The vicissitudes-intricacies of interpretation -and many traps.

PaulRen's picture
Non Thai Article

The intricacies of loose language interpretation and the known and unknown traps/difficulties this represent.

Residing in Thailand for so many years investing/building/living and more I often endured the difficulty in language and interpreting at many different levels.  Just to define terminology, translation means written -and interpreting means oral translating.  I speak fluently several languages but never got going to much in Thai.  One reason is because I want to and do operate on the "international level" and learning and becoming proficient in a new language invariably also means adopting their means and habits, good and bad.  Over the years I’ve met a few foreigners here whom speak excellent Thai -but then I also note how they take on Thai ways and means for better or for worse. But that is another story for another day.

Here today I want to express the vicissitudes-intricacies of informal interpretation and the known -and lessor known- difficulties this represent in real time and life. When you think about it, interpreting comes with all kinds of unforeseen “luggage”.  Sometimes it does not matter, other times its critical!

First, you have the handicap of “what I don’t understand, I can’t interpret”. Is that so?  Why, I often wondered, can’t somebody interpret what I expressed even if they don’t understand it fully.  Simplest, if I ask "what is the p/e ratio of this company?" The interpreter/person does not have to know what a p/e ratio is. The question just asks for a number.  Yet often it get stuck on that.  After all, I am just asking to explain in Thai, in simple language, what I expressed in English.  I am not asking the interpreter to understand it, just to translate it (orally)! This can be so very frustrating.    

Second, is the issue of what I call laziness, where the informal interpreter just brushes off some of the nuances they feel are not important and summarizes' it all, to his or her whim. Perhaps they can’t find the words without a bit more effort?  Arbitrarily so brushing off or sorting what they think is important while thinking of something else, then so downplaying the issues -while broadely condensing.  This often is done without any second thought just “to get through it and move on”.  Hence much can be lost as a key issues gets short-changed/shortcutted. Or gutted.  I think many know what I mean.

Third, there is the issue of interpreting back and forth in a way to what is beneficial to their own cause. Meaning, changing things around just a touch so to support what the person wants to hear or the selling agent wants to be heard on.  Downplaying certain nuances while inflating others to the vested persons’ interest. This can be especially damaging as it implies truth -when in fact the truth has been language-filtered down to the other persons’ advantage.  Call that biased interpreting.

Imagine you are in a Thai business situation where you employ a lawyer and a Thai business individual. Going back and forth in Thai and English interpreting.  Both want the transaction to take place as then money will exchange.  Hence it’s in the lawyers benefit to perhaps twist a bit or to be more gently, just massage a bit the language-exchange to round off the corners of contention. For a simplest example consider a Thai construction builder affirms upon asked on time “well, this job will take at least 2 months”.  The lawyer translates this differently as “it will take at most 2 months”.  Nobody is there to correct this different statement -and so it sits with no accountability.  Later when the job takes longer it gets brushed away.  Making the contractor look bad, when in fact it was the interpreters' fault.  If it’s a more contentious issue it gets labeled “as a misunderstanding”, sans plus.  Again, no accountability. As nobody may remember what exactly was stated. There are many different of all kinds examples where this can and does happen regularly.

Then there is the problem of culture & terminology or sometimes the -as I dare call it- “playing dumb” (see further below).  If you ask a Thai person how many kilometers away something is, you may get a very odd answer, depending.  Same with time, “10 minutes” can mean different things in different cultures.  Asking for driving directions here can be especially tricky, don’t ask me why. Other times it can be beneficial to camouflage things by hiding behind the language and if confronted just brush it off as a misunderstanding. Playing dumb, sorry for the repeat.  This can be especially tricky as it allows for an affirmative answer when in fact the correct answer is “no can do”, or “no have this feature” or I just don't know.  Later it gets brushed off as "did not understand it correctly", well or did they?  Contrast this to individuals of the same good language skills, where this just cannot happen.  Another trap is when there is a third individual there where the question/concern/issues gets raised in English and then the 3rd person answers in Thai, with the third person translating it back in English -and visa versa.  Yet another classic example of potential real pitfalls; later nobody knows -and there is little accountability on, whom said what.  Or imagine you are interviewing a potential new employee and the interpreter does not exchange correctly what was asked -and what exactly was answered. As there is so much nuance is such exchanges.  Not to mention that it always takes twice as long, as it first must be explained in one language, then post this, interpreted to another. There is much more to all this, but I will stop here as you get the idea.:)

Bref, what all this shows is the frustration, pitfalls, traps, time/patience and more when interpreting comes to play. As surely there is much more than 
meets the eye or ear, then just the skills of translating exactly what was said, back and forth. Not least, there can be bad intention as well.  
Today you see why I was/am/became a big fan of Interprefy AG, the Swiss start up I here at advocated exactly 6 years ago (when many of our stocks peaked), where professional interpreters from around the globe interpret exactly and without bias what has been said -no more nor less!  All done remotely at much more reasonable cost and executed by top notch certified translators,simultaneously.  Its called RSI, remote simultaneous interpreting and its become hugely successful this year, turbo charged by CV19.  A very big global business-conference help/tool, Thailand has yet to embrace.  But that too is yet another story.

Best Regards,

Paul A. Renaud.