Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Not every word you don’t know is a word you don’t know

Have you ever had this experience? You see or hear a word in your native language and think that you don’t know how to say it in your target language. But then when you look it up, you find a word that you actually knew. This happens to me a lot. The main problem is that we are looking for one-to-one equivalents and ignoring the general meaning, which we understand because it is are native language.

Here is an example. I recently looked up the word “orientation” (in terms of “the orientation of the part in the fixture”). I thought that it must be a word I didn’t know. But when I looked it up, I found 方向. Of course I know that word, but I never equated “orientation” with “direction” which was the English definition that I assigned to 方向 when I first learned it. The problem is that we don’t think about the overall meanings of the words we hear or read. If I had thought about it, I would have realized that the “orientation” of the part is pretty much how it is put in the fixture: right side up, left side in first, vertically, surface down, etc. It’s more or less the same thing.

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There is actually a book about this called 同時通訳が頭の中で一瞬でやっている英訳術リプロセシング. I have only just started reading it but it seems like her main thesis is that interpreting is really just taking what you hear and instantly changing it to reflect a meaning that you can then convey clearly in your target language. Unfortunately, after that thesis the book devolves into a series of common business phrases and their “appropriate” translations. But still, the main point is fairly solid. If you are trying to 直訳 everything, you are going to get some funny sentences. The same holds for words. We need to grasp the meaning of what is being said and translate that rather than paying attention to the words the person is using.

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