I prefer the word augmentation to retraction. What am I referring to? Two weeks ago I discussed the importance of using a dictionary to look up a word, even if the consequences of doing so are embarrassing. I stand by that. I do. There is, however, a “but” that follows this professional expectation. Sometimes the word you’re looking for is simply not in the dictionary.
“Not so!” you say.
“Definitely so,” I reply.
Let’s review. There is no way any dictionary can contain every word out there. Even the most advanced electronic dictionaries have limitations. Case in point. Let me introduce you to an example.
This is a story that happened to a friend. I’ll call her Juliette. Juliette is interpreting for an American teenage celebrity. Let’s call this celebrity Marie. Marie is pretty, perky, loud, and popular. She’s the latest “it” girl. Juliette is called in to interpret for Marie in an interview. Marie is starring next to the latest “it” guy in a show. Let’s call this man Claude. He’s cute, cool, dashing and smashing. Marie is asked in the interview what she thinks of Claude, to which she replies, “OMG! He is soooooo cool!”
Let’s pause here a minute. I looked up OMG in my electronic dictionary. Nothing. Let me be clear. I know what it means. (For those of you who might not be familiar with this phrase, it stands for “oh my God.”) It’s used as short hand in text messages but also now in speech. Young people these days honestly say “OMG” instead of “oh my God.” I kid you not. (No pun intended.) So, Marie said “OMG” and it’s not in the dictionary. It’s important we establish these two points because this is where my not-quite-a-retraction comes in.
What does one do when a spoken word you need to repeat does not exist in the other language? Should Juliette have said オーマイゴット? She could have. That would certainly have been an accurate verbatim rendition of OMG. But, but, but, but, it’s not quite the same thing. There’s a subtle nuance, a difference between exclaiming “OMG!” and saying オーマイゴット！ There is. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there.
Here’s how Juliette repeated Marie’s words. 「きゃー！彼、超かっこいい！」
I’m not here to criticize Juliette’s interpretation. Quite frankly, I’m at a loss as to how I would have repeated “OMG” if I had been in Juliette’s shoes.
So then, back to the interpreter’s dilemma. It’s one thing when an equivalent word exists and the interpreter doesn’t look it up. It’s another thing entirely when the word is slang, an abbreviation or both (as in this case) and looking it up in the dictionary accomplishes nothing. Juliette did not stop the conversation and look up the word. She went with her gut and conveyed the nuance she thought Marie was trying to get across.
I won’t retract what I said about carrying a dictionary. I still believe it’s a professional obligation to carry a dictionary with you. Having said that, I augment what I said earlier by acknowledging it’s not always as simple as relying on a dictionary to find that perfect word. Good interpreters need to know when to trust and go with their gut and when the word will be listed in a resource such as a dictionary. For that day you come across a client who uses a word such as “OMG!” I hope this might serve as a reminder that every interpreter will face his or her dilemma some day where they might just have to “wing” it. Then again, maybe someone out there, even as I write this, is working on that “new and expanded version” dictionary that contains words we can’t even imagine would be listed. The moral of the story here isn’t to avoid the Maries of the world. It’s knowing you, too, with a little bit of forethought will be able to handle your next interpreter’s dilemma.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about at http://www.lupineandco.com/ and http://www.gaijingroup.com/.