Why is quality translation and interpretation rare?
Take “human relationships.”
The Japanese language has the exact same phrase: ningen kankei. Ningen means human, and kankei means relationships.
Brilliant. Translating/interpreting this phrase between Japanese and English is a no brainer, right?
In English, “human relationships” has a positive connotation: friendship, romance, family…the stuff that makes life worth living.
In Japanese, “ningen kankei” is negative: office politics, gossip, friendships betrayed…the stuff that makes life a challenge.
The English sentence “encouraging human relationships in a diverse work environment” would therefore have an entirely different meaning if literally translated into Japanese.
This is just one example. Literal translations/interpretations more often than not botch the meaning behind the words. An effective translator/interpreter must be aware of these nuances in a plethora of environments that utilizes vernacular and phrases with hidden connotations.
Take translation, the process of converting written text between languages. An effective translator doesn’t just translate words, but grasps the essence of the text and recreates it into the target language. That is why when you read the words of some of the top translators in the world, it would seem they took their creative liberties too far. They did. Which is why they’re top translators.
This is also why, for example, different translators will publish their work on literature already translated: there are multiple translations of the Tale of Genji, Japan’s ancient novel, for example. There’re multiple ways to fry a translating fish, especially if the original work is rich in literary quality.
It is easier to produce quality with fewer errors while translating than interpreting. You have all the time in the world (unless you’re facing a tight deadline!) to ponder the meanings behind words in different languages.
Interpreting (oral translation) is a whole different ball game. You have nanoseconds to make judgments on the true meaning of what is being said to properly express it into the target language.
As a professional interpreter, power, reputations, money, and even lives are at stake. Whether interpreting in legal settings, or for medical professionals, or between two business organizations. A botched interpretation can and will ruin deals. Even lives.
What if during a business negotiation you accidentally interpreted $100,000 as ¥100,000? One hundred thousand yen is around one thousand US dollars.
What if at a hospital you misinterpreted the dosage of a medication with a low therapeutic threshold with strong side effects?
These are just some obvious examples.
An interpreter must maintain focus. Conversations may get bogged down in technical jargon, or become confrontational and emotional: you maintain your role as a linguistic conduit and keep focused on every word all parties blurt out without missing a beat in getting the meaning across in the target language.
A good translator/interpreter must know the cultural context of the languages as well: cultural references are thrown around in language that if you literally translate would lose its meaning. A good translator and interpreter conveys the cultural differences, not just that of language. For example, a Japanese person would be hard pressed to understand "if you're under 30 and a Republican you have no heart, but if you're over 30 and you're a Democrat, you have no brain."
In short: Google has a ways to go before they program Google Translate to encompass all these roles into software that can replace someone born and raised simultaneously for 21 years in two fundamentally different languages and cultures. With AI, maybe someday? We’ll see!