Most people just don’t know how they talk. They really don’t. They say whatever comes to mind, without any consideration of their audience. They mumble. They repeat. They change course mid-sentence. They use obscure words that are out of usage, and they pop in uncommon cultural references. They talk in sports metaphors. They use sarcasm and talk to themselves in asides. Even in front of parents going through a divorce who are required to take a seminar to know how to navigate the complex court system. Even through interpreters, most of whom are foreign-born.
As a native English speaker who loves literature, I myself can understand and even appreciate these speech patterns and phrases, but I am concerned for the global community, with or without interpreters, for whom each such phrase forms an unnecessary barrier to understanding. I have directly witnessed perfectly excellent interpreters struggling to understand some of these speech patterns and references. This leads me to believe that members of the public may also be confused.
Let’s look at just a few examples of what was said in a recent parenting seminar, with my suggestions of phrasing that would have been a lot easier for everyone to understand.
If you are shy – missing something
It’s a red flag – a warning
Anyone can hang out a shingle – start up a business
Get out of Dodge – leave
The ball is in your court – you have to act
Only game in town – only option
Good to go – done
back to square one – starting over
catch-22 – a dilemma
make a pitch for – argue for
your verbiage – words
ABC company – any company
five different directions – all over
Add to that a large dose of running commentary, asides, and sarcasm, such as looking up at the screen and claiming, “My favorite thing is small font”. I have to say, it is so hard to interpret sarcasm. How about something straightforward like “This font is so small, it is hard to read!” The very concept of saying the opposite of what we mean and then smirking to show we mean something completely different is a strange cultural quirk that is decidedly not global. And not well suited for a public informational talk in the court setting.
Some of these old phrases are very tasty to chew upon, although not so digestible for the general public. Catch-22 is a novel that not everyone has read, but people who have know it means a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The old Wild West town of Dodge City, Kansas, has fallen off the mental map for most people, but many of us are familiar with this phrase for leaving town.
I don’t know how many people understand ABC company simply means any company. If you are “shy” a dollar and you owe ten, it means you have nine dollars and are missing one. I don’t believe this meaning of shy is in current usage. “Hanging out a shingle” to mean starting up a business is also not in common usage in the general public. If we wish to convey that there is no rule on who is allowed to make a parenting plan evaluation, so be careful who you pick, why not just say that? That way we convey our meaning.
Sports analogies, such as a ball in your court, or pitching, do not always translate well either. Neither do phrases such as “five directions”, which refers to North, West, East, South and Center. Even using words such as “verbiage” that are at too high a register for the speakers can add to comprehension barriers. And if you are talking at 220 words a minute, and your word choice causes the interpreter to pause for just thirty seconds, we are now 110 more words behind you and we have to catch up as we can. To give you an idea of how what 110 words means, this paragraph is 110 words.
So we are left with untrained speakers (with the best of intentions) trying to tell an untrained public how to navigate through a highly complex and difficult legal system using words and phrases that make it that much harder to understand. And interpreters are left leaping like acrobats, catching words mid-air and conveying them as best we can to the listening public. Don’t you just love it? (Yes, that was sarcasm.)