Sight translation is a unique practice that could be considered a hybrid of two specialized disciplines.
It occurs when an on-assignment interpreter is required to read a document in one language and relate its contents out loud in another language.
The result is not quite interpreting (where the focus is on oral communication) and not quite translating (which deals with written communication), but a technique that falls somewhere in the middle.
The practice of sight translation can be used in courtrooms, hospitals, meetings, conferences and many other events. It can serve as an important tool when other translation or interpreting services are not readily available. But be cautious!
Sight Translation in Practice
Sight translation is often used in legal settings. Much of the time, it involves translating a written witness statement that is in a different language from the one being used during court proceedings.
Sight translation can be used in meetings and conferences if an interpreter is already present. Perhaps a document that is key to the proceedings is written in another language and needs to be translated on the spot.
The practice can also be used in a medical setting. A patient might not be from the same country as the doctors or nurses, and may have a prescription or other medical information written down in another language. An interpreter working as a sight translator would be able to express the information to the hospital staff.
If there is no better option available, sight translation can be a lifesaver for an organization or group that requires a document to be immediately translated. But it is not an ideal situation for an interpreter or the client.
Areas of Expertise
It’s important to remember that translation and interpreting are two very different areas of expertise. Asking an interpreter to conduct a sight translation is basically asking that person to adopt an entirely different set of skills.
An interpreter specializes in the field of human vocalization. Much of what makes up an interpreter’s job comes from being able to extract subtle, nuanced meaning from inflection, tone of voice and body language.
An interpreter essentially plays the role of translator during sight translation. Many interpreters find this challenging and, when put on the spot, may have trouble figuring out how to convey words that have been robbed of some of their context by being written down rather than spoken.
This can result in a sight translation that, while technically accurate, could be lacking in some of its inherent meaning.
Problems of Language
Character-based languages such as Japanese and Chinese, or languages that don’t use an alphabet that an interpreter is accustomed to, can cause sight translation problems as well.
While a translator is comfortable with a written language, an interpreter may be tripped up if he or she encounters an esoteric word or phrase that is unfamiliar in its written form.
Problems can even crop up in languages that use an alphabet that is familiar to the interpreter. There may be misspellings, omissions or other errors that can change the meaning of some or all of the document that is undergoing sight translation.
Good translation service providers, which include not only professional linguists but also proofreaders, are more familiar with these issues and know what to do when they encounter them.
Planning Around the Risks
Organizations that want to ensure that they receive the most accurate and context-appropriate translation or interpreting possible should plan ahead so that they can avoid hitting the snags that come with having to use sight translation.
If you’re holding a multilingual conference in which some of the participants will speak a different language, plan to have all the necessary documents translated beforehand, so that they will not have to be hastily sight-translated. The same goes for courtroom proceedings and other events that may require translation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with sight translation, and in some cases it can be a huge help. But it is not wise for any organization to rely on sight translation if other methods are available. Sight translation can help in a pinch, but many of its risks can be eliminated by planning and preparing beforehand.