Every Little Word Matters

02/03/2017 11:58 AM | Meghan McCallum (Administrator)

Every Little Word Matters

By Kristy Brown Lust, MATI Director

As professional translators and interpreters, we know that one word can have many shades of meaning, depending on its context. We also know that even small errors can add up to big changes in meaning. However, when we’re facing the time crunch common in our industries, we sometimes forget the impact translation and interpretation errors can have. Let’s look at a couple examples.

Case 1: Japanese Red Army member trial

In October 2016, Tsutomu Shirosaki was on trial in Tokyo for alleged participation in a Japanese Embassy attack that occurred in 1968. Two interpreters were selected to interpret testimony from 11 Indonesians. After a review of the interpretations by the court found that one of the interpreters made more than 200 errors in interpreting testimony, the interpreter was removed from the case.

According to The Japan Times, “The court found that the interpreter skipped some words without translating them and made mistakes in translating some others. In one instance, the interpreter translated ‘forensic identification officer’ as simply ‘officer.’” Other reported errors: “the year 1983 mentioned by an Indonesian police officer was found to have been translated as 1985. Another statement by the officer, that ‘I did not give heed to it,’ was found to have been changed into ‘I do not remember it.’” An editorial in the paper said the outcome of this particular trial was not impacted by the errors, but urged the courts to establish standardized examinations to ensure interpreters are qualified to provide legal [interpretation] services. The editorial concluded, “If a false conviction occurs as a result of an incorrect translation, the damage will be irreparable.”

Case 2: Greek Subminimum Wage

In a recent recommendation to the Greek labor ministry, a group of experts issued recommendations, written in English, for implementing a “youth subminimum wage.” The group suggested that a young person’s pay should be based on how much experience they have in the workforce. S. Papapetros writes, “Specifically, a passage on page 41 of the report envisions a ‘subminimum’ wage at 90 percent of the current level, gross pay, for the first year of employment; 95 percent for the second year of employment.”

When the report was translated into Greek, subminimum was translated as minimum, which could lead to a debate on what rate the youth wages should be calculated on.

Even the best translators and interpreters make mistakes. That’s why good proofreading and editing are important, along with certification credentials. And that’s also why it’s dangerous to place unrealistic demands and time pressure on translators and interpreters. Mistakes may complicate already challenging political, business, and personal relationships and cause serious harm to governments, businesses and individuals.