How to Prepare for a Phone Interpreting Session

What is Phone Interpretation
Phone interpreting is the oral translation of conversations through the phone.  Some people find it easier because it doesn’t involve direct human contact; others find it more difficult because there isn’t face-to-face contact.

The benefit of phone interpreting is you can focus on the words while taking notes in a place you’re comfortable in–your quiet office, your bedroom, wherever. You can even have your laptop in front of you and quickly look up unfamiliar terminology while on the job. The downside is that you are not physically present and that you are reliant on technology that can sometimes be unpredictable.

Preparing for A Conference Call
The basics are the same as any interpreting session. You need the language capacity and to keep in mind the code of ethics, but you’ll also have to make sure that you put yourself in the best setting when making calls.

Environment. It’s important that you are in a quiet place when placing calls so that you can hear the other line(s) and so you’re clear of distractions during the call. While you can’t control the connection or sound quality on the other end of the phone, you should do what you can to ensure that you are in a quiet environment.

Phone Reception. I prefer landlines over cell phones as I find that the connection is better. Not everyone has a landline nowadays so making sure our phone reception is good is the best we can do to ensure clear transmission of messages. If you’re using Skype or an internet phone service, make sure that the internet connection is stable.

First Person. Same with in-person interpretation jobs, interpretations should be in first person, and if you need the speaker to repeat or rephrase something, ask in third person, “The interpreter would like you to repeat….”

Consecutive Interpretation. Phone interpretations are often consecutive. At in-person interpretation sessions, I ask the parties involved to use short sentences so I can make sure that I interpret everything that is said. I also raise my hand in a “stop” motion if I need them to pause, so I can interpret. On the phone, it’s a little different because no one can see each other. The way I interrupt is simply to start interpreting after a sentence or two. Don’t be shy to interrupt. Your goal and job is to transmit all information, and you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

Sensitivity to Tones and Cultures. This one is obvious. To be a good interpreter, one must know the language. Especially in cases where you can’t read the speaker’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, it’s even more important to know the cultural nuances and be able to read/copy the intonations of the speaker.

Familiarity with the Topic. Interpreters are sometimes given the subject to be discussed before the conference call. This would allow you to prepare ahead of time–catch up on the vocabulary, and read up on the topic. This is not always the case, however, so it’s important for interpreters to constantly educate themselves on new subject areas and vocabulary.

Happy interpreting!

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Dirty Mouth: Let’s Talk Cursing (and Interpreting)

The default role of an interpreter is a conduit. Merriam Webster defines conduit as a natural or artificial channel through which something is conveyed. If we think of the channel as a telephone wire, the conduit transmits anything and everything that is received from one end to another. In other words, an interpreter relays all information that is spoken, without any omission, additions, or distortions of the message.

In medical and legal interpreting, there are times when we have to give bad news. And in times like this, the client may become upset and use curse words to express his feelings. In my medical interpreting training, someone raised a question of whether interpreters still need to relay everything in such cases, particularly if an interpreter has qualms about cursing. Despite what an interpreter’s personal feelings are toward swearing, interpreters must stay true to the original message, even if it means cursing or using words they wouldn’t necessarily use in their daily lives. Such is what’s implied in the code of ethics for interpreters.

Regardless of the cultural or social implications of cursing, if it happens that you must curse on the job, then you need to do it as part of your professionalism. I don’t curse, and haven’t really thought about how English curse words correspond with Chinese curse words, but as a responsible interpreter, I’ve put together a short list (you know, for my work, of course). Cursing is an interesting thing. You’ll notice below that the common curse words we use in English relate  to sex and excretion and mothers. Even though sex and excretion are unavoidable parts of natural human conditions, and we all love our mothers, these words are considered indecent and taboo in both the American and Chinese cultures.

  1. Bastard-王八蛋 (wáng bā dàn)、 龜孫子(guī sūn zi)
  2. Fuck [angry fuck]- 幹 (gàn)、肏 (cào)
  3. Fuck, Fuck me, Fuckin’ awesome, Holy shit [excitement]-我靠 (wǒ kào)
  4. Fuck you, Go to hell- 去你的 (qù nǐ de)、 我鳥你 (wǒ niǎo nǐ)
  5. Fuck him, Screw him-鳥他的 (niǎo tā de)、去他的 (qù tā de)
  6. Bullshit–屁 (pì)、屁話 (pì huà)、鳥話 (niǎo huà)、你個狗屁 (nǐ ge gǒu pì)
    Example: What the fuck are you talking about-你在講什麼鳥話 (nǐ zài jiǎng shén me niǎo huà)
  7. What the fuck is this?-這是什麼鬼? (zhè shì shén me guǐ)
  8. What the fuck are you doing?-你搞什麼鬼? (nǐ  gǎo shén me guǐ))
  9. Damnit- 他媽的 (tāmāde)
  10. Son of a bitch- 狗崽子 (gǒu zǎi zǐ)

These are just some common English curse words and their cursory Chinese equivalents. If you’re interested in learning about Chinese curse words, their detailed explanations, and how they relate to English, the Transparent Language blog has a good post about it that you should check out.

Happy cursing! (Just kidding. Cursing is bad.)

Literature in Translation: “Liu Qí-Wei’s Life as an Adventurer” by Liu Níng-Sheng

In 1993, I went to Papua New Guinea with my dad, Liú Qíwěi, who was then 82 years old. On our trip he lamented: “life has a way of messing with me: When I had the energy to travel, no one would sponsor my research; now that I’m old and have sponsors, I’ve lost all my energy.” However, when he was seventy, he was still researching different aboriginal tribes and collecting data on the Borneo culture. My dad was a strong man.

At our last stop in Papua New Guinea, everyone was suffering from mosquitoes bites along the Sepik river. Even with the most potent bug spray, the mosquitoes were unstoppable; and because I was filming and had to keep a steady hand, the mosquitoes were unscrupulous in their attacks. By the time I told my dad, “I’m not sure I can take this any longer,” my hands were utterly swollen. Seeing my condition, my dad finally agreed to go home with me a few days earlier than planned and we never went further up the river.  I was once bitten by fleas when we were in the Tali highlands in China. It was extremely itchy and the swell from the bite was as large as a water glass. To stop the swelling, a shaman grabbed a few bushels of urtica thunbergiana, pulled up my shirt, and repeatedly hit my body with them. The excruciating pain left me covered in cold sweat; however, the ritual also stopped the itching. Throughout the whole trip, my father was pickier than I was about our diet, which consisted of “vegetables,” also known as tree leaves, combined with fish, canned meat, or crackers. With no variety day in and day out, he became tired of the meals and would sometimes skip lunch and just drink water instead. What he enjoyed most was instant coffee, so we brought some of that with us.

From that adventure I learned of my father’s deep respect for foreign cultures–he never treated the people as lower class, the way most travelers would. When I once again traveled through Papua New Guinea, I saw that most tourists didn’t judge foreign cultures fairly. Instead, they would use the cultural perspectives innate in them to criticize a local culture. For example, when purchasing food, they would say, “So dirty!” or “Is this edible?” These attitudes are indeed worth discussing.

When I sat on the floor with a Papua New Guinean to chat, I could tell from the body language of other tourists why cultural exchanges are so difficult. They don’t have the desire to understand, let alone identify [with the locals]. The Papa New Guinean later said to me: “You’re the only one who’s willing to sit with us, to identify with us.” How tedious would life be if the whole world spoke only one language, ate the same food, and dressed the same? Through my dad’s mentoring and influence, I learned the importance of respecting other cultures. When I once passed through Tahiti, I noticed that the aboriginals were working hard to restore their native music and dance after enduring foreign influence over the past hundreds of years.

When Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti, he argued with the local government, which was trying to suppress the local culture after missionaries were offended by the perceived flirtation of the native dances. In fact, promoting reproduction and the longevity of their culture was the essence of their dances. Many aboriginals are fond of war; some are even cannibals and head hunters. Aboriginals partake in cannibalism believing that it allows them to attain the spirit and wisdom of the hunted, whom they see as their respected enemies. [But without understanding], we criticize their cultures and customs, and simply think that their behaviors are amoral and uncivilized. However, we need to first learn about their culture to understand the reasoning behind such ceremonies. These are all lessons I learned from my father.

Vocabulary:

  1. 巴布亞紐幾內亞 (Bā bùyà Niǔ Jī nèi yà)-Papua New Guinea. This usage is most common in Taiwan.  Abbreviated version: 巴紐(Bāniǔ).
  2. 感嘆 (gǎn tàn)-To sigh, to lament.
  3. 造化 (zào huà)-Nature, the creator.
  4. 弄人(nòng rén)-To mess with someone.
  5. 部落 (bù luò)- Tribe.
  6. 原住民 (yuán zhù mín)-Indigenous peoples / aborigine.
  7. 婆羅洲 (pó luó zhōu)-Borneo.
  8. 採集 (cǎijí)-To gather,  to collect, to harvest.
  9. 熬 (áo)-Endure.
  10. 防蚊藥 (fáng wén yào)- Bug (mosquito) spray. 防: to protect , to defend, to prevent. 蚊: mosquito. 藥: drug, medicine.
  11. 吃不消 (chī bu xiāo)-To be unable to tolerate or endure / to find sth difficult to manage
  12. 肆無忌憚 (sì wú jì dàn)- Unrestrained; unscrupulous. 肆: indulge. 無: without. 忌: fear. 憚: to shrink (from fear).
  13. 跳蚤 (tiào zao)-Fleas.
  14. 巫師 (wū shī)-Wizard, magician.
  15. 咬人貓 (yǎo rén māo)-Urtica thunbergiana.
  16. 民族 (mín zú)-Nationality, ethnic group.
  17. 商榷(shāng què)-To discuss, to bring up for discussion.
  18. 認識 (rèn shi)-To understand, to become acquainted to.
  19. 認同(rèn tóng)- To identify with, to recognize, to approve of.
  20. 薰陶 (xūn táo)-Influence.
  21. 風俗 (fēng sú)-Custom (social).
  22. 壓制 (yā zhì)-Suppress.
  23. 傳教士 (chuán jiào shì)-Missionary.
  24. 西匹河 (xī pī hé)- Sepik river.
  25. 大溪地 (dà xī dì)-Tahiti.

Original commentary, “劉其偉的探險生涯,” by 劉寧生著, from 聯合報副刊. Dated November 14, 2011.