Friday, April 10, 2015

Leger malentendu

Aside from my dayjob as some sort of engineer, I also take up freelance interpreting jobs mainly for French to English and vice versa. Apparently the demand for French interpreters in Malaysia used to be quite high back in the 90's, but now it is somewhat dwindling due to the fact that most French expats who come to Malaysia today usually have a decent grasp of the English language.

When interpreting, translating is only one half of the job; the other half consists of conveying the correct emotion and state of mind of the speaker to the listener so both the message and the correct tone get properly delivered. The real challenge is that you don't have the luxury of time; messages  need to be churned out and shot back and forth in real time, leaving no room for double checking. A good interpreter is one who trains his language reflexes rigorously.

What kind of reflexes? Well, grammar is a given. Maintaining proper grammar and syntax is somewhat tricky when translating from English to French because of the differences in word arrangement. French adjectives are generally placed after nouns and, like most Romance languages, French has a particular subject-object-verb word order which in English would mean producing a sentence such as "I it him give", instead of "I give it to him". With due diligence, one should master the grammar rules relatively quickly as the French grammar is very consistently structured.

Now the hardest reflex to train is the false friend avoidance. English has had a long history of borrowing from French since the Norman conquest, meaning that while English is still a mainly Germanic language in structure and grammar, a great many French words have been abosrbed into its vocabulary. However, both languages having continued to evolve separately, most of the borrowed French words have taken completely new meanings in English due to changing cultural contexts. A lazy or inexperienced interpreter, upon hearing the English word engagement (in the context of getting married), would hastily use the same word in French because after all, engagement is also a French word. A good interpreter would translate it as fiançailles instead (and it's always plural in French!). The French word engagement has always retained its original meaning of "commitment", but never in the context of impending nuptials.

The French nevertheless have also borrowed many English words and taken the liberty to completely redefine them. The word footing, by the looks of it, supposedly comes from English and somehow means jogging in French. They also have le smoking which means the tuxedo. The word stop in the French phrase faire du stop means hitchhiking. And my personal favourite false friend is préservatif, which is French for condom. I still vividly remember the shock on my friends' faces when I told them the cake from our uni's vending machine was full of préservatifs. It's the kind of seemingly small mistake that takes you forever to live down.

And these are only some of the many, many examples of false cognates between English and French. Mastering them is an absolute art and I thoroughly enjoy it. If you think math is a great mental exercise, try language. Math has not radically progressed  in the past decade because we've pretty much solved or have postulates for most math problems. Pure math has minimal real world applications anyway.

Language on the other hand evolves crazy quickly. Today's noun can be tomorrow's verb. Catchphrases are invented every day. Grammar rules can suddenly be bent to oblivion and new norms are invented overnight. Through the Internet and social media, cross-pollination between languages are getting more common so interpreters need to keep up with all the new terms and the cultural baggage attached to them.

It's a demanding job, but oddly satisfying. And pays damn well too.

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