I regularly write short columns for the Swedish journal “Språktidningen“. Recently, I wrote a column on how much every word counts, especially in asylum interviews and asylum hearings. I wrote:
Imagine that you are interpreting a first interview for an asylum seeker. The man says in French: Je suis allé au Port Nouveau” – you interpret: ‘I went to Port Nouveau’, since you have learned that the verb “aller” in French is equivalent to the Swedish term “go”. Later in the interview it becomes clear that the man has walked by foot to the Port Nouveau. The migrations officer becomes suspicious: “How exactly did you go to Port Nouveau? Before you just said that you went there, but now you say that you walked. What did you really do?” Immigration Services assesses whether people are telling the truth. It is important that you suddenly just change your story. With a bit of luck, this small incident is quickly solved, but what if it doesn’t? What if your interpreting is a contributing factor to that the man not assessed as credible.
A more light-hearted but not less clumsy example happened to me when I interpreted at a meeting where the English term “piracy” unexpectedly came up. Since piracy in the term of copying products and brands illegally was most in vogue at the time, I understood and interpreted it to its Swedish equivalent. Then “we” started discussing different ways of fighting this and I followed, until the speaker started talking about the use of different countries’ corvettes (small warship). Strange, to stop piracy with corvettes, I thought, before I realized that “we” talked about the Gulf of Aden and pirates at sea, a totally different term in Swedish.
The interpreter must therefore be alert to any ambiguous words. However, making a mistake is most likely not a question of life and death, as long as you clearly recognize that the mistake is yours and gives the correct translation.
My examples in the column is as I said definitely not an issue of life and death. But when I read this article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet I got a scary example of how important it may be. The article reads:
“The interpreter […] did not understand what I said,” says Ali Taleb. The statement that he had a cameraman with him when he filmed “Night of Baghdad”, is such a misunderstanding, because he often had camera man with him. But “Night of Baghdad”, he filmed himself. And the statement of a cameraman or not is now being used as evidence that Ali Taleb changed his story. The statement about the camera man gets completely out of proportion, says Clara Klintbo Skilje.
I couldn’t have given a better example myself of how important every word is.