Teaser Part Two: The Interpreter’s Journal: Mistakes and Misinterpretations

The Interpreter's Journal

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

  • Get your FREE Thailand Cheat Sheet ​by entering your email below. The ​Sheet, based on ​our experience with living and working in ​Thailand for 10+ years, shows you how to ​save time and money and ​gives you the tools the thrive in Thailand.

The Interpreter’s Journal…

In the first installment you read about my beginnings: The Interpreter’s Journal: How it Started. And now I’ll share a window into what it’s like to be an interpreter.

Mistakes and Misinterpretations…

When an interpreter is working to convey one person’s words into another language, there are many elements conspiring to disrupt the flow of accurate information. The exact meaning of words, slang terms, noise distractions, accents, speech defects, and fatigue can all play a part in interrupting the precise meaning from being communicated.

For words that have multiple, dissimilar meanings, an interpreter needs to be diligent in selecting the most precise word or expression to accurately relate what a person is saying. If you take the word “glass,” it can mean a glass for drinking, a mirror, a windowpane, even a barometer or a spyglass. Try to think of a few common words and write down as many definitions as you can. Then check in a good dictionary, and you might be surprised that you are missing a few meanings.

If I become aware of a mistake during a court session, I attempt to correct it immediately. If someone else is able to determine that I’ve made an error, I always appreciate it if they point it out right away. On a few occasions, the people I’ve interpreted for have understood a sufficient amount of English to notice when I made a misinterpretation, and they have brought errors to my attention.

In this profession, I also know that what I don’t know can be detrimental to my work, so I always look up words that are new to me. I keep note of any unfamiliar words or phrases I hear during court proceedings, or on the radio or TV, and then go straight to a dictionary. Of course, most people don’t make the time or effort to do this, but it’s a necessity in the ongoing education for my work. Mistakes are sometimes very simple because I mishear the word or expression – “sleep walking” as “speed walking,” or “spirit” as “spit it.” Once, I translated “left hand” as “right hand” and “step on the gas” instead of “step on the brakes.” That’s why, in important cases with a lot of lengthy testimony, the court will usually hire two interpreters: one to translate for a period, and one to double check for accuracy.


The most common reasons for misinterpretation are that the interpreter doesn’t understand the source language well enough, the interpreter is unfamiliar with the subject, or the interpreter doesn’t know all the definitions of a particular word. When I first started working in the courts, there were standard phrases that lawyers and other legal professionals used that I was unfamiliar with.

A situation arose in one case when the public defender told my client that she would file a motion to get the case dismissed because the “chain of custody” was broken. I was unfamiliar with this term, and when I heard the word “chain,” I took it too literally, thinking that maybe the defendant had been chained instead of handcuffed while he was in custody. I imagined Johnny Depp in the Pirates Of The Caribbean with a huge cannonball chained to his ankle. So I translated it literally, that the chain used to detain the defendant was broken. The defendant was astonished and replied, “I wasn’t chained, I was handcuffed.” The public defender then explained that “chain of custody” describes the chronological documentation of the evidence, how it is seized, controlled, transferred, and disposed of. In this particular case the evidence had not been properly processed, and this oversight thus constituted grounds for dismissal. Such legal terminology soon becomes part of my working vocabulary and isn’t likely to pose a problem if it comes up again.

As we’ve seen, a few words, or even one word, can change the entire meaning of a person’s testimony and cause misunderstanding, perhaps even catastrophe. It can happen even when you speak the same language. Two people speaking the same language can attribute different meanings to the same word. When two people speak through an interpreter, the third person brings their own meaning to a particular word. Interpreters can’t read your mind. The best they can do is to know the dictionary and common definition of the words used and try to make them fit within the context. But if the two parties don’t attribute the same meaning to the word as the interpreter, it can still cause misunderstanding. Sometimes in the courtroom I cannot hear the source language because there is too much background noise, the attorney might not be speaking loud enough, or two or more attorneys are trying to speak at the same time. Even a chair squeaking or paper rustling can be a distraction. Most people don’t notice these little sounds, but they can make the interpreter miss certain crucial words, especially the word “not.” Now that’s an important one you don’t want to miss.

The people I interpret for are usually quite nervous and uncomfortable in legal settings. Often their speech and enunciation are not as good as when they’re relaxed and talking in an informal context. I’ve also interpreted for clients who were mentally unsound or delirious. That’s difficult to do. Sometimes they ramble back and forth, and little makes sense, or they don’t complete thoughts or sentences. Often the direct interpretation of their statements just doesn’t make sense either. But I have to interpret exactly what they say, not reinterpret and edit for clarity. So as they ramble on in court, I have to ramble along with them – and to some people, this might make the interpreter look incompetent. If the speaker is talking a mile a minute, it’s sometimes impossible to keep up. But often it’s the judge who speaks very fast during an arraignment, a plea, or sentencing. When a judge is reading out jury instructions that are pages long and contain complicated terminology or technical words, it can be an ordeal. If I get too far behind, I have to muster the courage to say, “Your honor, could you please slow down? The interpreter needs some time to catch up.” These are the times that I wish these people spoke or had studied other languages, because they’d then know how hard it is to interpret so rapidly.

Proverbs and colloquialisms can be problematic because they can’t always be easily interpreted correctly on the spot. Some can be quite obscure, but if they are commonly used and I’m familiar with them, it’s usually not a problem. Some, like “keep up with the Joneses,” even have equivalents in Thai. This one translates as “see the elephant crap, then crap as it does.” “Make hay while the sun shines” translates into “when water rises, hurry to fetch it” in Thai. One of the best mistranslations I’ve heard of was a Russian translator trying to translate “out of sight, out of mind” literally as “invisible lunatic.” Technically correct, yes, but it doesn’t convey the intended message. So far I’ve compiled around 400 English and Thai proverbs and sayings into a booklet and audio CD in volume three of my Speak Like A Thai series called Thai Proverbs And Sayings, so I can quote them in either language quickly. However, when it comes to the pressure of court situations, sometimes I can’t think of the exact translation immediately and might have to substitute words or phrases to convey the meaning of the proverb or expression.

There are significant differences in grammar and sentence structure between English and Thai. Often I have to clarify the intended meaning with the Thai or Lao speaker, when they drop the subject pronoun, or need to determine if they mean one leg or two legs, because Thai and Lao don’t have plural forms. Verbs in the past tense and present tense are the same, but adverbs of time are used to differentiate them. Most Thai and Lao speakers omit these adverbs of time because they assume that others already know it from the previous context.

Trained interpreters know when to translate words and when to translate ideas. I’ve heard amateur interpreters translate “today is beautiful” literally into Thai, as “wan-nee suay” – which does literally mean “today is beautiful.” But it sounds odd because that’s not how Thais would say it. Thais would say “today the weather is nice.” If the phrase “did you win (the lottery)?” was translated into Thai, it would have to be changed to “did you hit (the lottery)?”

Slang, epithets, and fad words are another problem to translate on the spot, even when I translate from Thai or Lao. If I’m unfamiliar with a term, or if it seems to be crucial to the testimony, I’ll ask for it to be clarified. I grew up speaking very proper Thai and Lao, and was only taught the Queen’s English in school. It still makes me feel a little uncomfortable when a witness says something like, “You stupid asshole.” In one murder trial that I worked on in San Francisco, the expletive “motherfucker” was heard over and over because it was the key phrase that allegedly caused the victim to be shot to death. At first I had a hard time repeating the term in open court, but during the course of the proceedings I heard it so often that, by the end of the trial, it seemed normal and I had no problem or shame in saying it. I now understand how kids get desensitized to this type of profanity, when they hear words like this used all the time by adults.

It takes years of practice and formal study to become a good interpreter. It’s very competitive because other interpreters also continue to improve their skills. I practice diligently and sometimes go to special interpreting courses in order to be able to continue to interpret at a high level. I know that key words cannot be overlooked because they can have an impact on the outcome of a case. Legal interpretation mistakes can be detrimental and costly to the judicial system, and can be used as a reason to appeal a verdict. Indeed, numerous cases have been appealed because the interpretation has been questioned. The wrong medical interpretation, for example, can be disastrous; serious errors like indicating the wrong medicine or dosage, or the wrong diagnosis, can be cause for a lawsuit.

With so many pitfalls along the way, even well-trained interpreters with the best of intentions can make mistakes. After all, we’re only human. No matter how good we are, we’re not perfect. Some legal assignments are extremely complicated, lengthy, and challenging. Without adequate information to prepare, it can be stressful. If I’m lucky enough to get to know about a case before the interpretation – like being briefed by the lawyer before the assignment – it’s of the greatest benefit to the client and me. However, more often than not, there’s little or no indication what the situation is about, and you have to determine the context as the case proceeds. If it’s a familiar court setting, like a traffic court or family court, I usually have a pretty good idea what will transpire. The best advice I can give to clients is to treat interpreters as valuable members of the team, and to provide them with the back-story and context of the case, so as to allow them to do the best job they can. Every time I make a mistake, I try to learn from it. I hardly make the same mistake twice, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t always new and unexpected problems just around the corner.

In this world of rapid globalization, there are new words, terms, technologies, and systems that appear each day. So much so that it’s impossible to be familiar with everything. That’s why there is a new need for specialized interpreters for esoteric subjects. These interpreters need to know both the language and the subject matter well. If you end up in court, you might need a legal interpreter. If you go to see a doctor, you may need a medical interpreter. If you’re an American property developer applying for a construction permit in China, an interpreter who understands architectural drawings and construction methods, as well as speaks perfect Mandarin and English, will better serve you than someone who speaks the languages only. If you’re in a situation where more than one language is being spoken, it’s important to have experienced, trained interpreters to work for you.

In the legal world, sometimes a brilliant lawyer just isn’t enough to save you. You might also need a brilliant interpreter, too.

Teaser: The Interpreter’s Journal (in three installments):
How it Started
Mistakes And Misinterpretations
Studying Foreign Languages

The Interpreter’s Journal can be purchased at amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy) amazon.co.uk (Kindle), and Paiboonpublishing.com.

Benjawan Poomsan Becker on WLT…

Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Learn Thai with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Review: Three-Way Talking Thai Dictionary: Mac and PC
iPhone App: Talking Thai–English–Thai Dictionary
Thai for Beginners iPhone App

7 thoughts on “Teaser Part Two: The Interpreter’s Journal: Mistakes and Misinterpretations”

  1. Benjawan, that is excellent news. I might gift the book to my friend in the UK and buy from Asia books when it come out so I can get it sooner. Kindle is a great idea and maybe the new generations will only know the e-book platform but there is nothing like holding a real book in your hands.

  2. Cat, I don’t care for rap either but it was more of a novelty song that was really funny…My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns hun 😛

  3. Talen, what fun! I just googled it in YouTube (Sir Mix A Lot Baby Got Back Best Quality). And now I know why I don’t know it – I don’t do rap. Yeah. I like the quiet music with a beat that doesn’t make me want to scream. But the lyrics are fun and watching the video with the sound turned off is not too bad really.

  4. Josh,

    I’m curious to see how the Thai translation turns out.


    Thank you for purchasing my book. Although, I own a Kindle, I still enjoy reading a real printed book. Asia Books just ordered this title and it should be in their stores in a few days.


  5. Benjawan, I just bought the book but have to wait for my friend to bring it with him from the U.K. I was going to buy the kindle edition but for me some books you want to feel and hold as you read and This one I want the full book experience from.

    Cat, My god woman but you have lived a sheltered life…

    Sir Mix a lot …Baby Got Back lyrics

    Baby Got Back

    Oh, my, god. Becky, look at her butt.
    It is so big. *scoff* She looks like,
    one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
    But, you know, who understands those rap guys? *scoff*
    They only talk to her, because,
    she looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
    I mean, her butt, is just so big.
    I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s like,
    out there, I mean – gross. Look!
    She’s just so … black!

    [Sir Mix-a-Lot]
    I like big butts and I can not lie
    You other brothers can’t deny
    That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
    And a round thing in your face
    You get sprung, wanna pull out your tough
    ‘Cause you notice that butt was stuffed
    Deep in the jeans she’s wearing
    I’m hooked and I can’t stop staring
    Oh baby, I wanna get with you
    And take your picture
    My homeboys tried to warn me
    But that butt you got makes me so horny
    Ooh, Rump-o’-smooth-skin
    You say you wanna get in my Benz?
    Well, use me, use me
    ‘Cause you ain’t that average groupie
    I’ve seen them dancin’
    To hell with romancin’
    She’s sweat, wet,
    Got it goin’ like a turbo ‘Vette
    I’m tired of magazines
    Sayin’ flat butts are the thing
    Take the average black man and ask him that
    She gotta pack much back
    So, fellas! (Yeah!) Fellas! (Yeah!)
    Has your girlfriend got the butt? (Hell yeah!)
    Tell ’em to shake it! (Shake it!) Shake it! (Shake it!)
    Shake that healthy butt!
    Baby got back!

    (LA face with Oakland booty)
    Baby got back!

    [Sir Mix-a-Lot]
    I like ’em round, and big
    And when I’m throwin’ a gig
    I just can’t help myself, I’m actin’ like an animal
    Now here’s my scandal
    I wanna get you home
    And ugh, double-up, ugh, ugh
    I ain’t talkin’ bout Playboy
    ‘Cause silicone parts are made for toys
    I want ’em real thick and juicy
    So find that juicy double
    Mix-a-Lot’s in trouble
    Beggin’ for a piece of that bubble
    So I’m lookin’ at rock videos
    Knock-kneeded bimbos walkin’ like hoes
    You can have them bimbos
    I’ll keep my women like Flo Jo
    A word to the thick soul sisters, I wanna get with ya
    I won’t cuss or hit ya
    But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna *fuck*
    Till the break of dawn
    Baby got it goin’ on
    A lot of simps won’t like this song
    ‘Cause them punks like to hit it and quit it
    And I’d rather stay and play
    ‘Cause I’m long, and I’m strong
    And I’m down to get the friction on
    So, ladies! {Yeah!} Ladies! {Yeah}
    If you wanna roll in my Mercedes {Yeah!}
    Then turn around! Stick it out!
    Even white boys got to shout
    Baby got back!

    Baby got back!
    Yeah, baby … when it comes to females, Cosmo ain’t got nothin’
    to do with my selection. 36-24-36? Ha ha, only if she’s 5’3″.

    [Sir Mix-a-Lot]
    So your girlfriend rolls a Honda, playin’ workout tapes by Fonda
    But Fonda ain’t got a motor in the back of her Honda
    My anaconda don’t want none
    Unless you’ve got buns, hun
    You can do side bends or sit-ups,
    But please don’t lose that butt
    Some brothers wanna play that “hard” role
    And tell you that the butt ain’t gold
    So they toss it and leave it
    And I pull up quick to retrieve it
    So Cosmo says you’re fat
    Well I ain’t down with that!
    ‘Cause your waist is small and your curves are kickin’
    And I’m thinkin’ bout stickin’
    To the beanpole dames in the magazines:
    You ain’t it, Miss Thing!
    Give me a sister, I can’t resist her
    Red beans and rice didn’t miss her
    Some knucklehead tried to dis
    ‘Cause his girls are on my list
    He had game but he chose to hit ’em
    And I pull up quick to get wit ’em
    So ladies, if the butt is round,
    And you want a triple X throw down,
    Dial 1-900-MIXALOT
    And kick them nasty thoughts
    Baby got back!

    (Little in the middle but she got much back) [4x]

  6. Very interesting. A friend of mine likes to translate American songs into Thai and had an interesting story about a conversation with another translator when trying to explain “baby got back.”


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.