Interpreters often discuss the difficult issue of just how literally to interpret.  Of course a word-for-word translation would be nonsensical in most cases, but there are varying distances we must trek from the source language based on the situation.   For certain phrases, we can say the literal thing, and allow whoever is questioning the speaker to ask followup questions.  Or if we are very sure what the speaker means, we can toss the literal phrase aside and simply say the correctly rendered meaning.  That is our general practice,  But we don’t always know what the speaker means without context.

We have a third option, at times, of saying the literal thing, and adding, for example, “by which the interpreter understands him to mean …”  This last option is not something I would do in front of a jury or in any formal situation, but it might be appropriate at an informal hearing or an attorney client meeting.  Investigators are especially appreciative of getting both literal and figurative renditions as they are specially trained to follow up and use these cross-references to hone in on the specific information they are seeking.

I remember assisting at a meeting in which the attorney needed to know as exactly as possible how his client was speaking, and what words and phrases he used.  The attorney was trying to determine whether to request a mental health evaluation, and it was part of his gauging process to try as much as possible to intuitively answer the question of “How does he sound?  Does he sound well?”  So I slipped into this organic folding in of more of the literal phrases used, to give the attorney more of the flavor of his speech, as a window into his mind.

There was a strange interplay of figurative, literal, and explanatory interpreting, in which we all three of us participated.  Any time I felt I needed to add, for example, “the interpreter understands that to mean …” I said that in both languages.  The client was active in confirming, denying, or clarifying any assumptions I was drawn to make.  It was wonderfully transparent and open.  But it would not have been appropriate in open court.

This is a sample of what the client was literally saying:

“Their big killer was trying to pressure me to move strong things.  Another guy had refused, and he woke up dead.  I knew they were serious because several of them were carrying goat’s horns.  And that is why I took the toy and defended myself.”

This is what I think he meant to say:

“Their henchman was trying to pressure me to move contraband.  Another guy had refused, and he turned up dead.  I knew they were serious because several of them were carrying AK-47s.  And that is why I took the gun and defended myself. ”

Of course the second rendering makes much more sense in English.   It sounds great!  But what if any of the assumptions and leaps of faith we have to make are wrong?  Our job is partly a guessing game.  But testimonial evidence is cross-referenced with photos, police reports, other witness statements, and other evidence.  What if our guesses make the defendant look like a liar on the witness stand?

We rarely if ever have the full context of what we are interpreting.  I don’t know for a fact that by “goat’s horn” this particular individual meant specifically AK-47s.  These weapons have a curved ammunition magazine, which resembles a goat’s horn, but in some geographical areas the term may mean generally any sub-machine gun, or any assault rifle.  These details could be vitally important, for example, at trial.  If we trade out interpreters mid-testimony and he seems to be switching terms, it can affect his credibility in the eyes of the jury.  And of course, if we all just say goat’s horns, it becomes nonsensical.

Do I know whether he means the “toy” is a toy gun, rather than a real gun?   As far as I heard, it was not actually fired, so I have no basis to know it is a gun at all.  So when he says toy, I pretty much have to say toy.  I cannot presume gun or even toy gun.  Would the jury consider him flippant if he calls a real gun a toy?   Possibly, but I cannot solve it by jumping to the conclusion that he wants me to say gun when he says toy.

And “big killer” can mean anything from thug or henchman to simple bodyguard or even just a schoolyard bully.  I ended up telling the attorney that the word literally means a killer, but it is used for these various purposes, and left it to the attorney to follow up.  He was able to confirm that his client indeed meant a local gang leader’s henchman.  In trial, I might ask the judge’s permission to ask the speaker for clarification, rather than explaining the term’s various meanings myself as I did in this particular setting.

I would like to tell my faithful readers that my miraculous and balanced renditions of what this particular client uttered made it poetically clear to the attorney as to the exact mental state of this defendant, rendering it easy to determine whether to put off trial for a mental health evaluation.  Was I helpful?  Well, gee, I guess.

We all have to guess, at times.  And one of the heavy burdens of interpreting is the lingering doubt: what if we guessed wrong?  That is where we must rely on attorneys to ask the appropriate follow-up questions and clarify anything that seems off.  And of course if later developing context allows us to catch our own error, we can then correct ourselves on the record.

I personally have a great deal of affectionate regard for the poetic and mysterious phrases that it has been my pleasure and sometimes my pain to render into English.  I have nostalgic remembrances of so many lovely and wonderful turns of phrase.  Each one a puzzle to solve, within a labyrinth of hidden context, which we must delve into and then try to almost instantly emerge from, meaning in hand.  That is why so many interpreter meetings start with our standard professional greeting: “Hey, what would you say for…?”