Interpreting: how to react when stuck

sod_cutterHowever thoroughly you prepare for an interpreting assignment, there will always be surprises. I’m not talking about having to hop on a tractor so the client can see it in action, although my client was very grateful that I didn’t mind working in unusual conditions (mind? I loved it!). I’m talking about terminology.
I had researched everything to do with sod-cutting, including soil composition, so when the English client explained that the sod-cutter worked well on loam-based soil, I congratulated myself and used the French word “loam”, which was part of the little glossary I had compiled.
The French looked puzzled. They had never heard of “loam”. In this type of situation, panic or cursing online dictionaries is a tempting option, but it must be resisted. The best thing to do is to acknowledge the problem to the clients and find a way to go around it. In this case, I asked for a description of loam and was told that it was “between sand and clay”. When I relayed this information to the French, they exclaimed “Ah, du limon!”
It would be nice to know everything about a subject when interpreting, but it’s impossible. When faced with a problem, the main thing is to accept one’s limitations, not feel too bad about it and concentrate on quickly finding a way to overcome it (without falling off the tractor).

By |2016-10-18T15:48:59+00:00November 13th, 2009|Interpreting|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Franziska November 13, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Interpreting in weird situations really is the best part of the job. When I had to translate a speech given in a zoo last summer, I was competing with the noisy hippos in the background, stopping whenever they decided to “comment” on what was said. It turned the rather serious speech quite funny.
    As for words your clients don’t know: I guess it happens quite often especially in legal interpreting. The terms might be correct and used, but still everyday people don’t know them since they never got in touch with the matter. Explanation always helps and relaxes the situation.

  2. Judy Jenner November 16, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Very good point. Even when one is very well prepared, you can’t plan for any eventuality, nor is it possible for all interpreters to be experts in all fields. I just took a great 40-hour health care interpreting workshop, where interpreters learn how to ask for clarification (among many other things). Key for me was switching to the third person to avoid confusion: “Interpreter would like to ask for clarification on terms X.” I think I am ready for health care interpretation in the real world!

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