AATSEEL
 
 

AN INTERVIEW WITH LYNN VISSON

AATSEEL: How did you begin a career as a translator and simultaneous interpreter?

 

VISSON: Back in the 60s, while still a student at Harvard, majoring in Russian history and literature, I volunteered to interpret for groups of visiting Soviet tourists and academics.  I thoroughly enjoyed the immediacy of communication and the opportunity to learn so much about the language and culture.  I also started doing translations for scholarly journals and other publications. After finishing my Ph.D. in Slavic Languages I taught at Columbia and several other colleges, but continued to freelance interpret for groups and conferences. In 1979-80 I worked for the State Department as a contract interpreter, and then in 1980 started at the United Nations, where I was a staff interpreter working from Russian and French into English until 2005. I'm now free lancing, teaching interpretation, translating, and am Editor-in-Chief of Hippocrene Books, a New York publisher specializing in dictionaries and language textbooks.

 

AATSEEL: Are the skill sets the same? If not, how do they differ? What makes a good translator (or interpreter)?

 

VISSON: The skills are very different.  A translator, who deals exclusively with written texts, has the luxury of time; he can consult dictionaries, reference works, and colleagues. An interpreter, who deals with oral utterances, has to make split second decisions with no possibility for consultation or editing.

 

A good translator is careful and patient, and reworks and edits drafts of a text until he is satisfied with the final result. A good interpreter knows techniques for coping with a huge variety of difficult situations, has iron nerves, does not panic, has a sense of style and register, finishes sentences, restructures syntax, can keep up with a rapid speaker and has good delivery, voice quality and intonation.

 

Some people are excellent translators, but poor interpreters; some are excellent interpreters, but poor translators. Some can do both translation and interpretation, and some can do neither.    

 

AATSEEL: Is there a way to prepare for such a career? Where does one look for work?

 

VISSON: It is vitally important that the would-be translator/interpreter spend as much time and attention on the study of his native language as on study of the foreign language. People reading or listening to a text translated/interpreted into English need to be able to follow that English easily, need to read/hear idiomatic English. The translator/interpreter needs to keep reading in the native language as well as in the foreign language, needs to keep abreast of current events and of new vocabulary items.

 

A beginning translator/interpreter should volunteer for work with ?migr?s and visitors, seek out community groups; explore possibilities for work with hospitals, medical centers, local religious associations and organizations. Court interpreters are badly needed  (though the exams for certification are difficult) and court interpreters must work both into and out of the foreign language.

 

The translator/interpreter at a more advanced level might consider taking the State Department exams. For the United Nations a translator/interpreter must be able to work from either Russian or Spanish, and from French into English, or from English and French or Spanish into Russian.  While in the private market most interpreters must work both into the foreign (target) language and from the target language into native (source) language, at the United Nations and many other conferences the interpreter works solely into his native language. While the translator/interpreter working from a native language into the foreign language has the advantage of fully understanding a given text, a translation into a non-native language almost inevitably sounds awkward.  As a result of the stress of simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter into a non-native language is likely to make serious errors in grammar, vocabulary, syntax and style.

 

While there are some bilinguals who can work both ways (into and out of a foreign language), such individuals are few and far between. Moreover, many bilinguals are in fact poor translators and interpreters because of an inability to code switch. The commonly accepted idea that if someone "knows" (whatever that means!) both languages, he can translate, is absolutely incorrect.

 

In the US, a two-year MA program in translation and interpretation is offered by the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (www.miis.edu).  The would-be translator/interpreter should also join professional organizations such as the ATA (American Translators Association), www.atanet.org which puts out many useful publications.

 

AATSEEL: What are the particular challenges of translating/interpreting from Russian into English, and vice versa?

 

VISSON: Any translation/interpretation from Russian into English will be approximately one-third shorter than a rendering of the same text from English into Russian; this is determined by the structure, grammar and syntax of the two languages.

 

Since Russian is a highly inflected language, translation/interpretation from Russian into English presents major syntactic problems. The translator/interpreter may have to totally restructure a sentence which produces the subject only at the end of the sentence (result of tema/rema word order. 

 

Verbs often need to be reworked into nominal constructions, nouns become verbs, participial clauses must be restructured and condensed, choices must be made regarding the use of the definite/indefinite article. The Russian verb system does not "hand" the interpreter into English the appropriate compound tense (e.g., "we shall have been working," "I had been thinking."

 

Working from English into Russian requires the interpreter to work at a faster speed; the translator must focus on restructuring sentences to meet the demands of Russian syntax. The lack of definite/indefinite articles and the use of prepositions also cause problems.  Nor is there a neat correspondence between Russian and English in terms of style and register, in particular in post-perestroika Russian.

 

Differences in cultural realii, idiomatic expressions, proverbs, professional jargon and slang also present serious problems for translators and interpreters. After all, translation/interpretation does not merely deal with rendering words and expressions in a different lexical/grammatical system, but with ensuring cross-cultural communication.

 

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Lynn Visson received a Ph.D. from Harvard University, taught Russian language and literature at Columbia University and other American universities, and for more than twenty years was a staff interpreter at the United Nations, working from Russian and French into English. Of Russian background, she is the author of several books including Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages (expanded edition: NY: Hippocrene Books, 2001) and articles on children of Russian-American marriages. She is a member of the editorial board of Mosty, a Moscow-based journal on translation and interpretation, and has taught translation and interpretation at the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation in Monterey, Columbia University, and in Moscow.