Interpreting Blunder of the Month

We are quite fond of highlighting our own mistakes to share them with our readers, so here we go. Read on for Judy's most recent not-so-great interpreting blunder.

A few months ago, I was interpreting for a Spanish-speaking witness at a relatively routine deposition for a civil litigation matter. I've done hundreds of these, but they are always exciting, challenging  and potentially contentious. There's nothing like being in the middle of five lawyers barking at each other, but alas, this particular assignment was very civil on every level.

Without divulging any details about the case (all identifying details have been changed), the deponent was testifying about a trip to a supermarket. The deposing attorney asked her about which articles she had purchased. Here's what happened.

Deponent (Spanish): Bueno, compré calabacín, zanahorias, papaya, plátanos y romero.
Judy (interpreting into English): Well, I bought zucchini, carrots, papaya, bananas and..... um, excuse me, the interpreter is drawing a blank. Allow me to briefly come up with this term. (5 endless seconds pass). Um, I am very sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but may the interpreter look up this term in an upcoming break and then supply the correct term for the record?
Opposing counsel, smiling: If the interpreter will allow it, I think I know the term. 
Judy (happy): Certainly, counsel, thank you.
Opposing counsel: It's rosemary. I believe the word you are looking for is rosemary. 
Judy: Yes, of course. Thank you, counsel. Counsel, would you please repeat the question for the deponent so we can get her full answer this time? Apologies for the confusion. The interpreter will be buying lunch.
Deposing counsel: No problem. I am craving lamb chops with rosemary.

An hour later, the deposing counsel called the firm that had hired me for this deposition and requested that he not work with anyone else but.... me. I was afraid he'd call and say the opposite, but my fears were unfounded. Turns out he was impressed with my performance, blunder and all, and it's reassuring that no one expects perfection 100% of the time: it's how you recover from potential errors that matters. I have done many depositions at this particular firm since then, and a few weeks ago, I saw opposing counsel in the elevator. He said hello, and then he said he might consider calling me Rosemary so I wouldn't forget (I won't anyway). We both laughed all the way to the top floor.

Would you care to share (that rhymes!) one of your interpreting blunders, dear readers?


Sandra Aidar-McDermott said...

Hi Judy,
Something similar happened to me today! I was interpreting at a school for an IEP meeting, describing the goals and objectives for 2013-2014 for a student. Among other activities the teacher listed "Track and Field". I interpreted "Carreras y carreras de obstaculos" but I wasn't 100 % sure, even though Spanish is my native language. So after the listing of goals was completed I stated that I needed to look up those terms. The whole team smiled and appeared pleased. I guess people infer that if you are so careful with something apparently so minute you must be doing a good job when interpreting more complex terms. In my case I felt very compelled to make that clarification because the child whose parents I was interpreting for is physically disabled. By the way the translation for "Track and Field" is "Atletismo".

Unknown on March 14, 2013 at 6:06 AM said...

Great one! Nice to know that some do not expect interpreters to know absolutely everything and to be 100% perfect.
Are you on Twitter? How can I find you there?

Jeff Alfonso on March 14, 2013 at 8:06 AM said...

That was a great story. It takes courage to admit your mistakes. It reminds me of a song “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” :0

Narrative Threads on March 14, 2013 at 1:02 PM said...

That is interesting. I don't interpret and always wondered what you do if you just don't know the answer. I have spent days looking for just the right translation for a pesky term.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 14, 2013 at 1:16 PM said...

@Sandra: Thanks for sharing -- great one! Oh yes, we know what it's like when you can't come up with a word that you've used a thousand times. We used to love participating in "atletismo" at our school in Mexico City. Thanks for reading!

@Elena: We do think that most clients realize that we are humans, not robot. Perfection is a noble, but almost impossible goal, although we strive for it, of course. :) Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, we are on Twitter. @language_news (Judy) and Deutsch_Profi (Dagy). See you on Twitter!

@Jeff: Thanks. We are not that afraid of admitting our mistakes, especially if they are highly entertaining.

Emma Goldsmith on March 14, 2013 at 1:37 PM said...

This made me smile, Judy. But when I saw the title of your post I thought you were going to talk about THE blunder of the day:
I don't think the interpreter in question will be able to solve that one by buying lunch all round...

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 15, 2013 at 10:40 AM said...

@Emma: Ouch! Oh, what a mess. Of course, leave it to the press to call the poor hapless interpreter a "translator" -- we have not heard that before! :) And how mortifying indeed. That's why it's important to stick to your areas of expertise. :) Thanks for commenting, Emma! Have a great weekend.

Terduiseux on March 28, 2013 at 3:07 PM said...

Hi Judy,
My latest blunder during a hearing was last week. I was interpreting into French and suddenly decided that the translation of "legibility" was...légibilité (it is actually lisibilité). The clerk asked me what the word meant. That's when I realised my mistake...Thank God everyone around the table laughed and agreed that it had been a long day!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 2, 2013 at 10:23 AM said...

@Terduiseux: Thanks for sharing -- that's a good one as well! And we think it's entirely human to get one word wrong after what might seem like millions of words spoken and interpreted in a day. Thanks for reading.

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