If you ask for language service business, ask for it by its proper name!

As a Certified Court Interpreter (as well as professional translator) it’s not unusual to run into people who mistakenly refer to my profession as that of a ‘court translator.’ In case you are interested in the perhaps subtle but significant distinction: the difference between an interpreter and translator is that the former deals with spoken language while the latter works with written texts. Of course, there are quite a few translators active in the legal field, who are specialized in translating technical, legal documents from one language into another. But there are some pointed differences among those professional fields. Not to become sidetracked in details, but one such significant difference is related to so-called translation padding; an almost inevitable phenomenon whereby the text of a translated document, i.e. in the target language, is somewhat larger in word volume (typically about 15%) than the text in the original or source language.

As it’s just an example, I’ll explain the impact of translation padding as an instance of the broad differences between translation and interpretation below this entry, at the very end.

Suffice it to say, and in any event: a good interpreter not necessarily a good translator makes, and vice versa. They each take a different approach, and they are significantly different specializations. This is, in its essence, why a court interpreter is not necessarily a ‘court translator.’ Of course, while it’s perfectly possible to imagine a ‘court translator’ as someone dedicated to translating written court documents, I don’t think that is an obvious and common understanding for that otherwise arguably misapplied term.

And so I arrive at what prompted me to address this topic: an instance of the use of ‘court translator’ used by a business to attract customers to itself, offering the service of ‘court translation’ as an extension, as an ancillary service to its core business, i.e. court reporting. I ran into the following as an advertisement alongside the pages of an unrelated website. The name of the company in question has been deliberately obfuscated by me:

Fishing for business by an improper name
Fishing for business by an improper name

(As opposed to illegal court interpreting services?)

Pun aside, it is somewhat disappointing and telling that the headline of this little ad offering a ‘court translator’ is followed up in the body text with a reference to court interpreting leading one to conclude that this is an example of irresponsibly casting the net wider, hoping to catch the interest of people who are accustomed to the improper usage of the term ‘court translator’. It does beg the question of which people would be interested in using the services of a court interpreter when, seemingly, they’re unaware of the appropriate denomination of that particular profession. After all, court clerks and court staff, attorneys, seasoned court reporters and certainly judges, by and large, understand and use the appropriate term: court interpreter.. Which leaves, plausibly, staff that is less experienced with what goes on in court proceedings, such as clerical staff who receive last-minute requests from attorneys to set up depositions – or simply forget to arrange for an interpreter for the witness until the day prior. Yes, I have had quite a few of those, too, invariably puzzled as to why it is so difficult to schedule a certified court interpreter on such short notice…

The bottom line is: Evidence suggests that the term ‘court translator’ was used in the above ad in an attempt to garner ancillary business by an agency with a different specialization. But I don’t like its implication of contributing to a pervasive misnomer, and I like the related plausible reality much less: court interpreters working for that particular agency confronted with a careless attitude regarding their profession.

Far be it for me to criticize a court reporting agency for offering such a ‘full service’ add-on product. In fact, I am called in regularly by court reporting businesses, and I have come to appreciate the enormous degree of skill, dedication and very hard work that qualified (certified) court interpreters put into their work. Yet somehow, that instrumental carelessness in reference to ‘court translation’ makes me wonder how that same company would react if others were referring to court reporters as court typists. Wordplay side, ‘typing’ and court stenography are very different things, although both entail the use of some form of keyboard.

Considering all that, it suddenly doesn’t feel so right anymore to minimize the difference between translation and interpreting, does it?

In the specific case of that particular company advertising itself with ‘court translator’ services, what gives me additional pause is that the very homepage of their website indicates that they portray themselves as ‘A Full-Service Court Reporting and Videography Agency’ which, albeit somewhat complementing, are also very different specializations.

It leaves me wondering whether a casual visitor who is used to working with court reporters, court interpreters and videographers also gets the creeping, subliminal question I had upon seeing the ad and their website: are they any good at their core business?

Object lesson for me here: if you want to position yourself as a professional in a given specialized service industry, offering your reliable, proficient and trustworthy services, make sure that you correctly refer to the fields you allege to cover. Else, you may run into credibility issues; either with your prospective clients, or with prospective language services contractors that you need in order to offer your ‘full service’ product.

Or both.

Note: The impact of ‘translation padding’ on interpreting

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just state as the key explanatory factor that a text written in any language almost naturally employs a certain economy in its form, by way of standing expressions, jargon, idioms – in short: manners of speech that native speakers almost innately use to quickly refer to certain things, ideas or concepts. Not every language has the equivalents for the same type of standing expressions; as a result, whenever you are translating, you often deal with trying to come up with the most efficient route to convey the same meaning. That’s not always possible, in which case you end up describing the term or expression in the source language. The end result is a little bit more volume in the target language text. Some people erroneously assume that some languages are “just more wordy” than others; I am strongly suspicious of that idea, as I can observe such translation padding in either direction. As I said, that is just a brief excursion into the phenomenon of translation padding, which undoubtedly is worth a post (or two) dedicated to the subject.

While translation padding is a natural and quite normal phenomenon, as an interpreter that leaves you with a practical and particularly stubborn problem: in court proceedings, you simply don’t have the time for that bit of extra text that a purist would consider a “perfect” translation. Again, this is a subject on which I could easily expand for several pages. Suffice it to say that an interpreter working in simultaneous interpretation mode cannot practically afford the time to provide that extra 15% or so. You run out of time very quickly if you try. Therefore, you have to apply all your skills, knowledge and experience to arrive at a verbal rendition that is perfectly equivalent, and “fits” in the allotted pattern of speech you’re following. As an interpreter one cannot afford the luxury of translation padding – at least not to the same extent – as a translator might. So, that’s another more inherent or procedural difference in approach between translation and interpreting.

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