to be done “on the fly,” where and when you can fit it in. This means that even the best interpreters can have problems with getting across some of the details.

Similar problems crop up in the research world. Here at the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at  Heriot-Watt, many of our researchers are used to “being there.” We have experienced interpreters and translators researching translation and interpreting. We also have a former documentary film maker researching film. People like this have been there and some might still be there. So, you would expect that their work would be fairly close to the realities of the job. You would be right.

But what about those who haven’t ever physically sat in a booth or who have never translated something just for the money? Perhaps, like translators, they will be slightly distant from the world they are working with. Unlike translators, they might occasionally come up with ideas that the people “there” might find irrelevant or obtuse. They might even be happy with the idea that their work is nothing to do with the actually day-to-day work of translators or interpreters at all!

So, where does this leave us? Is it always better to be “there?” Maybe, or maybe not. You see, just as translators might actually find putting some distance between their work and its use beneficial, so might researchers. Being there might actually mean that you miss out important details. It might mean that you gloss over the realities of your work. It sometimes takes someone from outside your area of expertise to open your eyes to your own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps researchers might need input from people who have never been “there” and perhaps professionals might need it too.