An Interpreting Dilemma

By Jonathan Goldberg

Given the choice of offering a literal, by-the-book interpretation that you are certain the recipient won’t understand and offering a less-than-exact equivalent of the original that you are confident he will understand, what would you do? It’s tempting to speculate that most of us would opt for the latter. But are there consequences to doing this? Especially when the setting is a legal one? Jonathan Goldberg dives in.

The verb “to interpret” has two common meanings, which in a sense are somewhat contradictory. The first relates to the act of interpreting written documents or oral statements, in the sense of giving one’s “take” on them. The use of the word in this sense suggests circumstances in which a fair degree of subjectivity is permitted.

The second sense, with which NCTA members are likely to make an association, relates to the art of oral translation, whose practitioners are expected to eschew subjectivity and to render the target language with an almost scientific precision.

Translations are often chiseled out of rough source language and fashioned in their final form with the aid of dictionaries, by consulting colleagues and, as a last resort, by asking the client for a clarification of the intended meaning. Interpretion assignments, such as the cross-examination of witnesses, allow no such luxury. Rather, the thrust and parry of these verbal brawls sometimes makes one yearn for the days when one knew only a single language and life seemed simpler on that account.

While driving back from one such assignment, a Hebrew-language deposition, I was mulling over one or two of the trickier terms that the deposing attorney had been pitching across the table at his victim. The deponent for whom I had been interpreting was a flower seller. The deposing lawyer, confident that he was about to establish a case of forgery, dramatically flourished the document he held and asked the deponent: “So does this purport to be your signature?” As the word “purport” comes up fairly often in legal settings (and being myself a retired lawyer), I knew the Hebrew equivalent. But I anticipated a familiar trap.

While I had no doubt that the flower vendor could, if called upon to do so, expound at length on the subtle differences between various types of chrysanthemums, I was equally confident that he had never heard the Hebrew equivalent of “purport.” If, therefore, I rendered a translation of that word so precise as to qualify me for a top grade in any Hebrew-language test, I knew that the deponent was highly likely to reply “I didn’t understand the question.”

This kind of situation is pregnant with danger for the interpreter. At best, furtive glances are likely to be thrown in the interpreter’s direction, with all present assuming that the correct rendition of the lawyer’s question had proven beyond the interpreter’s language skills. At worst, the deponent’s counsel, looking up from his newspaper, is likely to see in the deponent’s state of bamboozlement a golden opportunity to come to his client’s defense (which he may well not have done in any juridical sense), by stating for the record “We seem to be having a problem with the interpreter,” or some such gratuitous comment.

Determined not to become a victim of the blame game, I decided, on the spur of that fateful moment, to break all the rules of professional interpreting, and to take a little professional license, by lowering the register of the question. I therefore rendered, in Hebrew, the equivalent of “So are you claiming that this is your signature?” I held my breath as I waited to see whether my self-protective, unprofessional sleight-of-tongue would have the desired effect. Would it, I wondered, elicit an answer that would demonstrate that the deponent had understood the question and if he had not, would it be he or I who would take the rap? His reply, in Hebrew, was: “Not only do I claim that this is my signature, but it is in fact my signature.” I took one more small step, if not for humanity, then at least for the interpreting profession, and rendered the answer back into English as “Not only does it purport to be my signature, but it is in fact my signature.”

My gamble had paid off. The pair of distortions had cancelled each other out. I had demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the deponent’s powers of comprehension extended far beyond the realm of chrysanthemums. I had allowed the deponent’s counsel to continue reading his newspaper without the need to sort out any bothersome misunderstandings. I had in fact performed a valuable service to all parties.

I am hoping that the parties who paid me to interpret for the flower vendor are not regular readers of Translorial, because they may not fully appreciate the interpreting resourcefulness that I displayed while on contract to them. But if this frank discovery of mine (in the legal sense of that word) should elicit a complaint, or a demand to stick to the straight and narrow
path of interpreting when carrying out future assignments, I intend to plead argumentum ab inconvenienti.