Interpreters sometimes wonder whether a native source language or a native target language interpreter has the easiest time interpreting. Would you rather hear something you can easily understand in your native language, then struggle to say it in your second language, or would you rather struggle to understand something in your second language, then say it in your native tongue? Of course a true childhood bilingual who grows up in both cultures and is well educated has the easiest time. But not all interpreters have had that opportunity. We each have our pitfalls, weak areas, and learning curves.
As much as I sometimes worry about how “clean” my target language might sound under the worst of circumstances, I feel relieved that the vast majority of what is said in the courtroom is in my native language and pertains to the culture I am most familiar with. Even so, it is incredible to me how common it is for people to use uncommon sayings and phrases that take quite a bit of unpacking. I feel grateful to at least know what they mean to say, and have that head start in rendering these items into the target language. Because of course we interpreters must rely on our strengths to help us overcome our weak spots.
Yesterday, I was imagining how many interpreters might need to pop up and interrupt the judge when he told the prosecutor that if the witness said something that he had been instructed not to say, the judge would give him the hairy eyeball. I believe that the hairy eyeball means a lowered eyebrow, or eyelashes over the eye, so that the eye is glaring at you through hair. It is used to mean disapproval or a warning look. But I don’t think the phrase is something you could guess at if you didn’t happen to know this.
The judge also talked about a no-brainer. This is a more common and more modern phrase. But it can easily be misunderstood. Rather than meaning something stupid or wrong, it means the opposite – something so obvious and simple that we can all agree to it without even thinking about it.
The judge told a lawyer a subject was “fair game” for questioning a witness. If I had to guess, I would think that means you have to be fair about questions, like you are fair when playing a game. In fact, “game” in this old phrase means the wild animals you are hunting, and fair game, means you are allowed to go for the kill. So “fair game” in questioning means the attorney is allowed to go after the witness and question them hard in that area. Again, this seems counter-intuitive.
The judge further told the court he wants to “get off the dime” early the next morning. I happen to know that means get started right away, but what an odd saying. It has a sad beginning in the 1920’s dance hall trade. Women were hired to dance with men who paid a dime, and some of them would then want to stand and grind up against the poor women instead of dancing. At that point, in the nicer clubs, a bouncer would come tell the men to get a move on and dance, that is, to “get off the dime.” How could an international person even fluent in English know this and so many other phrases?
The same judge on the same day told potential jurors he was “shooting across the bow”. This was something done by certain nations whose ship would come across another mid-sea that was sailing without a flag. The shot across the unknown ship’s bow would be a warning for that ship to immediately raise their country’s flag, or face enemy fire. Now it is used (rarely) to mean any kind of warning. Again, I wonder how many people know this.
These are just a few of the culturally laden phrases from a single day in court. Here are a few more words I jotted down the same day, wondering how many people have them on the tip of their tongues. These are literally all from my notes for the same day in trial, and of course I am only catching a thimbleful of the waterfall of words. Ask yourself how many you can find an easy synonym for, and then ask yourself if you can easily find a synonym in another language:
Lenity. Fret. Hard-wired. Garner. Moniker. Force of habit. Offhand. Hallmark. Voluminous. Verbose. Abundance of caution. By the same token. Take the winds out of the sail. At the get-go. Pass muster. Entire panoply. Betwixt and between. Rules of engagement. Auctioneer. Innocuous. Overthink. Sequester.
Whew. And by the way, “whew” is a Late Middle English word, similar to “phew” . It is the sound one makes after holding one’s breath in in a state of tension. Once the relief comes, we stop holding our breath and we exhale an audible sigh of relief. This can sound like whew, or phew. I know that is what I sounded like when my workday ended yesterday.