I've wondered what an interpreter does when his client says something that cannot be translated directly—an idiom, or a cultural reference that does not exist in the other language. I presume that at the highest levels of government and diplomacy, the interpreters are so good they can find equivalents on the fly...and their clients try to avoid idioms and obscure cultural references.
I have rarely had to act as an interpreter. For one thing, my Japanese is not good enough. and for another I've seldom been in a situation where I was the bridge between an English-speaker and a Japanese who spoke no English. The one time I was enlisted was a lunch at the New York City Princeton Club.
I'd met all morning with a client with whom I was writing a book. He had a lunch that day with a Japanese executive and an American consultant who were visiting a number of US companies. At the last minute, Kevin asked if I would like to join them.
When we met in the private room for lunch, I introduced myself in Japanese to the executive who, I am sure, spoke excellent English but who complemented my Japanese ability to Kevin. The consultant apparently spoke no Japanese. As we sat down for lunch, the consultant remarked that they had just come from Philadelphia.
"Well, as it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, 'All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia,'" said Kevin. The Japanese executive looked blank. Kevin looked at me and said, "Translate it."
Aside from the fact that "tombstone" is not a word in my vocabulary, the line has so many cultural references—who was W.C. Fields, his attitude toward Philadelpha, what one writes (or not) on a tombstone, which are very different from Japanese tombmarkers—I could not possibly convey the point.
So I said was I was able to say Japanese, "Doctor Clancy has just told a joke. Please laugh."
The executive gave an appreciative chuckle, and we ordered lunch.