Translators and interpreters according to John le Carré (or one of his narrators)
Thread poster: Marco Solinas

Marco Solinas  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:40
Italian to English
+ ...
May 3, 2017

I am reading John le Carré's "The Mission Song". Here is what the narrator (Salvo) has to say when comparing the relative merits of translators and interpreters:

“Never mistake, please, your mere translator for your top interpreter. An interpreter is a translator, true, but not the other way round. A translator can be anyone with half a language skill and a dictionary and a desk to sit at while he burns the midnight oil: pensioned-off Polish cavalry officers, underpaid overseas students, minicab drivers, part-time waiters and supply teachers, and anyone else who is prepared to sell his soul for seventy quid a thousand. He has nothing in common with the simultaneous interpreter sweating it out through six hours of complex negotiations. Your top interpreter has to think as fast as a numbers boy in a coloured jacket buying financial futures. Better sometimes if he doesn’t think at all, but orders the spinning cogs on both sides of his head to mesh together, then sits back and waits to see what pours out of his mouth.”

I loved it (even though I do not share Salvo's opinion). I thought I would share it


Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 05:40
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Indeed May 3, 2017

Marco Solinas wrote:
"Never mistake, please, your mere translator for... anyone else who is prepared to sell his soul for seventy quid a thousand."

Like you, I do not share the narrator's view - what interpreters and translators do is very different, and at the top end exponents of both disciplines must be very skilled - but it is an interesting quote that I myself encountered for the first time a year or so back.



Mario Chavez (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:40
English to Spanish
+ ...
The Mission Song May 4, 2017

I'm a fan of Le Carré's spy novels, but I felt a strong dislike for The Mission Song; I couldn't go past the first 10 pages because Salvo, one of its main characters, is so unrealistic, never mind petulant, cynical and all-around amoral. Utterly uninteresting, like a black Tom Cruise in a Mission: Impossible movie.

I'd rather stick with Smiley and his people.


United Kingdom
Local time: 05:40
Serbian to English
+ ...
You may not like to hear it May 6, 2017

but there is more than a grain of truth in it.

Admittedly, the comparison is biased to certain extent as he his not comparing "likes for likes" - he his comparing the real top of one profession with the lower centiles of the other profession - but even if you compare the good average or the best in each profession, the matter of the fact is that what makes a good interpreter is far more difficult to find that what makes a good translator.

I know of very good translators who don't dare going anywhere near interpreting, or who tried once only to vow to never ever do it again. OTOH I don't know of any good interpreter that could't also do good translations.

BTW "for seventy quid a thousand" i.e. 0.07 £/word also rings true (for the time when it was written), shows that Le Carré has done his research properly, he might on purpose pushing the comparison to the extreme to make it a more interesting reading, but he surely knows what he is talking about ...


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Translators and interpreters according to John le Carré (or one of his narrators)

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