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

Comments are closed.