Life, etc

Swimming with a Babel Fish: The high art of translation

By J Brooks Spector 19 March 2014

The sign language fiasco at the Nelson Mandela memorial service a few months back, and now the interpreter fumbles at the now on-going Oscar Pistorius trial, lead J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate the complications of interpreting for a multilingual society like South Africa.

“Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.”

— Haim Nachman Bialik

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it still generates a feeling of sheer terror. While I was working as an American diplomat in Indonesia, we had invited an American guest lecturer to speak on contemporary international issues in media freedom – back when such a discussion there was potentially a rather dangerous activity when the country was ruled by General Suharto’s authoritarian government. But the Indonesian government’s view of press freedom wasn’t what instilled terror. Rather, it was the fact that, for whatever reason, the person we had hired to interpret the journalist’s presentation for our audience did not arrive when the event was due to start – and I had to step in at the last minute instead. For two hours, the conversation went back and forth from American English to Bahasa Indonesia, and then vice versa, depending on who was doing the talking.

Well, okay. At the time, my competence in Indonesian was just barely sufficient to make the grade with my grasp of the vocabulary needed. Nevertheless, the terror of actually rendering a faithful conversion of the speaker’s words and the audience’s questions sent me home after the two-hour meeting with the worst, most blinding headache I have ever had.

Even though an interpreter is just someone sitting in a chair and talking, seemingly machine-like, the work is usually filled with great tension and pressure, if the task is to get it right. There is the inner fear of making a major, embarrassing mistake – but it is the little ones – a mangled metaphor or a misheard homonym that really haunts one, throwing the would-be interpreter off-stride for precious seconds, even as the words keep coming without let-up or regard for your stumbles. And this is just when it is consecutive interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting is a true high stakes poker game that should only be attempted by experienced, professional gamblers with deep pockets.

South Africa, of course, has been the victim of some serious interpreting madness in the past several months. The world now remembers – either from watching it in the first place or the many YouTube clips or the parodies on television around the world – the interpreting fiasco at the Nelson Mandela memorial at FNB Stadium. That was the event where a man with no discernable skill at putting spoken English into sign language generated a blur, a hodgepodge of signs and body movements that added up to near-total gibberish. And that mistake was followed by more as government officials tried to explain the whole disaster all away by insisting there were no standards for sign language – nor even any commonly agreed-upon signs. That, of course, is, and was nonsense.

Over twenty years ago, just as the international cultural boycott of South Africa was drawing to a close, we were instrumental in bringing America’s renowned National Theatre of the Deaf to this country for performances at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and then in Johannesburg. The group actually performed for audiences composed of the hearing and hearing impaired alike and its shows garnered critical acclaim for their ability to communicate across a kind of language frontier. And then, in keeping with the larger plan for this exchange visit, local artists joined the tour’s workshops, and then some of the local performers went with the visitors back to America for a more extended period of training and touring performance activities.

The visiting performers all communicated via Amslan – American Sign Language – among themselves, but they soon found out that South Africa’s hearing impaired had their own version of sign language. But eventually the two sides found some common linguistic ground as they worked out the differences – probably like the way a rural Louisiana Cajun and a long-time resident of the Australian Outback might have to stretch a bit to achieve mutual understanding and comprehension. But, it was explained to me that the underlying grammar was similar enough that this was not an impossible task once everyone got used to everybody else’s way of signing.

Taking another example, however, working in a country like Japan gives one a whole new appreciation for the quality of interpretation in formal, business or official circumstances. Most Japanese professionals have a passing acquaintanceship with English – after all, they studied it in school for years – but speaking it or understanding spoken English is usually a bridge too far for most. Just for comparison’s sake, however, most English speakers from around the world are not particularly competent in Japanese either, of course.

As a result, to get things done properly, to make sure a company doesn’t order a zillion units of the wrong product or a government doesn’t give away all its bargaining chips in a crucial international negotiation, the country relies upon a corps of extraordinarily skilled, highly professional interpreters to get things right. It isn’t just anybody doing any task, either. For example, when we hired interpreters – especially those simultaneous interpreters who sit in a soundproof booth and speak through a sound system that delivers the sound to people through those little earpieces – we specified the topic as precisely as possible so that the interpreters’ skills and experiences could be matched closely to the subjects under discussion.

If we were organising a colloquy on international financial institution reform, for example, we needed to employ professional interpreters with the requisite finance and economics background; people who would be secure in the specialised language flowing fast and furious throughout the conference. A bilingual theatre specialist with a beautiful accent simply wasn’t going to be right for that task at hand. These interpreters usually worked in teams of two – or more, if the program was going to go on for more than four hours or so. This was an expensive operation, but the alternative would have been a contemporary version of Babel.

Speaking of Babel, it would have been really nice to have had one of Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish to put into everyone’s ear, but Silicon Valley hasn’t managed to get around to that yet. Even Internet-based translation often delivers some magnificently bizarre results, wildly at variance with the original meaning of the words.

Now, consider the circumstances in Oscar Pistorius’ on-going trial. Right on the first day, court administrators were caught scrambling to find an English/Afrikaans interpreter who could accommodate witnesses who preferred to speak in Afrikaans rather than English, so as to ensure precision in their testimony. And by the time the trial had been going on for a day or so, we were beginning to hear the witness correct or coach the Afrikaans of the court-appointed interpreter! Even in an internationally high-profile trial like this one, South Africa had been caught out again by its interpreting gaffes.

Maybe the courts here have always been like this here. I can remember going to attend what were then called the pass law courts, back in the 1970s. The presiding officer was, naturally, a bored looking white man, and all of the putative offenders were obviously African. In would come the offenders, accused of living and working in Johannesburg without the required 10 (1) a or 10 (1) b stamp in their dompas. If absolutely necessary, a court interpreter would serve as the go-between. The hearing officer would ask if the accused had anything to say for himself and the accused would start to rattle off a long story of explanation in a vernacular language. Then the court interpreter would say, “not guilty”, the court clerk would repeat the charge and the hearing officer would announce the sentence – usually an order to leave the magisterial district for the person’s presumed “homeland”. And after two minutes or so, we were watching the next case. Clearly the interpreting left out both subtlety as well as substance. (And, in fact, at a more recent CCMA labour relations hearing I attended, the officially designated interpreter didn’t seem all that much more given to conveying the nuances of the testimony than that court interpreter back in the 1970s.)

Perhaps South Africa simply doesn’t see the task of interpreting very seriously. Perhaps it is because its two official languages used to be either English or Afrikaans and the courts operated on the idea that anyone in a real court hearing understood them both – or they simply didn’t belong in the room. Or perhaps it was the assumption that people who didn’t speak those languages were going to be subject to other courts – those traditional ones in rural areas – where a vernacular language was the order of the day, rather than English or Afrikaans.

But the problem, now, of course, is that South Africa has embraced the concept of multilingualism, officially at least, with a vengeance – for all eleven official languages. And then there is also sign language, of course, and the languages or lingua francas of neighbouring states are frequently heard as well. The country is engaged in a process of figuring out how to reemphasise the learning of the country’s indigenous languages beyond English and Afrikaans, but there seems little effort to ensure rigorous linguistic competence for official court purposes – and especially interpreters – is firmly in place.

A South African interested in a career as an interpreter – at least among major European languages – would likely try to attend a program in Europe on the UK that prepares and certifies its graduates to fill the demands of international organisations and conference organisers. Alternatively, they might elect to stay at home to try to refine their skills. A quick check of the Internet seems to indicate that fifteen of the country’s tertiary educational institutions are in that business. But a closer look shows that these programs are generally focused on translation – and that is a very different skill from interpreting. In fact, UNISA, the country’s distance university, even claims to have interpreting training, although one wonders how that could possibly work given the manner of teaching.

If the country really wants to ensure it is fully prepared for the globalised world, or even the multiplicity of languages within its own borders, and that government institutions such as courts are really ready to cope with the language demands of such a diverse nation, there is much remedial work to be done. That is, unless South Africa wants to be embarrassed yet again with yet another interpreting fiasco on the international stage, sometime in the future. DM

For more information on interpreting and translating courses and service providers, read:

Photo: A sign language interpreter punches the air beside him during a memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach


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