Interpreting Sustainability: Is it Sustainable?

Written by: Richard Ochab

Editor’s Note 12/12/17: The ATA recently published an article about translation and sustainability in the Chronicle with resources on professional development for translators and interpreters. For even more, see CETRA’s recent blog on sustainability and market research.

Every industry has its own terminology.  Some, such as medicine and patents, is more complex.  While others, including consumer products, are more simple.  Sustainability may have some of the most fluid and evolving terminology of any industry.

This new and rapidly evolving industry presents challenges for interpreters and translators to stay current with the terminology, while also addressing cultural differences when providing language services to clients. For instance, not everyone may agree on what sustainability means.  For some, sustainability means less pollution or a reduction of greenhouse gases.  Others may perceive sustainability to mean buying local or following fair trade policies.  A recent article in The Guardian (Sustainability: lost in translation?) makes this point.

Beyond having to face the challenge of having an uncommon baseline understanding of the terminology, the actual interpretation of the terminology presents its own obstacles.  When interpreting for a speaker at a conference  who mentions LEED certification, the linguist may simply refer to the internationally recognized acronym, assuming that the educated attendees are industry savvy.  In other instances, a term such as footprint can have multiple meanings, and the literal use may or may not be appropriate, depending on the language .  Furthermore, different audiences, including consumers, attorneys and activists, may each “hear” a different interpretation of the same speech, depending on their perception, education and bias.

CETRA provided Portuguese-English interpreters for a major conference in Philadelphia. The client was the US Environmental Protection Agency in partnership with the government of Brazil on the sustainability of rainforests.  According to Tony Guerra, the Director of Interpretation Services at CETRA, the conference interpreters tackled these same challenges. “We anticipated these concerns, and hired skilled  interpreters that had expertise with the topic and the required background with industry terminology,” said Guerra.  “This helped to give our clients confidence in our team and that they would provide accurate interpretation for all attendees.”

As more companies and organizations focus on sustainability, these types of challenges will persist.  Looking forward, what’s the outlook for the interpretation of sustainability?  Guerra believes it is in its nascent stage, and interpreters and language service providers, such as CETRA, will need to evolve with the industry. “We’ve seen the terminology of many industries evolve over time, and the best interpreters stay current with industry trends and changes in terminology,” said Guerra.

It’s the constant co-evolution of the sustainability and language services industries that will allow both to endure.