Monday, 5 November 2012

How one astute interpreter translated يعني

Whilst reading Leslie McLoughlin's enthralling biography 'Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter; The Odyssey of an Arabist, 1959-2009’, I came across one the more ingenuitive renditions of the Arabic يعني.

McLoughlin studied Arabic at Britain's famed "spy school", -The Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS) in the Lebanon before the civil war, before embarking on an exciting career in the Arab world and Britain in business, academia and for government. He interpreted at high level meetings between 10 Downing Street and Arab delegations as well as for Her Majesty the Queen and various Arab rulers and monarchs. 

On one occasion in the mid-1980s, a Saudi delegation visited no. 10 for talks with Mrs Thatcher and McLoughlin was assigned to interpret for the British side, while the Saudis brought an interpreter who had studied Linguistics at Leeds University. The Britons were astounded at the Saudi interpreter’s elegant renderings.

The encounter unfolded thus:

“In one particular instance after Mrs Thatcher had stated a particular position for the United Kingdom on a matter of importance the very brief reply was the word ‘ya’nee’. This word literally means, ‘it means…’ and has many nuances, including: ‘what I mean to say is…’; ‘er…’, which works as a filler; ‘I’m not saying “yes” and I’m not saying “no”; and, most importantly, ‘I’m not sure I agree’.
       The Arabists, including myself leaned forward, eager to hear how the Saudi interpreter would render this ambiguous word. His rendering was roughly as follows, “Having regard to all the circumstances and taking into account the probable ramifications of what you have suggested we would prefer to reserve our position.”” (p157)

I think this shows a couple of things- how expressive language can be in that one word may be rendered into a whole sentence; and how important register is to speech, especially with such an audience. The word يعني could easily be translated here with ‘um’ with a slight rising tone and a shrug of the shoulders, but of course that wouldn’t quite have gone down very well!

Leslie McLoughlin's book 'Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter; The Odyssey of an Arabist, 1959-2009’ is published by Motivate Publishing.

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