Leximnesia Pro – Florian Mortgat

Directionality in interpreting and translation

These are things I often hear when I tell people that I’m a conference interpreter and a translator:

  • So you’re bilingual/trilingual, right? No, true bilingualism implies being a native speaker of 2 languages. This is not my case.
  • I have a document in French I need translated into English, can you do that? No, as English is not my active language.

When you have 3 languages (let’s say English, Italian, Portuguese), there are 6 possible language pairs:

  • Portuguese into English and English into Portuguese
  • Italian into English and English into Italian
  • Portuguese into Italian and Italian into Portuguese

But what many people don’t realize is that interpreting from a language and into a language are two very different things. One of the most salient reasons is that understanding a speech is often (with exceptions) easier than producing that same speech.

A simple example would be:

  • If a German-speaking person says “Zufriedensheitsfragebogen”, I’ll know right away what it means and how to translate that into French. I have a good passive knowledge of that word.
  • If someone asks me how to say “satisfaction form” in German, however, I will have trouble. Perhaps I will eventually have the right answer, but it will take some time and I’ll still not be 100% sure I’m correct, because I don’t have a very good active knowledge of the word “Zufriedenheitsfragebogen”.

Knowledge can be passive or active (or something inbetween), and a passive knowledge is, most of the time, easier to acquire than an active knowledge. I have an excellent passive knowledge of my two passive languages (aka my C languages, German and English), but the only language of which I have both an excellent active and passive knowledge is French (my A language).

Of course, this binary distinction (active/passive) isn’t absolutely accurate – I am myself not well-acquainted with the latest research about this –, but it is accurate enough to explain the directionality problem.

Couldn’t interpreters train hard to make their passive languages active?

It is way harder than it sounds. An active language in conference interpreting is a language you can speak above native speaker level. Being able to express any idea is not enough: you have to be able to express it very quickly and know a lot of different ways to put it.

It is possible to turn one passive language into an active language, but this requires a lot of work – probably much more than you think, even after reading this. Turning two passive languages into active languages is a feat few people achieve.

Conference interpreter training is extremely hard, so it wouldn’t be realistic to require all interpreters to turn their passive languages into active languages and teach them interpreting at the same time.

In other words: I could work on my German or my English, but this would be very hard with no guarantee of success.

What about interpreters who grew up with two languages?

Truly bilingual interpreters — those who are a native speaker of two languages — can choose to work on both their native languages to make them active. Even if it is your native language, it is not very easy, but they sometimes do this and achieve excellent results. This is not my case, however: I grew up in France and French is my only active (and native) language.

What about liaison interpreting?

Liaison interpreting is different:

  • you are less bound by time: in liaison interpreting, speed is less of a problem: you can’t spend one whole minute searching for a word, but you can afford to loose three or four seconds
  • the beauty of your wording is less important: in general, the expected level of expression is not as high as in conference interpreting (carrying the general meaning accurately and in detail is enough)
  • you are in direct contact with both the speaker and the listeners. If there is something unclear for your audience, they can interrupt you. If you missed something, you can ask the speaker to repeat. This would not be possible in simultaneous interpreting.

What about consecutive?

When I write conference interpreting, I include consecutive, but you’re right: there are differences between simultaneous and consecutive conference interpreting. There is a little more time flexibility in consecutive interpreting (though other requirements are the same). Some interpreters have more active languages for consecutive than for simultaneous interpreting (these are called their B language(s) or Bconsec).

Design et site : Florian Mortgat
Crédits photographiques et iconographiques : Florian Mortgat (sauf mention contraire) ; Crédits du portrait : Marie-Cécile Mortgat ; Conception du logo: Étienne Pot
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