Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Thanks for Completing My Sentence
September 17, 2010 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Thanks for Completing My Sentence

The thing I like best about the translation business is that there are so many smart people working in it. Even the clients are smart.

I was on the phone yesterday with a prospect doing some language planning. This guy was a research director for a big animal health outfit. Within the first minute of our conversation, I realized he was the kind of guy who was always the smartest guy in the room.

I was talking hard-core shop, and this guy, who at the start of the conversation didn’t know translation squat, was immediately finishing my sentences for me and answering my questions before I asked them. Sounds annoying, right? It would have been if he wasn’t so good at it―we got through 30 minutes of palaver in about 10 minutes!  And as CEO, which is just an alternative acronym for “ADD,” I always appreciate someone helping me out with sentences that I could never complete on my own.

It reminded me of research published in Language earlier this year about our native ability to predict what someone else is going to say, and got me thinking of its implications for translation arts and crafts. A joint Yank and Aussie team, Joan Bresnan and Marilyn Ford, discovered that our ability to predict what someone else was going to say was very high.

To a remarkable degree, people are quite accurate in their ability to make these predictions, not only in terms of the basic content of the message, but also in terms of the word choices and phrasing of the sentences. This ability to effectively predict the syntax of others in context comes from our knowledge of ‘linguistic probability.'”

This is a result of practice. The better you know the language, the better you can figure out what the other guy is going to say. This obviously puts speakers of a second language at a great disadvantage. They just haven’t put in the same hours of mental gymnastics required for conversation as those who have been totally immersed all their waking moments in the bathwater of their native language.

Although not mentioned in the part of the study I scanned through, I would imagine that this non-native speaker disability would increase as cultural commonality decreases.  So when a Dutchman speaks Dutch, I usually know instantly what they mean. “You are riding your bike the wrong way, asshole!” And I don’t need to speak Dutch to instantly grasp their meaning, which I think is pretty predictive of me, although after a few visits to Amsterdam, I’ve had plenty of practice with this particular Dutch expression.

On the other hand, in Japan, even after years of formal study, I’ll be listening to someone talking, and they’ll say something completely out of the blue, and I have no idea what they are talking about. Even if I actually understand the sentence, know the construction and every word used, there are plenty of occasions where I’m left completely stumped, wondering why the hell the guy said what he said, and what he’s talking about. Definitely my biggest problem with that language.

In our global travels, Yoko, my Japanese-speaking wife, and I have divided the world Pope-fashion into two spheres of influence. She does East, and I do West. So Turkey was my bailiwick, and my job was to learn Turkish. I never got much beyond Merhaba and a few of those random phrases you learn in guidebooks, like “I am missing my steamer trunk” and stuff like that.

So when a guy comes out on the street in Göreme and starts yelling at me, my wife looks to me helplessly. “He’s just saying that I can’t park here because the cops are right around the corner and I’ll get a ticket.” My family was deeply impressed with my Turkish skills, but my only clue was the blue-and-white Polis car parked nearby that he pointed out in his harangue. Pretty predictive, huh?

So I think this work must have implications for translators too. The authors of the study say that “linguistic patterns are important in predicting comprehension. If we can make better use of these patterns to enhance comprehension, then we can improve people’s ability to understand one another.” Sounds like a job for translators, doesn’t it?

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