By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
We have discussed translation, interpretation and bilingualism on these pages before. There is still a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the differences. We’d like to have another go at explaining those differences.
A translation is the rendering of words written or recorded in one language into words in another language, the resulting translation is usually presented in written form.
An interpretation is the real-time rendering of words spoken by one person in one language by a second person who speaks those words in another language. While the resulting interpretation might be recorded or written down, the actual interpretation is a purely verbal process.
Interpretations are performed at the United Nations and in other multi-lingual forums, such as economic and scientific conferences. Interpreters are frequently used in courtrooms, other legal and judicial contexts (depositions, attestations, etc.) and in medical situations (giving case histories, receiving information about the costs of medical care, disclaimers as to liability, and so on).
Many children of immigrants learn the language of their new country before and much better than their parents; these children are effectively bilingual. They are able to interpret at a basic level: parent/teacher conferences, for example, or interactions in a shop, instructions for the use of an electronic device, cooking directions for a frozen pizza.
Professional translations and interpretations are beyond the abilities of even the most linguistically advanced immigrant children. Such bilingual children can indeed perform real-time interpretations, when questions can be asked and the flow of the interpreted conversation can be interrupted to clarify a point.
Interpretation requires linguistic skill. Translation also requires linguistic skill. It also requires a much greater skill set, a much larger and more sophisticated linguistic tool-box: current events, historical background knowledge, an understanding of geo-political matters, familiarity with scientific advances, sociological conditions, the list goes on.
An interpretation is a much more ephemeral rendering than a translation is: the words are spoken in real-time in one language by one person; another person then renders those words in real-time in another language. While the exchange might be preserved as a written transcript or as an audio recording, an interpretation is done real-time and when it’s over it’s done, it’s over, over-and-out.
A translation is another matter. Think of the Rosetta Stone. It recorded proceedings in several languages. Millennia later, linguists were able to translate an unknown language because the Rosetta Stone gave them the linguistic code-key to a known language. Those translators couldn’t just listen to someone speaking in one language in real-time and render those words in another language. They had to have vast expertise in many languages, in the social, cultural, political and historical background of the people who wrote in the known language in order to be able to work out what the words in the unknown language meant.
An interpretation is done in real-time, verbally, and is basically ephemeral. However important an interpretation might be to a diplomat or someone involved in judicial proceedings, that interpretation is a local matter, isolated in time.
A translation might be equally ephemeral. It could detail an innovation in medical practice that, while important when that advance is made, has little meaning a couple of decades later when technology has moved on.
While few translations are actually written in stone, like the Rosetta Stone, a correct and accurate translation requires a much more expansive and detailed knowledge of language, culture, history, et al,
My favorite translation of all time was written by a General in the British Imperial Army during the time of the British Raj in the Indian sub-continent. This General (Lord I-Forget-His-Name) was ordered to conquer the province of Sind, what is now the southern tip of Pakistan (the location of the largest city in Pakistan, Karachi). The General was opposed to the military action and stated his objections to his superiors. He was over-ruled, and was again ordered to take the province of Sind.
He did so with typical British military efficiency. When he wrote his superiors back in London of his success, he wrote only three words. He wrote those three words in Latin. When translated into English, the message read: “I have sinned.”
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.