interpretation is an art or science?
Living in groups, communities or societies, vertebrates (we, humans) need to communicate, to make known a certain number of necessary messages to one another. Fears, needs, desires, anger, love, sympathy have to be expressed in order to ensure the cohesion, the survival of the group. Fortunately we are endowed by nature with a certain number of means in order to communicate: body language, facial expressions and speech. In a nutshell, non-verbal expressions suit affectivity: sadness, happiness, nervousness, confidence, stress, anger, impatience, tenderness, anxiety...As media of communications, they have their own codes that can often be misinterpreted: how a smile be considered polite, genuine, embarrassed, smug, loving, hypocritical, sacarstic, unconfortable, shy, seductive...? But this does not mean that they are less effective than verbal expression. How on earth in any language can one ever express the tender touch of a soft hand?
Whether they wish to dominate (« get the hell of here or else »), to mate (« I want you ») or to simply give out any other message, animals send various sounds. Cats purr and hiss and howl, apes gibber, chickens pip, cicadae sing, dogs bark and bay and howl and yelp, frogs croak, eagles scream, mice squeak and squeal, lions roar, dolphins click and whistle. Within each species the message is cristal clear, there is no misinterpretation. If a Persan cat hisses at a Siamese one, the latter knows immediately that he’d better watch out. A German shepherd does know how to court a nice Phu Quoc bitch. Although this exemple is a bad one since more often than not this courtship is done in silence, whereas most of us have to be talkative when it comes to this matter.
The higher one gets in the pyramid of evolution, the more complicated matters become. Being at the apex, says we, as humans we have to deal with thoughts, with abstractions, with the intellect, with thing of the mind, stuff of the soul. There, a roll of the eyes, a twitching of the lips, a wringing of the hands would really be off the mark. Though we may sometimes squeal or scream, we hardly ever howl or hiss because we have languages. Languages express the intricacies of human beings’ minds, the concepts that they play with, the abstractions that they entertain, the sequence of thoughts they try to master. There is no other way to express « nothingness in the universe» than to say the words. But expression in itself is not enough, it requires someone to express to. It’s communication. So languages as means of communication are coded systems of conveying affectivity and intellect. I stress the words « code » and « system ». These words belong to the sphere of science that has its own rules, its rigorous methods to understand and explain the world and its phenomena.
That was a long and winding introduction to what concerns us presently : interpretation. Let me make things even worse by asking a few silly questions.
Is interpretation an art or a science? Is it an art stealthily pretending to be a science? Then it is a fraud. Or is it a science desperately feigning to have the attire of an art? In which case it is a failure. So over fourty years, as an interpreter, have I been living as a fraud and a failure? Is it cold confort, is it schadenfreude to realise that I am in distinguished company? Because, with due respect, distinguished colleagues, have we not, all of us, been practicing something which is neither this nor that? In case some of you feel annoyed by such an outrageous assertion, I hasten to offer a few points in order to allay any unintended offence.
To laymen, interpreters are people that speak, that speak fast whereas to my mind the one cardinal quality of an interpreter is to know how to listen, to listen with great but cautious speed. This is the kind of listening that is proactive. It analyses, it dissects, it scans, it cross-references, it checks and double checks. In order to try to apprehend the flow of thoughts, to decipher the sequence of ideas, to decode the linkage of concepts, to trace the traps of reasonning. To analyse, dissect, scan, cross-reference, check and double check, doesn’t this ring a bell? These actions belong to the realm of science, don’t they? Following this line of thinking, we can say that this first phase of the act of interpreting is safely within the secure frontiers of science.
Now that we have done our listening we think we can safely open our big mouths and deliver. Ay! There’s the rub. How can one dare reproduce, how can one dare ape the human mind? There is no automatic rendering of meanings from one language to another. Cultural, civilisational, social contexts differ. Situations vary. Let’s take a few, simplistic examples :
At functions « Welcome » is the first word one hears. But does it truly mean « I am really glad to see you and happy to have you with us » or can it imply « Look, good manners require me to be polite but I wish you were miles away from here ». It all depends on how « welcome » is said. We really have to play it safe in interpretting this, lest we cause a diplomatic fracas. Interpretation requires sensibility and sensitivity.
Then let’s suppose that out of the blue you hear « I love you ». Before interpreting this sweet declaration into Vietnamese, a decent interpreter would want to wait to know who makes the statement. A man to his likely sweetheart, a mother to her only child, a pop singer to his/her ecstatic fans, a naughty neighbour to a surprised damsel? Even for lack of time and context and thinking you have to swim or sink you simply cannot afford to just be brave and make a learned guess and hope for the best. Interpretation needs common sense.
And a last one if I may to show that with the best interpretation you are still utterly exposed to troubles. You hear a delegate declare « chớ chở củi về rừng”. After scratching your head for a while you proudly whisper into the mike « let’s not carry coal to Newcastle ». Fine. Sterling job. Except that the speaker goes on and on with his metaphor, referring to the countless dangers of the forest, its wild animals, its man-eating flowers... And there you are stuck with your Newcastle and your heap of coal. How the devil can you speak of boobytraps, untamed beast and carnivorous plants in a mild English city? My poor man, you’re in for a diplomatic mess or a roar of laughter. In this job you simply cannot win. Interpretation is walking on thin ice.
You surely know that interpretation is the second oldest trade of mankind. And like the first, it deals with human relationship, perhaps not at the same level or with the same intensity. Its main concern is communication : how to make two persons understand each other who do not posess a common language and who do not necessarily agree afterwards. The mission is to make people understand one another, not to bring them to agree - that is the magician's job. There is a limit to what we can do.
In the ancient confucean social classification, first came the emperor and the wise men, then the noblemen and then follows a long list of all kinds of professions and trades and finally down at the bottom, the very bottom, just above the beggar, there stood the interpreter. In those ancient times, interpreters were mainly required when people needed to speak with the ennemy. And to be able to speak the ennemy's tongue was in itself considered a treason. An interpreter equaled a traitor. A fraud, a failure, plus a traitor! But fortunately for the lot of us, times have changed. Not that we have climbed up the damning social ladder but somehow we have acquired a veneer of respectability, that due to the learned parrot that can utter a certain number of alien sounds. After all, we have betrayed no country, no cause, no culture. At least that is what I hope.
We simply have learned a special gift, that of contributing to human understanding. You surely have noticed this oxymoron: learn a gift. A gift is given at birth, not acquired. And yet in this case it is a learned gift. Nobody is born a magician. Noboby is born an interpreter. I know of no freak that can overnight learn to interpret. One has to learn the tricks of the trade. It has to be acquired, developped, nurtured, honed. It is a long process. And like any long endeavour, it requires patience, steadfastness, humility and also a certain degree of pride. Let me stop at this for a moment. Patience? Oh yes, the patience to learn languages, to explore them, to master them, to know their idiosyncracies, their cultural and civilisational contexts. Steadfastness? That of an explorer that enters the unchartered space of the human mind. Humility? The humility to serve as a go-between. Pride? The pride to be able to contribute to facilitating intercultural exchange.
Have you seen the film Lost in translation? And you certainly know the italian phrase "Traduttore, traditore" - translator, traitor - which cynically but realistically says that when we translate, we are due to betray the meaning of the original text because we do not and cannot render the full linguistic, emotional, cultural, poetical content of it. There is always something which is lost. And when it comes to interpretation, it's even worst: how to express a nuance, an intonation, an inflection of the voice, the lightness of a pun, the gravity of a tone? We are not dealing with words, we are dealing with the human mind, with the human soul with their complexities, their contradictions. We are dealing with things which are expressed and behind them, things which are not expressed and though not expressed still are implied, by a short hesitation, by a subtle stare, by a vague movement of the hand or by a sudden rigidity of the body.
Don't forget. We interpret therefore we take risks in assuming, in guessing, in supposing, in decyphering, in imagining. And on the basis of what we think we have understood, we try to render this in the other language, making sure or trying to make sure that our listeners get more than the gist of what has been said. We know it's not entirely it, it's not the ideal word, not the proper expression, there's something missing, but under sheer pressure of time we have to go for the second best. It's disappointing, it's nerve wrecking to know that our work is always, always imperfect. Our job is an agonizingly frustrating endeavour to try to reach an ever illusive perfection. Doesn’t art face the same doubt? Isn’t this what art is all about? Interpretation is germane to art in that it longs for the receding absolute.
A pilot that safely lands his plane knows he's done a fine job. A surgeon that saves somebody's life can be proud of his operation. A writer that puts a final full stop to his novel is convinced that he has said what he wanted to say... We, the interpreters? At the end of a day of interpreting? Somewhere in the back of our minds still lingers this troubling questioning: did I do it right? Have I managed to render this nuance? Did I give the right tone? Have I overcooked it or not given enough?
We are not dealing with words only, remember? Our job, our dream, our raison d'être is to transpose meaning. No slaves of words, we only bow to meaning. And there is no meaning without cultural context. Our job is therefore to transpose one culture to another. A daunting task indeed. But one that is made lighter by the unsure sense of creativity, more rewarding by the fickle touch of inspiration. Creativity and inspiration, aren’t they the two pillars of art? For it is not enough to assemble a few colors to create painting, a few words to spark poetry, a few notes to spring music. Inventiveness is of the essence. And without inventiveness, without inspiration interpretation is but a dreary droning, a mere muffled mastication. But let’s not be carried away by this apparent kinship. Art is there to spark emotion while interpretation is meant to foster comprehension. This unlikely coupling has to end somehow. Em đi đường em, tôi đi đường tôi. Tình nghĩa đôi ta chỉ có thế thôi.
Now what does it take for one to be able to do this? How does one train to interpret and not only learn a few tricks of the trade, as I wrongly assume a while ago? After all a surgeon does not only learn to cut flesh, or a pilot does not simply learn to push or pull a joystick. One does not become a Formula 1 pilot just because one can drive a car. Likewise one does not become instantly an interpreter just because one speaks a few languages. Here comes the big question of training. Specially here in VN, but not only in VN. Trained, how? For how long? And specially by who? With this added dilemna : how to train the trainers. The chicken and egg problem.
Training students to exercise a craft, a profession. Where an impeccable knowledge of the working languages is required beforehand. Where they learn what has to be learned in economics, sciences, political, diplomatic, administrative, legal, medical fields, trade, international relations, agriculture, chemistry, sport, environment, banking, nuclear physics - this list is not exhaustive - Each one of these is a world by itself. Can they ever imagine how lucky they are to be able to explore these new frontiers? To enter the wonders of the world of litterature, of poetry, of cinema, of cartoons, of arts, of technologies, old and new? There is no end to it. They are of course trained in different fields of interpretation proper (transposition of ideas, what to keep what to trim, what comfortable gap for you and for the delegates, scanning capacity, breathing and voice control, how to anticipate, how to establish a relation of trust with their audience, how to prepare a meeting, booth discipline... AND most importantly learn to listen, the prime quality of an interpreter).
Thus carefully tutored and thoroughly honed they are then put into a tiny little booth where once the mike is switched on, the body of knowledge that they have gathered, the mass of culture that they have harnessed, all stands ready to try to capture the ever evading meaning of fleeting thoughts. There they are entering the realm of other peope's ideas. They are an instrument to reach someone else’s mind. They move aside, fade away in order to incarnate another person. What a strangely uplifting feeling when you completly forget yourself, relieving yourself of your own being to become pure concentration in order to impersonate a stranger. In fact you become, you ARE the head of state that has a national cause to uphold, the expert that needs to convince his colleagues of the scientific foundation of his reasoning, the negociator that is involved in a multimillion dollars litigation, the lawyer that is called upon to defend the life or honour of an accused. You simply are an invisible actor that plays many parts, eerily floating in the abstraction of ideas, frantically fighting for the fitting words and bemusedly wondering whether all you have said makes any sense.
The job is demanding, it is challenging and for this reason it is a fascinating one. It requires us to be constantly on the alert, not to be complacent about our knowledge because we don't know it all and yet are expected to nearly know it all. In sum, there are three words that define our profession: work, work and work.
Finally a few words if I may about the scourge that erodes the morale of an exhausted interpreter: acronyms. In our memory linger a few hundreds of them, quite a number tricky ones. It is not rare to hear this kind of introduction read full speed : " A meeting will be held between the DG of the WTO and his DDGs with the LDCs / EU HODs before the next GC session on the ASEAN-EU FTA parts dealing with SPS, TBT and TRIPS..." By the time you have finished decyphering all those mysterious words, the statement - and perhaps your career also - is over.
At the start of these few observations I should have reminded myself of the precious acronym KISS, just like the pleasant exchange K-I-S-S, which stands for Keep It Short Stupid. But I hope I have respected this injunction.
Author: Nguyễn Trọng Lâm from "HDPF"