splitting-hairs

Teach or learn?      Procrastinate or prevaricate?     Infer or imply?

Most people, I think, would use the first 2 verbs, ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ quite confidently. For them there’s a clear black and white difference. Interestingly in some languages there is more of a grey area: in French ‘apprendre’ can mean learn or teach, Russian is similar with its verb ‘учить’. I’m sure there are others.

My brother-in-law asked me the other day about the difference between the next two, ‘procrastinate and ‘prevaricate. Oh, I said, it’s all Latin based: Pro – for, cras – tomorrow, and tinate – tenere, to hold. To hold for tomorrow, I pontificated. Or put off, perhaps.

Then I got to ‘prevaricate’ and fudged my way through a very woolly answer. Which wasn’t really correct. The etymology has something to do with being bowlegged apparently. Anyway, my online dictionary says ‘to avoid telling the truth, by not directly answering the question’. Which is, ironically, just what I’d done.

Now ‘imply’ and ‘infer’. The way I first learned to differentiate them was to remember that infer sounded similar to the start of inter(pret) so that was how to establish the meaning. Not hugely scientific or clever I know, but: it worked for me.

Interpreting for a living

Interpreters (inferers? – that’ll upset our talented linguists) don’t have the luxury of making those kinds of mistakes. They have to be right first time, sometimes working in very specialised fields. But on top of the basic meaning of theses weird and wonderful terms, they have to convey the exact tone (we call it register) of the statement. Any wrong kind of implication (it IS implication, not inference, isn’t it?) could ruin the relationship.

Interpreters are in a very powerful position. When you’re interpreting, how faithful to the original should you be? Do you include that under-the-breath-comment about the quality of the food; if the speaker uses some kind of profanity, do you throw that into your interpreted version too? Does the word they used have 2 different meanings in different contexts? You only have a split second to make up your mind before the next sentence starts.

Consequently it’s very demanding work, especially when it’s simultaneous interpreting (the kind where you sit in a booth the size of a toilet cubicle with a massive hearing aid stuck on your ear). The interpreters only manage about 30 minutes at a time before they’re substituted as it’s such hard work.

So if you want to make sure that all parties are involved at your multinational conference, or make the sales pitch go with a swing (where consecutive interpreting would be order of the day), then bring in some experts to give you that support.

Make sure you get the right person for the job – there are lots out there who say they interpret simply because they speak the language but are unqualified. They could cost you your job, reputation or even your life.

Krushchev

Mr Krushchev makes it clear that there is more than 1 meaning to his statement

Be under no illusion – it’s a tough and highly specialised skill. One of the best stories about interpreting involves  at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. Imagine the scene: It’s possibly one of the tensest moments of the cold war. Mr K, owner of an atom bomb or two and not afraid to use them, starts talking about America and the West in general. Viktor Sukhodrev, his interpreter steps in and comes out with the charming line: “We will bury you”.

Quite a sweaty moment for all concerned I’m sure. Nowadays, many people believe what Mr K really wanted to say was: “We will be there at your burial”; effectively “We will outlast you.” But it was early in Viktor’s career so we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

So why wouldn’t you get a professional interpreter in? This is no time for prevarication/procrastination!

*Delete as appropriate

 

Do you know any words in other languages which are (wrongly) interchanged or which drive you mad when people get them wrong?