Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Don't Hurt Your Interpreter: Don't Build Contents on English

In my late teen years in Bangkok, my part-time gigs included, though were not limited to, teaching Thai on a one-on-one basis to expats living in Bangkok and serving as live interpreters for foreigners conducting businesses in Thailand. For the most part, I loved what I did. And earning some cash in the process certainly didn't hurt.

Teaching Thai to expats was fun and very educational. For the first time, I learned to approach my own native tongue with a perspective of an outsider thereby recognizing syntactical and semantic idiosyncrasies that most native speakers of Thai don't pause to think about, because the language comes so naturally to us. Most of my students were Bangkok-based NGO workers who came from all over the world, and I learned so much about many different cultures and languages during that time.

It took one bad apple for me to quit teaching Thai to expats for good. After a few weeks, it became increasingly clear to me that my 40-something, married, Swiss student was much more interested in having a girl sit next to him than actually learning any Thai. One fine afternoon, after being made an unwilling recipient of a firm and lingering pat on the butt, I decided I'd had enough.

But that part, though icky, didn't make me foam at the mouth. It wasn't a desirable situation, but it was manageable. I just walked out mid-lesson, never to return, with a Swiss handprint on my skirt but my dignity intact (I think).

What made me foam at the mouth was the interpreter job that repeatedly put me in a position where I really, really wanted to smack someone up the side of their head.

In a situation where an interpreter is needed, it is safe to assume that the speaker and the audience do not share a common language; otherwise simultaneous interpretation wouldn't be necessary. Sure, English has been the lingua franca for so long that it's hard to imagine anyone anywhere in the world not knowing at least some of it. But when you put a group of speakers of English as an additional language (SEALs) with varying degrees of exposure to English in one place, it's wise to assume the worst.

The American's fondness of building contents upon acrostics/acronyms and the semantic flexibility and spellings of English words is -- my good gawd -- astounding. Seriously, it needs to stop.

Consider the following:
  • A supervisor: "The philosophy of our organization can be summed up in the word "LOVE" - Labor, Overtime (with no compensation), Vacation? Forget it, and Exploitation of the workers," Now tell me, how in sweet holy Hades can you interpret a speech like this -- live -- to an audience whose first language isn't English? Do you expect your interpreter to come up, on the friggin' spot, with a word for "LOVE" in a different language which comprises four letters that happen to serve as the initial letters for four words that convey the four points you try to make? Don't be that guy.
  • A preacher: "To make this sermon easy to recall, I'd like you to remember the four Ws that jeopardize your spiritual life: wantonness, waggishness, wastefulness, and wegotism ..." Yeah, better pray your interpreter can find four words in the audience's language that all begin with the same letters and perfectly communicate your divine message.
  • An inspirational speaker: "Remember, there's no I in TEAM." No kidding ...
  • An art teacher: "You have to practice. Of course, painting is hard. That's why they put "pain" in there." Teacher, it's not painting that gives me pain; it's you.
  • A politician: "War doesn't determine who is right; it determines who is left." I don't know ... but it sounds like you're declaring war with your interpreter and audience right about now.
  • A first-time overseas traveler: "Knock, knock!" Somebody kill me now ...