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I'm sure for many of us, when you meet someone for the first time and are having a bit of a chat, "What do you do?" is often one of the first questions that comes up. Once the person finds out that you are a conference interpreter, I find this is often closely followed by the question: "What do you do if you don't know a word?" I don't think this question has a single, or easy, answer! I have been toying with the idea of writing a blog post on this topic to formulate a response, and would love some answers from the interpreting community about what you would answer to this question from a non-interpreter.

asked 13 Oct '15, 08:45

Gemma%20LB's gravatar image

Gemma LB

Hi Gemma! :-)

In my experience, it's quite enough to tell people that we translate meaning rather than words, that whenever we can't think of a term, we can just paraphrase and describe, so that our clients will understand what is being discussed.

Daily life examples make things easier:

  • Like when you can't remember a person's name -which happens all the time at such gatherings you describe-, you'll say what he/she looks like or does for a living. Your audience will know who you're talking about, yet you didn't have to know the name.

  • Or describe an object's form or function when you can't remember how that thing is called in your own mother tongue, e.g. the glass capsule that will burst when the heat of the flames rises to the ceiling allowing the water to automatically put the fire off for 'sprinkler bulb'.

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answered 13 Oct '15, 09:08

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

edited 13 Oct '15, 09:13

I agree with Gaspar, the easiest answer is that we translate meanings, not words. And if a single word in a whole idea prevents you from understanding the meaning, especially when you know the context, it usually means that you are not really focussing on what the speaker is trying to say.

I like Seleskovitch's example from Pédagogie raisonnée de l'interprétation to illustrate that, when you know the context, words don't really matter:

"Lorsque le Général de Gaulle a qualifié les événements de 1968 de « chienlit » et traité les généraux d'Alger révoltés de « quarteron » de généraux, tout le monde en France a ouvert le dictionnaire... mais tout le monde avait déjà compris le sens des paroles du Général."

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answered 13 Oct '15, 09:13

Camille%20Collard's gravatar image

Camille Collard

edited 13 Oct '15, 09:13

Hi Gemma,

I still remember one of our classes in interpreting school, when the teacher said she wanted to give a speech (in French) about (sounds like) "ver". So did she mean green, verses, glass, worms... We couldn't know from her first sentence, which was the point, but as we spun out our interpretation in generalities, the context built up until it had to be one of them - a good lesson for future sneezing delegates!

So, often, my answer to that question is "you know from context, and if the context is ambiguous, you wing it until it isn't!" Of course, you are usually hired for a poetry conference, or a glass blowing event, so the context then - unlike in interpreting school - is pretty clear.

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answered 13 Oct '15, 18:18

JuliaP's gravatar image


I agree in general with the opinion of my predecessors: the important thing is the context, which allows you to find a meaningful interpretation of the speaker's words. I would just like to add, that sometimes, when you are very, very tired ( I mean: awfully tired, victim of a 7 hour jetlag, trying to adapt to an exotic culture like Indonesia's)it can happen that something gets blocked in your brain and you don't find anything at all! It happened to me in Indonesia, in the marvelous cultural capital of Java, Yogyakarta, where the ministers of education of Unesco's Pacific member states ( including the US and Russia of course) had assembled. I was working in the Russian booth ( not my favorite one!) and listened to a speech about the importance of Islam for Indonesia. Believe me or not, I just couldn't find the adjective of Islam ( islamic or muslimic) in Russian ( it's "musulmanskij"). Somehow I managed to transmit the meaning but I was unhappy for at least one hour, because I hadn't found a relatively simple term. Fortunately, blocks of that kind are extremely rare. I have had maybe 3 or 4 in my whole career...

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answered 14 Oct '15, 16:47

MichelD's gravatar image


edited 14 Oct '15, 16:48

Daniel Gile has a fairly authoritative list of "coping tactics" in his book Concepts and Models for Translator and Interpreter Training. These relate to understanding more generally but certainly also apply to not knowing a word. (Of course non-interpreters want a single clear-cut answer when they ask us this question, not a long list. But heh, the list is more useful to us!)

You can find that excerpt in full here, the summary goes like this...

a. Delaying the response

b. Using the boothmate's help

c. Consulting documents in the booth

d. Replacing a segment with a superordinate term or a more general speech segment

e. Explaining or paraphrasing

f. Reproducing the sound heard in the source-language speech

g. Instant naturalization When interpreters do not know the appropriate term in the target language, they may naturalize the source-language term, …for instance, in a conference, the term "télédétection" (remote sensing) was rendered in English as "telede­tection."

h. Transcoding

i. Informing delegates of an interpretation problem

j. Referring delegates to another information source

k. Omitting the information

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answered 18 Oct '15, 02:40

Andy's gravatar image


That's the solution!

(18 Oct '15, 04:33) MichelD

This is very useful, thanks! I had already identified some of these and it is definitely worth investigating the others. This book as a whole sounds very interesting.

(18 Oct '15, 09:43) Gemma LB

Thanks for those answers! On one memorable occasion, the delegate next to the speaker I was interpreted sneezed just as he said a key word in the sentence (today, I want to talk to you about "achoo!"). I have told people about that event before and said that sometimes waiting is a good option, as people often repeat themselves before long!

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answered 13 Oct '15, 17:34

Gemma%20LB's gravatar image

Gemma LB

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question asked: 13 Oct '15, 08:45

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