Low Context Live Translation

Hello everyone from Paris!

This week has absolutely flown by, and I cannot believe that I am already this close to being finished with my internship! It is incredible how quickly slipping into a routine can make time pass, even when you are in a foreign country. This past week was productive, but unfortunately, I was feeling a tiny bit under the weather this weekend, so I mostly stayed in bed. However now that I am feeling better, I am ready to fully enjoy my second to last week in France!

This past week I met some extremely interesting people through my host family and got to have some really interesting conversations about topics I know very little about. On Saturday, I had dinner with a woman who Is a pro-Palestine activist and lobbyist who also dabbles in fine/contemporary art litigation. I got to learn all about the finer details of how a large art purchase comes to pass, while also getting educated on the role of contemporary art as a method for funding activist movements through charity. I would certainly say it was a conversation that couldn’t have happened anywhere in the world but Paris and I am proud to say that I have made one more friend from my experiences here!

On the professional front, in my internship I was able to live translate a meeting for one a visiting coworker from Burundi on Thursday. It was both exciting and humbling, making me acknowledge how much my French has improved but also simultaneously giving me a newfound respect for live translation specialists. One of the things I noticed is that there is a huge gap between what is implied in French versus what is said. French is a very low context language, which means that in comparison to English, many phrases that mean one thing on paper, can have a completely different meaning. This makes live translation extremely difficult, because translating the words themselves does not always capture the meaning of a sentence. More than one time I would say a phrase, translated literally, and then have to say it a second time to explain what it signified. I am lucky that I already knew the subject matter of the meeting relatively well, because if it was my first time being exposed to the meeting vocabulary as well, giving accurate translations would have been nearly impossible.

I think it is very interesting because this problem only happens to me when I am going from French into English. When I translate from English into French it is perfectly fine to translate a long phrase directly, as much of English has no implied meaning. If anything, you are often over explaining a phrase that could be said more simply in French. However, because over explaining is easier to understand than under explaining, no one even thinks twice about the end result.

I am very glad I took on the challenge of live translation, because without this opportunity, I would not have realized the true difference in context between English and French. It has truly given me a greater appreciation for concept of bilingualism, as it means you are not only capable of seamlessly translating words themselves, but also the deeper meanings behind the words without hesitation.

If I were to give any advice to someone trying to learn any other language, but in particular French, it would be to always overcompensate with context. It is far too easy to slip into the trap of thinking that you know what someone is implying, and that level of false confidence can easily lead to an extremely awkward situation. In my opinion, it is much more advisable to just simply ask about the implied connotations of an instruction and leave no room for error about what is expected of you. This way, it forces both sides of the interaction to closely consider what exactly needs to be done and makes way to a much more productive outcome.

In conclusion, my French is nowhere near perfect, but this week gave me both a boost from knowing how far I have come, but also a reminder of how far left I have to go. Although, live translation was definitely outside of my comfort zone, I am very glad I was asked to do it, and I hope I will have the chance to do it again in the future!