Terms in the translation biz

By Kristin Fehlauer

In this blog post, I’ve touched on a few of the terms more commonly used in the world of translation and interpretation (T&I). Knowing them won’t let you into the secret club (that’s an entirely different story), but they can be a convenient shorthand for certain concepts. They also provide a point of entry for thinking about wider issues of fluency and bi- or multilingualism.

Source and target texts

The most basic terms are quite simple: source text (Ausgangstext in German) and target text (Zieltext). The source text is the original, aka what you’re supposed to translate. The target text is your finished product. Source and target texts often turn out to have different lengths; just how different depends on the language combination. For instance, English tends to be about 20% shorter than German. It’s usually not a problem working from German into English, but the other way around can cause some headaches. While letters or reports don’t usually have length limits, graphical elements such as those in PowerPoint charts often do (“it just won’t fit in the text box!!”). Fortunately, German is very tolerant of abbreviations.

Kristin Fehlauer

A/B/C language

People in the T&I world often use the A/B/C system for describing their level of (professional) proficiency in different languages.

Your A language is your native language. Most people have only one true A, even if they were raised speaking multiple languages. There is still going to be one language that you are more comfortable in, or that you use more, and/or that you are truly literate in. You may be able to chat with your grandmother in Armenian without searching for words or making grammar mistakes, but that’s still a far cry from being able to read and write it properly.

Your B language is a foreign language you can speak, read, and write with reasonable fluency. It is a working language, and we would say you are able to “work into” or “out of” that language. So if you have Korean as an A and Spanish as a B, you could translate (or interpret) from Korean into Spanish and from Spanish into Korean. (Because we place such a premium on quality, at BVIW we translate only into our native languages.)

Your C language is one you have passive knowledge of, but you don’t use it actively. In other words, you can understand it, but not speak it at a professional level. Conference interpreters may have several C languages, but then work out of them into their A or B language. Same for translators; they can understand the written form of a language well enough to convert it into the target language, but don’t necessarily speak it at a high level of fluency.

Translation terms

Simul and consec

The two best-known kinds of interpreting are simul(taneous) and consec(utive). Simul is what most people think of when they think of a professional interpreter: a person in a booth at the United Nations, wearing a headset and speaking into a microphone. This kind of interpreting is done – stay with me now – simultaneously. The interpreter starts talking almost as soon as the speaker does, and must listen to them while rendering their words into the listener’s language.

Consec is what I once heard described as “interpreting in chunks”: the speaker talks for a few minutes, before the interpreter steps in to deliver the interpretation. Once that section has been interpreted, the speaker resumes. Only one of them is speaking at any given time. The interpretation might go only in one direction (such as a formal speech) or back and forth (such as discussions or negotiations).

Aside – For a great movie about professional interpreting, don’t watch Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter! Instead, check out The Whisperers (which is Die Flüsterer in German, or La voix des autres in French – the latter somehow a much cooler title). It gives you a good idea of what professional interpreters actually do.

Finally, I’d like to mention one more term that hearkens back to my days of studying T&I: sight translation (Stegreif in German). This is actually the quintessential intersection of translating (written) and interpreting (spoken). Here’s how it works: In class, the professor would hand us a text, usually about a current topic in the news. We would split up longer texts so that each student had a few paragraphs; shorter articles (about half a page) would be taken by just one person. You would get a few minutes to prepare, and possibly be allowed to inquire about the meaning of a word or two (we couldn’t use our own dictionaries or the internet). Then, when it was your turn, you would stand up at the front of the classroom and read the text aloud, almost as though you were giving a speech. Of course, you speak in the target language. So if you had a German text in front of you, you would be reading it out in English. It’s not an activity that happens in the usual course of day-to-day work, but it’s an excellent exercise for improving your speed – and practicing public speaking never hurts either.

What this means for us

What does this have to do with BVIW, anyway? After all, most of the above deals with interpreting, which we don’t generally offer. True, but T&I is the environment we work in. These terms all touch on aspects of the issues we are confronted with every day. Have I understood the source text properly? How do I trim my target text down to the required character limit without losing any meaning or content? On a more abstract level, what does it mean to have English as my A language? Can I rely solely on my gut feeling, my ear for my native language? Am I translating for other native speakers or for people who have English as a B or even a C language?

So the next time you’re making small talk with someone and they say, “Well, I studied T&I with an English A and German B, and since then I’ve also picked up Russian as a C”, you’ll have an inkling of what they’re talking about. You’ll have a better understanding of what they do, and that sort of understanding is a key component of communication – even before the communication actually takes place.

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