Don’t Go Rogue! Problems with Translation . . .

One of the most difficult problems for any expat is translation.  Living in Turkey without a full grasp of the language presents its own challenges from day to day.  Problems with translation can make those matters worse.  I am lucky enough to have a husband and several friends who speak both English and Turkish and translate for me often.  However, there are times when this is not enough.

[Note, in this article I am using the term “translate” loosely.  There are differences between “translate” and “interpret.”  However, this article does not address those differences directly.  For the purposes of this writing, I am using the two terms interchangeably.]

A good translator knows both languages, yes.  But they are also able to translate words, phrases and ideas that do not translate directly from one language to the next.  For example, if I say, “You are full of baloney”, a good translator is not going to translate that directly to Turkish which would be something like, “You are full of a a sliced lunch meat made from beef.”  Rather, he would repeat in Turkish the meaning of my sentence, which is, “You are not telling the truth.”

A good translator is very skilled, and likely, difficult to find.  Think about the problems that a more serious situation may present, like in the court room.  The court interpreter often gets into discussions with the person who is speaking the foreign language.  For example, the lawyer, Mr. Smith, asks a question.  The interpreter, Mr. French, translates the question.  The respondent, Ms. Know-it-all, does not understand (the meaning) of the question.  Ms. Know-it-all asks a a question in order to better understand.  At this point, Mr. French should translate her question for Mr. Smith.  However, this rarely happens.  Instead, Mr. French often gives his analysis, in the foreign language, of the meaning of the question, to the Ms. Know-it-all.  And Mr. Smith, fool that he is, usually lets it go.

That is really bad lawyering.  In this example, Mr. Smith has no idea what Mr. French said to Ms. Know-it-all.  And in this case, Mr. French is not a lawyer, so it is possible that he is not relaying the meaning of the legal question properly to Ms. Know-it-all.

Let me give you another example.  Here’s a clip from the TV show, The Newsroom.  In this case, the Japanese translator is not only making a mistake in her translation, she is actually doing it purposefully in order to protect a bad boy corporation.

So you might ask, how does this affect the normal everyday life of an expat here in Turkey?  Here’s a good example.  In the past few weeks, I have been to many hospitals, have seen a host of doctors, and have had plenty of exams.  I have used native Turkish speakers, who are fluent in English, to translate for me at each appointment.  But things just aren’t being done like I want them to be.

For example, the doctors (or anyone really) don’t typically give enough time to for translation of each sentence.  They go on and on.  Then I get something like, “You need to increase your medicine.”  It then takes some time for me to think of the questions I need to ask, because I didn’t get any of the monologue.  I have no idea whether the doctor may have brought up something that I would have questioned.  Often times, my conversation continues with my companion long after I have left the doctor’s office.  After much pulling and plugging, I may have more questions or comments, or an “aha” moment, finally understanding the doctor’s method to his madness.

It’s even worse with a rheumatologist.  There is nothing exact about the science of rheumatology.  These doctors, for the most part, only know your symptoms by your telling them exactly how badly you feel.  Of course, we all usually feel a little better on that day we go to the doctor.  Our symptoms seem to disappear! So I learned a long time ago that when a rheumatologist gives me a physical exam, I should say, “Yes that hurts, that reeeeaaaally hurts,” to every spot they touch, regardless of how it truly feels at the time.  But if someone translates for me, they may not show the emphasis that I do, which is truly how the doctor is judging the pain.

My companions just don’t always handle things the way I would.  They accept what the doctor says where I would question.  They politely respond when I would lament, “What the heck good is that supposed to do?”  They wouldn’t take a doctor’s word for it just because he is a doctor.  They wouldn’t believe one could get heart disease from an opened window and wet hair.  (Wait, that’s a different story.)

So, how do we know that the the translator we choose is actually saying what we want them to say?  Frankly, we don’t.  But if one is actually hiring a translator, there are questions that can be asked, or demands that can be made.  In the courtroom, we demand that the translator repeat everything and not hold sidebars.  For a doctor, we could record the conversations and have someone else help later (as two translating heads are always better than one.)  We can do our homework in advance, get online, do some research, plan our questions.

But in the end, we expats often just cross our fingers and hope for the best.  You gotta believe that if the doctor said something terrible, your friend is going to tell you, right?  And so life goes . . .

Useful Links:

Court Interpreter Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

Court Interpreting: Complexities and Misunderstandings

Guidelines for Working With Interpreters 

8 thoughts on “Don’t Go Rogue! Problems with Translation . . .

Add yours

  1. . . when misunderstandings happen so easily between native speakers, a translation/translator will ever be an inexact ‘science’. As Winston Churchill once observed, US and Britain are ‘two counties devided by a common language!’

  2. You are so right about translating v. interpreting. My husband is a legal translator with 30 years experience, but when translating something outside the law we always do it together. Having one native speaker of each language is the only way to catch all the subtleties of meaning.
    Re: doctors – years ago, pain from an ovarian cyst was blamed on walking on a cold floor with no slippers!

  3. Sorry to hear you’ve had to see so many doctors. Hope your feeling better. My dad (Yes, a doctor) says to avoid hospitals because that’s where the sick people are 🙂 PS What was that about a wet head and an open window?!!

    1. Carol, basically in Turkey it will kill you. Also if you are not wearing socks (summer or winter) you’ll get gas and a stomachache. Also it’s even worse if you are breastfeeding, then the baby will,get gas (Yes, all because you didn’t put socks on ;))

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: