Sep 29, 2014

Open to Interpretation!


Prime Minister Modi’s Japan visit made me think of a something very close to my heart. Something I have been associated with for over 10 years.

In Today’s Japan and I post, I talk about the Art of Interpretation.

I wonder if any of you noticed a prim bespectacled man sitting behind Prime Minister Modi or following him like a shadow during his japan visit. The man was Modi’s official interpreter and without him most of our PM’s passionate and voluble speeches in Japan would have had little effect!

For a lot of people Interpretation or translation is simply ‘converting’ what the speaker is saying from one language to another.  Frankly 'Converting” is a term that would make all self-respecting language professionals seethe with anger.

Converting is a frivolous word, something what google translate or some other internet tool would do. A human bilingual, if he is true to his profession, not only conveys the meaning of the words but the actual intent and the emotions behind them. Interpretation or translation is simply not conveying sentences; it is conveying understanding in two different cultures. Along with language acumen, it also requires a whole lot of socio- cultural awareness about the country and its people.

Another misconception is that there is not much difference between Translation and Interpretation.  Infact no Interpreter worth his salt will ever be like to be called just a translator. A translator deals with written text. Interpretation is oral. You are verbally communicating what the speaker is saying into another language. Translation of course is infinitely easier than interpretation. When you translate a text you have ample time to think of the appropriate words, to refer to dictionaries or the internet.

Interpretation is immediate and in Real Time. There is no time and no scope for referring to a dictionary or asking someone else. A true worth of a bilingual only comes out when he is interpreting. An Interpreter not only needs to be good in the language, he also needs to be super quick in grasping, managing and conveying information.

My first brush with interpretation was when I was studying Japanese in JNU. We had what was known as ‘Language Lab” classes then.
The classes were held in sound proof rooms lined with a cork like material. Each one of us had a headphone and a separate cubicle and it made us feel all important and special. Our professor, though an eminent name in the Japanese fraternity was a dour faced unsmiling man who rarely saw humour in anything. The only time I have seen him smile was when he ribbed a student mercilessly about not being able to answer his questions as the poor fellow stood there squirming and wishing the earth would swallow him.

 But in all honesty I owe a lot of my Interpretation skills to that professor and his intensive (and almost Boot Camp like) training. He used to play tapes that were usually from the NHK (the BBC of Japan) and a commentary on a current political or economic situation. The tape ran for 10 minutes and during those 10 minutes we all made notes frantically not even daring to breathe too loudly in case we miss what is being said.

It was in these interpretation classes that I learnt how to write in short hand and use key words instead of writing full sentences. If you try writing full sentences while interpreting, the speaker would be miles ahead by the time you finish with one sentence. I also learnt to listen to not only the words but the tone and underlying emotion of the speaker and interpret appropriately. For the interpreter also somehow needs to reflect the emotion of the speaker with his words and intonation while remaining detached enough not to feel the same emotion himself.

A translator deals with text. The worst problem he might face is bad font size in a hard copy or content that is difficult to understand.

An interpreter however deals with human beings and not a piece of paper. Humans unfortunately come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and personality and attitudes.  


Some speakers whisper or mumble making it difficult for the interpreter to understand what they are saying. Some on the other hand will speak faster than a bullet train. Some confused souls will keep contradicting their own statements leaving the interpreter thoroughly bewildered.

The usual norm is to take a logical break after every few minutes and allow the interpreter to do his job. But some speakers go on and on without a break and as a result the interpreter will have almost 15-20 minutes of data to interpret in one go. 
That is what happened during one of Modi’s speeches in Japan. He got carried away while speaking. In a span of 10 minutes he cracked jokes and then turned again to serious matters without giving his interpreter any chance to interpret. As a result the Japanese in the room were totally baffled by the laughter and his Interpreter was faced with the daunting task of not only interpreting a lot of content but also witticisms and serious topics in one go. And jokes when not interpreted immediately lose a lot of their charm!

Some people like to pretend that interpreters are blessed with a photographic memory. I have had speakers change the slide of the ppt before I have finished explaining it or rub off drawings from the board before I could explain them.

And I used to absolutely hate lunch or dinner meetings. Most of them used to be in very good restaurants but since I was busy interpreting all the time, I couldn't taste a morsel unless I wanted to speak with my mouth full of food.

I remember one dinner in a very famous North Indian restaurant where I spent 10 minutes interpreting from English into Japanese what a culinary delight Butter Chicken is without getting to taste even a morsel of the damn bird!

There is no greater woe for an Interpreter than confusing pronunciations and different dialects.  I remember one interpreter who got thoroughly confused between Maruti and Multi – because of the simple reason that the Japanese pronounce ‘Ti’  as “Chi”  and ‘L’ as ‘R’. So Multi when spoken in a sort of anglicized Japanese – becomes Maruchi. Unfortunately Maruti of the Maruti Suzuki fame is also pronounced as Maruchi.

The poor fellow, a novice to the world of Automobile interpretation was totally befuddled between the two terms and used them indiscriminately till the Indians in the meeting thought that Multi companies were making cars like Maruti instead of Maruti making multiple cars. I was torn between an overwhelming desire to laugh and to correct to poor chap !

Of course such incidents are fun as long as you are not in the eye of the storm.  
I have spent some time in a scenic Japanese city called Kobe where a particular dialect of Japanese called Kansai Ben is spoken. The Japanese team members would automatically assume that because I know Japanese I would understand all dialects and slang. They would speak something rapidly in the dialect and then look at me expectantly where I would sit there with a totally confused expression on my face.

One of the worst situations I have faced is when I was required to interpret to a bristling, angry mob of union workers in an automobile Company. The Japanese MD chose to address them in Japanese and I was faced with a daunting task of interpreting in chaste Hindi. The worst was yet to come. The union leaders, all belonging to the dusty badlands of U.P were in no mood to listen to pacifying speeches and their response was richly peppered with the choicest invectives that even I with my extensive Japanese vocabulary found a tad difficult to Interpret!

I haven’t interpreted for years now but honestly if I ever feel a need to check my language acumen, the best thing would be to try another hand at interpreting! 


In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.

Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read here.


35 comments:

  1. Ugh! Now that is one career I will never aspire to have. Being an interpreter seems to be akin to being in the eye of the storm always.

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    1. It can also be rather challenging and interesting Ritu, Better than a lot of other boring careers. Depends on how you look at it !

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  2. That was quite an interesting post I must say. Although I always thought I had a fair idea of the kind of work an interpreter does, this post opened my eyes and mind in more than one way for sure.

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    1. Thanks Jairam. Yes, Professional Interpretation is a lot more than it seems !

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  3. In a time when conveying what you mean in simple English is a challenge, this post was such a delight. I am sooooooooooo happy to see you continuing these series.

    Multi and Maruti, that was a good one. However, I don't envy you at all! Gosh, I can only imagine your plight with the union.

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    1. I think that was the last time I ever Interpreted for an Auto Company.
      I am so glad you enjoy the series. I am telling you, whoever gave me the idea is a genius :-P

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  4. It sounds like a really tough job, Ruchika! Lovely piece.

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  5. Interpreting jokes immediately, in real time can be a daunting task. I was wondering about interpreters yesterday while watching Modi's speech in the US. Not an easy task when one wrong interpretation can doom your career.

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    1. Believe me translating Modi in Japan was not easy. His Hindi is so pure that I would have trouble translating it in English forget Japanese !
      True Alka, an Interpreter has to be on her toes always !

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  6. I never knew the difference that well. I am glad you have written a post about it. A tough job certainly.

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    1. And I am glad you read it :-) Thanks for dropping by !

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  7. I always thought that the interpreter's work was a daunting one! Being knowledgeable to two different socio-economic culture and then to interpret one's speech in real time, that too in a way that makes sense to the other culture. I can't imagine the stress! Glad I am not one.

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    1. Ohh its stressful at times ! A lot of us give up on it after a few years :-)

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  8. This was such a mesmerizing read and I learnt so much about you and the art of Interpreting. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading Purba ! Glad you liked it !

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  9. Omigod! One of the things I used to think was very difficult in interpreting is in interpreting metaphors and aphorisms. All cultures do not have the same. But this was an eye-opener on all the rest of the difficulties.

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    1. You are right Suresh. Metaphors are so tough to Interpret, specially if there is no equivalent in the other language. Usually we just end up explaining the metaphor rather than using it as it is and a lot of its charm is lost that way !

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  10. Sounds like a very stressful job, Ruch!! I can totally sympathize with all those who have been in the eye of the storm!!

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  11. Oh, I get the difference now. I don't know how I got confused between Translating and Interpreting when

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    1. we were chatting earlier.
      These Japanese posts really make for some really interesting reading. I could almost sense your pain at having to miss out on that Butter Chicken at Bukhara!

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    2. Oh believe me Rickie, I can never forgive or forget the guy who went on and on about Butter chicken instead of eating it ! Thanks for reading !

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  12. Such an interesting piece of writing about the world of interpretations and translations and OMG what challenge one faces being there in the thick of action. Hats off to you.
    you wrote it so well.

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    1. Thanks for reading Kriti. Glad you liked it !

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  13. Ah, this was such an interesting and informative post. Really translation is so different from interpretation. I am fascinated to know that you did this at some point in time. I am so intrigued by Japan and each of your posts makes me even more so. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Thanks Rachna. Not many know the difference and that irritates me at times. I am so glad you enjoy the Japan posts !

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  14. That was a fascinating read Ruchira ! And most definitely interpreting a language and being able to convey the meaning in accordance to the local customs and understanding is a most daunting task. To interpret something after 15-20 mins of listening seems almost impossible to me ! I will definitely read your Japan and me series..sounds very interesting !

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    1. Thank you so much for reading this post. I hope you enjoy rest of the Japan and I posts too !

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  15. Not that I haven't pondered on the travails of an interpreter before, your lucid post brought home the pitfalls and perils of being one. I felt so sorry for the luscious dish you missed.

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  16. Yes, I did feel sorry for myself too :-) Thank so much for reading.

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  18. Your competence and passion for this art cum science came out so well in this post . It felt so good to read about a path less troden. This was an eye opening and enjoyable read !!

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  19. interesting post! I really wish to learn a foreign language esp German! You are very right. in translating we have got ample time to think and respond unlike in interpretation where a complete mastery is required :)

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