The Interpreter as Word Detective: Easy tips to improve your vocabulary

 By Yvette Citizen, FCCI

Dedicated to our colleagues in Fiji

Some people think bilinguals are like two monolinguals in one but the truth is, most bilinguals have a well-developed vocabulary for certain subjects in one language and not in the other. Monolinguals of course, have an overdeveloped vocabulary in their language because they’ve had to do everything in one language. For example, you may have an Argentine businesswoman who can negotiate business deals fluidly in English (her second language) but not know how to say “diaper, spatula, door-hinge, screwdriver” and other household words in English because she doesn't need to. Many immigrants to the United States don’t know how to say “mortgage, handbrake, punch card” and the like in their mother tongues because they never had cause to use those words in their home countries. And that’s perfectly fine – unless you’re a professional interpreter; in which case, you will aspire to literally be “two monolinguals in one body."[1] To that end, we must always be striving to maintain our languages at equal levels. This is why we must become ‘word detectives’, investigating every term that comes our way and asking ourselves if we have equivalents in all our working languages.

Here’s an exercise that will not take up too much time out of your busy life but will help you expand your vocabulary. Take on the role of a linguistic Sherlock Holmes – cap, pipe, and spyglass are optional.

EXERCISE: Go into every room in your house and see if your can name all the items you see in your working languages. If there’s an item you don’t have an equivalent for, investigate it! Look for synonyms, think of similar or related items, and fatten up your glossary. Start sleuthing! In the meantime, see how you do with the following sight translation exercises:

KITCHEN: Do you know your utensils? Spices? Appliances? Sight translate the following passages:

I. “A search warrant of the premises revealed numerous kitchen accessories that appeared to be used for the preparation, packaging, and distribution of illicit substances. The following items have been confiscated in conjunction with this case:

1. Three funnels

2. Forty-two quart-size Ziploc baggies

3.Thirty-seven gallon-size freezer bags with zippers

4.Scoops, measuring cups, measuring spoons, tongs, spatulas, and mixing bowls, all with traces of a white powdery substance.

5. A food scale.”

II. “The body was found in a prone position on the kitchen linoleum floor. It appeared the victim was in the midst of preparing a meal when he was attacked. There was a Dutch oven on the stove, as well as a non-stick pan with a pad of butter and a ladle to its side. The victim was clutching a plastic turmeric container in his right hand. It appeared the victim was attacked from behind with a wooden cutting board and a meat tenderizing mallet.”

Ok, now let’s take our sleuthing to the bedroom. Do you have equivalents for bedroom furniture? Translate the following:

  • night stand
  • dresser
  • vanity
  • twin-bed
  • bunk-bed
  • futon
  • dust-bunny
  • bedding


How about clothing, hair products, and make-up? And while we’re at it, how about descriptors for people’s appearances? Here’s a little practice for you:

III. The assailant reportedly had a pock-marked face, a handle-bar mustache and a goatee. He was wearing a navy and turquoise blue flannel checkered shirt with a rip on the left shoulder area; stone-washed jeans, argyle socks, and moccasins.”

IV. The witness described the female perpetrator as follows: “She had dishwater blonde hair with indigo blue and fuchsia highlights. She wore excessive rouge and fire-engine red lipstick; thick eyeliner and she had so much mascara, her eyes looked like tarantulas.” (I realize the last one was really a stretch, but I had fun writing it)

If you do go through your house as a word detective, let us know how it went – what words stumped you? Do share!

Looking forward to seeing many of you at NAJIT. Stop by at our booth and say, “howdy!”

Copyright: Yvette Citizen, June 2018.

[1] For more on bilingualism, I recommend you read the wonderful book by Francois Grosjean, Life with Two Languages, An Introduction to Bilingualism.



“Yvette Citizen has been simultaneously interpreting Chopra Center events since 2009. At our workshops and seminars, she seamlessly interprets specialized vocabulary in a myriad of topics, ranging from quantum physics and medical terminology to Ayurvedic cooking and the poetry of Hafiz. Our Spanish-speaking participants consistently praise Yvette's precise and high quality interpretation. She has been a crucial element in our ability to impart the teachings of the Chopra Center to our Spanish-speaking guests. We are fortunate to have her on our team, she is the best!”

~Amanda Ringnalda, Director of Operations & Events  the-chopra-center-logo









Interpretation & Translation Services

Our recent experiences have included:

High profile criminal trials • Medical conferences • Training courses for refugee interpreters • Implementing interpreter training as part of high school Spanish classes • Training & testing for medical interpreters in hospital settings in bilingual communities



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