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Live and learn

On the final day of Russian English month, freelance translator and interpreter Alexander Dron shares some of his experiences as interpreter with us.

Thank you for all of you who have contributed to Russian English month!


My most recent ordeal on TV was a press conference following a meeting of European finance ministers which discussed ways to contain the euro crisis (“anti-contagion measures”). The slogan was fiscal consolidation. I remember deciding if I should win time and translate it literally and thus puzzle and jar on the ears of so many Russian viewers, or fall behind the fast speaker, giving each time an explanatory translation (“reducing state budget deficit and state debt”). Besides, in Russian, it is so much longer. Yet, I opted for the latter. Simultaneous interpreters are constantly having to make such split-second decisions. What would you have done in my place?

Another thing to think about is Germanic vs. Latin English. If your audience are native speakers of English, your knowledge of Germanic phrasal verbs may come in handy (not necessarily Eliza Doolittle’s “to do in”). One presidential adviser said at a conference: “We were waylaid”. I did not know the exact meaning of the verb. Neither did my distinguished partner who was translating at the time. Yet, everybody knows its “French” equivalent: “We were ambushed”. Indeed, live and learn!

Consecutive interpretation is different. Many Russian executives speak some English and try to monitor what you say. One minister, a sophisticated speaker of Russian and an enthusiastic speaker of English, said something which, in the context of the meeting, was a bold statement, and which I interpreted as “The key thing is to create a level playing-field”. He “corrected” me by saying in English: “No, the most important thing is to create equal conditions for all”.

British vs. American English usage is a great subject to pursue. I will confine myself to sharing a perfectly untranslatable joke (told by my teacher and colleague Prof. Alexander Schweizer). A US and a British general are watching a military exercise. The first one says: “Some fight!” To which the other general says:”And others don’t”.

As I walked from the park where I drafted these notes, I saw two unusual creatures. I asked their mistress what breed they were. “Whippet”, she said, malaya angliyskaya borzaya (“small English greyhound”), bred for racing. “What are their names?” – “Nazareth and Samuel” plus a host of ancestors’ names. “But I call them Nazar and Semyon, or Syoma, or Syomochka”. A unique case of coexistence of English and Russian names. One is a former Moscow racing champion. “And the other one?” – “He is more of a dandy”. “Do they still race?” – “They are old, 11 and 12.”

The whippets did not only add a new word to my vocabulary; they did not only provide an ending to my notes. They seem to be a metaphor of my life and work.

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Alexander Dron

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