More than just an interpreter

​The funny scene in My Girl wherein Gong Chan (Lee Dong Wook) and his business partners are eating while Yoo Rin (Lee Da Hae), her stomach grumbling with hunger, was still focused on translating the conversation at table because her employer Gong Chan had not permitted her to eat along with them reminds me of a similar experience. Real time translation looks easy peasy but it’s actually not. If it does seem a breeze, you’re seeing the result of skills honed by years of experience.

At the time, I translated for a team of researchers from abroad who did a study among Filipino youth. The primary methodology was focus group discussions with groups of eight to ten young men and women not necessarily high school or college graduates who understandably prefer to use Tagalog. There were also a few intervewees from agencies who preferred to speak in the vernacular. Hence the need to translate responses in Tagalog to English and back.

The first FGD was a test, to give us a feel of how we sync with one another ie. myself and the researchers. Although we had been communicating through email about the work ahead, we only met for the first time in person on the day we started with the first FGD.

We got caught in EDSA’s infamous traffic. Riding from Makati City to Quezon City, we arrived at the venue a little past noon, or a total 3.5 hours! Welcome to the Philippines! Mabuhay! Boiling up in our throats, a string of expletives held in place by good manners and right conduct. After a profuse show of apologies to everyone who had been waiting, we immediately got down to work.

I didn’t know about my companions but I was hungry. Really hungry. In fact, my stomach growled. Breakfast – banana and coffee – was my last food intake. I was sure the guy researcher, seated beside me, also heard my innards which in the ensuing two-hour FGD didn’t let up. He is apparently the quintessential English gentleman and so I was sure he heard nothing of consequence. At the start of the second FGD though, he sat next to me again explaining, I need to hear you more clearly. The aircon’s busted, I think. Was he humoring me? But since we already had our lunch before then, I said yes, sure confident there was absolutely nothing to hear that time around.

On-the-job rapport with the researchers went pretty well. The pace of the discussions posed a bit of a challenge though. Participants speaking spontaneously in reaction to another’s statement is hard to manage without some rules set early on, as for instance, reacting or adding to another’s statement will be done only after the interpreter has already translated said statement.

Also, the importance of making translations as close as possible to what was originally said. This is a challenge when Tagalog words or phrases especially those touching on local culture and life do not have exact translation in English. Bayanihan, for instance. Technically-correct translation is, aid or assistance from neighbors and community residents. But, in the context of Filipino culture, bayanihan actually goes deeper than that. When encountering this, I forego further explaning to the researchers so as not to stall the flow of discussion, take mental note of the words, and when I’m alone with the team, in the car while wrestling traffic or at the hotel for debriefing, that’s the time I expound. As a researcher myself, I’m aware that interpretation of context, place, people, or history has significant impact on the research outcome. That’s one of the limitations faced by foreign researchers- they need adequate time to immerse in the local in order to understand it and tell of it with authority, or lacking that, learn from a reliable source.

There was just this one hitch during the field work. On the first day of scheduled FGDs, the same guy who may have heard my hunger pains disrupted me while I was translating his colleague’s query (spoken in English) for the participants. He told me about the need to translate as close as possible to original statements. I got irritated, that I was cut in the middle of translation, my head screaming at him like, go to hell! I am doing it, if you understand Tagalog. But, I guess, these things are forgiveable on first meetings when we were all feeling each other out, so instead I looked him in the eyes, nothing antagonistic by it, just to transmit the message that I did know he’s from Oxford but I’m the interpreter so cool it. I noted on the side the wonderful color of his eyes before returning my attention back to the group. He returned to recline in his chair beside me.

In group discussions, the interpreter, putting into play various skills, is in effect the one touching base with participants- asking the questions in a language they understand, making them feel at ease (by telling jokes, related stories, and the like) in order that they’ll respond well, being present to their responses to be able to translate these in good form, expounding on terminologies not readily understood, etc. In short, bridging worlds. That’s why in the movie we see Gong Chan’s business partners asking for repeat service from Yoo Rin who charmed them in ways other than merely rendering translation.


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