So help me God: when should you interpret literally?
Like other professionals, translators and interpreters are now required to complete professional training prior to the renewal of their qualifications. With the implementation of the new NAATI certification, it is a good time for us to reflect on what our jobs require of us.
Every interpreter has good days and not-so-good days. When you are on the job, you might encounter problems like forgetting what was said, misinterpreting a term, not being able to find an appropriate term or be in a situation where you just don’t know what to do.
...the witness looked at me with eyes open, probably wondering why he needed God’s help to give evidence.
Kong Wo Tang, certified Interpreter and Translator
I still remember many years ago when I was a new interpreter with the Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales (now Multicultural New South Wales), I interpreted for a witness in court before he gave evidence. The term “So help me God” came in as part of the swearing in ritual. I literally translated it and the witness looked at me with eyes open, probably wondering why he needed God’s help to give evidence. Of course, I later realised that literal translation cannot always deliver the meaning or convey the message.
I also realise at times we need to translate or interpret literally (or verbatim) either at the request of the speaker/recipient or when you just cannot find an alternative or equivalent term in your language. The former scenario is commonly found in a legal setting whereas the latter is sometimes the result of cultural differences in saying something.
To prepare oneself in interpreting or translating, we need to be capable of understanding the context or have the linguistic and social ability to understand the subject matter. The importance of context has been widely discussed by many academics. For example, Gregory Bateson, an English linguist and social scientist, notably studied the playful acts of chimpanzees and found out they could distinguish play and fight through social interaction. Erving Goffman’s famous comment “What is it that is going on here?” challenges us to fully understand the context via exchanges.
As interpreters or translators, we are often given a job with very little or no background information. We can be given very little time to prepare as well. The following are some suggestions that I find quite useful from my past experience when we do our job.
- Ask the client to brief you about the subject matter;
- if it is a court matter, check out the court list and understand what kind of matter it is;
- speak to the lawyer and find out the background of the matter you are going to interpret.
It is vital for interpreters and translators to broaden the knowledge and skills in the area they are going to interpret or translate. With modern day technology, we have more resources or tools online that we can use to prepare ourselves. For example, some government websites provide a glossary of common technical or industry specific terms and some overseas websites even provide translation too. It is up to us to do our research to look for them. Some examples are: ASIC: Insolvency: A glossary of terms and Hong Kong elegislation: English - Chinese Glossary
When researching or preparing for jobs, it is also a good time to consider what kind of continuous education we should take part in to do our job better. In addition to the online tools and books available, check the seminars and courses conducted by interpreting and translation professional bodies or universities or other tertiary institutes. You might also find many useful courses or seminars held by other professional organisations too for a particular industry.
Happy interpreting and translating!
Kong Wo Tang
Interpreting and translation set the base of my achievement in studies and legal career. As the Chinese saying goes; “There is no end in learning.”
Author Biography: Kong Wo Tang immigrated to Sydney in 1987 and became an Accredited Translator and Interpreter at the beginning of his professional life. While working as a translator and interpreter for the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW (EAC), Kong Wo qualified as a solicitor, and has been practicing law for two decades. Kong Wo’s law practice has been balanced by his love of language. He has been engaged as a subtitler for SBS for many years, working on movies and TV programs to and from both from Cantonese and Mandarin. His credits include the renowned dating show, “If You Are The One”.
Kong Wo’s passion in linguistics and law motivated him to do a PhD thesis about migration law and discourse analysis of the Migration Review Tribunal. Kong Wo Tang is a Certified Translator and Interpreter in Chinese and Cantonese, based in Sydney.