I cannot help it. As a language geek, I am mad about words; learning new terms is great fun and dictionaries are a box of treasures there for you to open any time you need (or just want) to. Not all dictionaries have it, but my favourite part of the entry is the etymological origin, something that helps you understand the word in a much deeper way: as for many other things, in order to understand the present, you need to know the past.
If you follow me on social media, you have seen I often post etymological maps as they are incredibly fascinating to me, maybe because I studied Latin and ancient Greek for five years when I was in school- I tend to dissect new words and look for their origin, so they are easier to remember (at least this works for me!)
Funnily enough, there is still no confirmed origin of an essential word in my world: the word interpreter. It is derived from the Latin interpres, interpretis, but then, where does the Latin word come from? The prefix inter is known to mean “between”, so no doubts on that, but for the word’s root there is still an ongoing debate. Here are the hypothesis:
1) Indo-European -PRAT/PRET- “to spread, to make something known”, which gave birth to Lithuanian and Goth words meaning “intelligence” and “cognition” as well as to the Greek verb phrazein “to show, manifest, say”. It might be totally unrelated, but I find curious that in Dutch they say praat to mean “chat”- something that interpreters certainly do a lot!
2) The root -PRA/PAR- “to negotiate, to bargain” from which the Greek verb pernemi (to sell) originates. Interpreter would then mean “someone who negotiates a deal; mediator, go between”- this would be particularly fitting for interpreters in business meetings!
3) A modification of the Latin terms inter partes (between parties) or inter pretium (between prices), meaning someone who finds himself between different ideas or values- this rings a bell, too!
We certainly have to deal with multiple factors at the same time, this is why one of the first depictions of an interpreter shows a man with two faces, talking to his interlocutors according to their necessities- the frieze dates back to 1330 BCE and can be seen at Horemhab’s tomb in Saqqara (and I invite you to read this article about him!)
I obviously don’t have an answer on the etymology of our profession but I do believe all three hypothesis represent a part of what we do. Interpreters stand between set of values, thoughts and ideas and make them known so they can be understood; interpreters negotiate, too, because all interpretation implies a bit of compromise.
The ancient concept of interpreter, then, implies staying in between and being neutral. But is this what we have to do? Do we have remain simple communication tools? Are we mere intermediaries, as most dictionaries definitions say?
For the word “interpreter” as a profession, dictionaries describe “someone who translates speech orally or into sign language” (Oxford Dictionaries); “person who translates the words that someone is speaking into a different language” (Merriam Webster)…making it sound like a mechanical task.
Looking better, however, the word interpreter means also “someone who explains things that are obscure or unclear” (my translation of the Treccani dictionary definition); “someone who explains the feelings and thoughts of others” and “someone who plays a part” (my translation of the Garzanti dictionary definitions); and my favourite as it’s very poetic “someone who makes known the affections and movements of the soul” (my translation of the Real Academia definition). This is much closer to my own definition of interpreting! We are not just transcoding words, we make sure people actually understand each other and communicate every single shade of meaning, including emotions.
So, what is your favourite etymology for our job? What does being an interpreter mean to you?
(Header picture: Greeblie)