An interpreter’s experience of climate change:learning through working in technical interpreting


by Victor Xu, NAATI Accredited Translator and Interpreter


It is well understood that interpreters deal with spoken language and have to translate instantly, while translators handle written text and have sufficient time to translate the source text into target text. From my own experience, I feel the key difference is that interpreters are required to paraphrase the subject matter. It is especially so in the situation of technical interpreting, which requires the interpreter to understand the subject matter, and then interpret the content for the audience.


This has been demonstrated in my recent interpreting services on climate change matters to a high-level exchange between Australia and China. Australia has taken advanced steps in developing low-carbon economy and the Australian government is promoting global cooperation on climate change. China, being the world’s top carbon dioxide emitting country, is keen to embark on a low-carbon growth path.  The technical exchange between the two was in-depth and serious.  The translation and interpreting would be a key process in the development of the low-carbon cooperation.


Looking back on the experience, I found it is not enough to prepare well in advance, but also important to have the ability to adapt and develop specialised subject knowledge while working.


Prior to the meetings, I was informed that the delegation was scheduled to visit 12 agencies that related to climate change.  I composed a table of abbreviations which included relevant terms I would be likely to encounter, including preparing corresponding Chinese expressions for these terms*.


I found the quantity of carbon emission (carbon footprint) measurement are usually in “mega” terms, like GW, Gigawatt (equal to one thousand megawatts); KT, Kilotonne (equal to one thousand tonnes); and ML, Megalitre. I have prepared corresponding Chinese expressions for those terms, too.


Notwithstanding the above, I read background information of the New European Drive Cycle and Global Subsidies Initiative. I also gained understanding of the difference between CNG, LNG and LPG. Because the delegation was to talk about economic modelling on the interaction between energy and carbon intensity and economic output, I also read some articles on “long-run marginal cost” and “marginal abatement cost”. In a nutshell, I think I have covered a wide range of climate change related materials.


However, on day one I quickly realised that my preparation had been focused on finding equivalent Chinese terms, but there was just not enough vocabulary alike in the two languages in the climate change context.


The first presentation was about Australia’s national green house gas inventory. The word inventory does not bear its conventional meaning. I have to translate what is not there, interpret the implicit and the assumed. Inventory here means carbon capture and storage data collection systems.  Further discussions on the day were about ongoing research and development projects regarding emissions measurement techniques and new inventory methodologies.  These were also very difficult concepts and words became really technical. For instance, the term fugitive emission, even normal English-speaking people cannot comprehend the term immediately. But as an interpreter, I have to be able to quickly understand what those words mean in the abstract and grasp what the words refer to in the climate change background in Chinese.


I also found that different organisations have different cultures which were reflected in the way they were talking and writing, expressions from certain departments sounded evasive and/or ambiguous, though I knew the speakers were trying to be legally precise and unambiguous. In this circumstance, I had to view the matter from another perspective, translate convoluted English into plain English before translating them into Chinese. Again, it was crucial to understand the logic of the subject matter and reshape the material to ensure maximum clarity.


I felt the difficulty of technical interpreting does not just lie in technical complexity, but from time to time, there are blank spaces between words that only people in the circle can understand. For example, legacy waste refers to waste that has been deposited in landfill prior to the commencement of carbon price on 1 July 2012.  Feed-in tariff presents a policy mechanism. The same are true with phrases like “vertically-integrated utility;” or “performance-based buy-down” or “future vintage carbon permits”.  Producing effective translations in a short timeframe for those words having different layers of meaning is immensely challenging.


As society develops, I can see the demand for translation and interpreting in cross-border, new areas increasing particularly as climate change is an emerging subject that pertains to environmental science, economics, statics, accounting, law and regulation.


Preparation in advance typically cannot cover all the information contained within the topic and good preparation only assists laying down a base to evolve. Translators and interpreters who are equipped with advanced training in a specialty field will gain a significant competitive advantage in this regard because they possess the skills needed for making decisions and inferences on familiar and novel situations and therefore gain the trust that they can accurately convey the intended message.


It is easier for those interpreters to acquire the ability to understand the logic behind the words, unfold the different layers of meaning and be able to fill in the linguistic loopholes quickly, therefore, create the new phrases meeting the specifications and appropriateness suitable for the circumstances. 





Australian Electricity Market Operator


Climate Change Levy


Certified Emissions Reductions


Combined heat and power


Mixture of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent petrol


Ethanol Production Grants


Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme



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