Multilingual communication in a digital world


Interpreter? Translator? What’s the difference? Indeed, some people, even in the language services field, use these terms interchangeably. And there are interpreters who translate as well as translators who also interpret. However, there’s a big difference between interpreting and translation, although they both have to do with the act of translation – that is, rendering meaning from one language to another.


The interpreter’s task is predominantly to listen to utterances, to speech, in one language, and to say the same thing in a different language – or sign – with very little lag time. In fact, a great interpreter makes it appear that there is no lag time. One of my mentors described being an interpreter as thinking of oneself as a large ear and mouth, both ideally working at the same time, actively using both languages in his/her language pair, in a continuous, unbroken cycle. The interpreter neither adds nor subtracts, relaying everything that is said accurately.


Except for simultaneous interpreters, who work from a booth at the back of a conference room (or, like at the United Nations, from a soundproof room with a window through which the delegate floor can be viewed) interpreters are usually found right at the front, next to the speaker, or in the middle of a group. Interpreters work under pressure, with only seconds to think of the right words. They have to work at whatever pace of the proceedings, without being able to consult dictionaries or other reference books. To do so would mean stopping the proceedings, making everyone wait; this is completely unprofessional, because the whole purpose of hiring an interpreter is to remove communications barriers, not add to them by adding time or other difficulties. 


The translator’s task, on the other hand, is predominantly to render written words from one language to another. From the point of view of an interpreter, a translator has the luxury of time (usually mere hours, though, as translators also tend to work with tight deadlines) to think of or to research the perfect match, to go back and revise, edit and correct. Extending my mentor’s analogy, a translator could think of him- or herself as large eyes and fingers (for typing and for rifling through dictionary pages in the quest for the perfect term). Translators also have access to assistance from machines, in the form of computer aided translation (CAT) tools and software programs.


Translators must be good writers in the language that they work into, or the target language. However, they do not necessarily have to have productive abilities in the language they translate from, the source language. In the interpreting realm, only simultaneous, or conference, interpreters have the luxury of working this way, from a source language that they only need to understand (that is, they don’t need to be able to speak it) into their productive language (that is, the language in which they can think and speak, usually their native language). But few interpreters have the luxury of starting out as conference interpreters; this is the top end of the profession and usually achieved after gaining much experience as a court or other interpreter, using all modes and at least two productive languages.





Can you spot the grammatical errors in the Spanish here? Do they distract you from the message? Would you approve this packaging if it were for your product? Have we devolved into a culture of mediocrity or evolved into a culture of expediency? Comment below!

In trolling the supermarket for our daily bread, we came across this packaging, in Spanish and English. Linguistically, the information imparted is ungrammatical. However, the gist of the information is not mangled or altered in spite of its lack of grammaticality. This translation could be labeled “good enough.” Linguistically, it is semantically acceptable. In the age of machine translation, Google Translate, etc., is good enough sufficient? Is it, truly, good enough just to get the message across? What’s your opinion? Feel free to comment below!

For our English-speaking friends, this is a Spanish-expression meaning “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but, literally, “sarna” is an itchy skin disease and the expression says that a “sarna” that you like/enjoy doesn’t itch!



English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved in language. Author: Reid Offringa creation date: 1/9/06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technology is definitely a friend to professional translators. Many of us use on-line glossaries and google academic searches for linguistic and industry research; it’s fast and easy and extremely useful. But many times Machine Translation (MT) tools simply slow me down. I can’t speak for my colleagues in the translation/language services profession, but my brain can process more general terms in context much more quickly than any existing MT tool; I’ve tested it. The human brain is built to store much more data and to be sensitive to context, which is everything for meaning, whereas MT tools are great at recognizing the lexical item and regurgitating an analogous one, but not necessarily the correct one for the context. (Although, Google Translate is pretty good at chunking

Illustration of bad machine translation from E...

Illustration of bad machine translation from English to Swedish, using Shakespeare and a robot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

but, again, read carefully! If you are not fully bilingual you may not catch the subtle shift in meaning!)

Penny wise but pound foolish

The upshot of all this is that, more often than not, MT is not a suitable replacement for a human translator. If time and money is of the essence, then clients and language service agencies should not be trying to save a penny (or to pay a penny, as one potential client of mine recently did – they went with an agency in Colombia that bid .01/per translated word) by using machine translation because it takes longer to undo (most often it is just more economical, in terms of both money and time, simply to re-do the entire translation) by using MT tools and, perhaps (caveat emptor: this best practice is not often actually applied), a proofreader or translator to review it. Sometimes what seems like a straight line, and therefore the shortest route, is so full of “traffic” that the seemingly less direct route is actually the shortest in time…and cost.

PS See – and be sure to “Like!” – our Facebook page for some entertaining translation gaffes…a few are old chestnuts, but they are still so very valid in today’s “short-cut” world!


If You Won a Million…

English: The official title artwork for the up...

Image via Wikipedia

What would you do if you won the lottery or were given a million dollars (or pounds, euros, turkish lira…name the currency!)? I, like so many others, find myself dreaming – as well as making more practical resolutions! –  at this time of year; the end of a calendar year just seems to lend itself to improbable dreams!

We are developing a new e-book title: 1,000,000 Things To Do With $1,000,000. We would love to hear your ideas about what to do with the windfall! (Note: we do retain the right to publish your ideas and comments but WE WILL NEVER PUBLICLY SHARE PRIVATE INFORMATION, INCLUDING NAMES!)

Please send us your comments and ideas!

50 Year Calendar

Image by Alan in Belfast via Flickr


The cover for our new e-book, “Rome Rises!,” is now in! Well, it’s still in the preview stage. We are looking for feedback on it. The e-book contains the stories of how Rome was founded…from the Kings of Albalonga to Romulus and the actual founding of Rome.

Here is the cover:

Please give us your vote if you like it and/or a comment regarding improvements!