How Interpreters Do It.

Geoff Watts reports on “the lives and minds of real-time translators”:

…As the delegate spoke, Pinkney had to make sense of a message composed in one language while simultaneously constructing and articulating the same message in another tongue. The process required an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor and cognitive skills, all of which had to operate in unison. She did so continuously and in real time, without asking the speaker to slow down or clarify anything. She didn’t stammer or pause. Nothing in our evolutionary history can have programmed Pinkney’s brain for a task so peculiar and demanding. Executing it required versatility and nuance beyond the reach of the most powerful computers. It is a wonder that her brain, indeed any human brain, can do it at all.

Neuroscientists have explored language for decades and produced scores of studies on multilingual speakers. Yet understanding this process – simultaneous interpretation – is a much bigger scientific challenge. So much goes on in an interpreter’s brain that it’s hard even to know where to start. Recently, however, a handful of enthusiasts have taken up the challenge, and one region of the brain – the caudate nucleus – has already caught their attention.

The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviours. Which means the results of the interpretation studies appear to tie into one of the biggest ideas to emerge from neuroscience over the past decade or two. It’s now clear that many of our most sophisticated abilities are made possible not by specialist brain areas dedicated to specific tasks, but by lightning-fast coordination between areas that control more general tasks, such as movement and hearing. Simultaneous interpretation, it seems, is yet another feat made possible by our networked brains.

There’s lots of good stuff in there, and of course no such piece would be complete without the requisite funny translation stories:

Word order is a particular problem in fish meetings, which Miles said she dreads. In a long sentence about a particular variety of fish, and in a language where the noun – the name of the fish – comes towards the end, the interpreter is left guessing about the subject of the sentence until it’s completed.

There’s humour in these pitfalls, of course. Miles told me about an agricultural meeting at which delegates discussed frozen bull’s semen; a French interpreter translated this as “matelot congelés”, or ‘deep-frozen sailors’. And she shared an error of her own, produced when a delegate spoke of the need to settle something “avant Milan” – ‘before Milan’, the city being the venue for a forthcoming meeting. Miles didn’t know about the Milan summit, so said that the issue wasn’t going to be settled for “mille ans”, or ‘a thousand years’.

These people are amazing, and I take my hat off to them (and to the scientists who are figuring out how they do it).


  1. “These people are amazing, and I take my hat off to them.”

    Me too, if I had a hat.

    (One really nit picky point – It is my understanding that ‘interpretation’ is the term for this process where ‘translation’ is limited to written material.)

  2. Ugh! It reminds of the days when I was training to be an interpreter. I stand in awe of people who can do simultaneous interpreting; it’s amazingly tiring work. I’m afraid I did’t have an aptitude for it because my brain wandered too much. All you need is a second or two thinking of something else and you’re lost, scrambling to catch up with what you missed.

    Another problem is aural comprehension, which has to be tiptop. If you can’t completely follow what they are saying you operate at a grave disadvantage. For some reason, I always found this to be a stumbling block because I discovered that my aural comprehension for foreign languages wasn’t 100% at all! That’s one reason that there is (or used to be) a preference for translating out of your native language.

    I don’t remember a lot of the training, but one important exercise was ‘shadowing’ — listening to a recording and repeating the content word for word. I assume the objective was to dissociate reception from output. Learning to speak while you listen, in other words.

    One thing that I found (and others, too, commented on this) is that it is easier to do simultaneous interpreting than consecutive. Consecutive interpreting involves taking notes, which must then be unravelled flawlessly as you translate. After a while you discover that it’s easier to just push the translation out as they speak. Since my technical level wasn’t very high, those flights of simultaneous output didn’t last for very long, but it was far easier to deliver a translation on the spot than it was to take notes and translate from them.

    As I said, interpreting can be tough work. If you share a booth with a simultaneous interpreter, you can’t just sit there and have a rest when you’re not working. Every so often the other interpreter will ask you to check a word or something in the text, which you have to do quickly because they need it asap.

    Interpreting also requires a lot of preparation. For one day of work you may need to spend several days boning up on vocabulary in the field. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always prepare you for what will happen. I remember one speaker who gave us his prepared speech in advance in beautiful typewritten pages. I slacked off on this one in order to prepare for the other less considerate speakers who hadn’t supplied texts. On the day, the speaker completely ignored his prepared speech and spoke off the cuff. It was a salutary lesson.

  3. It is my understanding that ‘interpretation’ is the term for this process where ‘translation’ is limited to written material.

    This comes under the heading of “silly little shibboleths specialists like to insist on but nobody else pays attention to.” Need I point out that they are, in point of fact, translating what is being said?

  4. This comes under the heading of “silly little shibboleths specialists like to insist on but nobody else pays attention to.”

    In English, maybe. In Japanese they are fairly clearly distinguished as 翻訳 and 通訳. In Chinese, the distinction is not primary. 翻译 is translation; written translation is 笔译, oral translation is 口译.

  5. Speaking of difficulties of interpreters job. Here is a good quote from Kato Lomb, famous Hungarian polyglot:

    Not only can elements of speech serve as context, but everything else that accompanies it can, such as facial expressions, intonations, and gestures. That is why we can understand a live, gesticulating speaker more easily than an invisible radio announcer, no matter how perfect his or her pronunciation may be.

    Once, in a critical moment, an unusual concomitant—a man’s skin color—served as a life-saving context for me.

    I took part in an important international conference as a simultaneous interpreter. Like most simultaneous interpreters, I usually work at such conferences with my eyes closed so that I exclude all visual impressions and can concentrate entirely on the spoken text. One of the delegates came up with an economic policy proposal that I felt was racially discriminatory. Someone replied in clear, fine French, but I didn’t catch the decisive word in his short comment; I didn’t understand if he considered the proposal “acceptable” or “inacceptable.” I opened my eyes, frightened, and was rescued: the speaker’s pitch-black African face removed all doubt.

  6. I would have guessed that interpreting was a species of translation rather than a sibling genus. In the title of the linked article, “real-time translators” reads a good deal clearer than “interpreters” would have done (except to readers too attuned to the shibboleth).

  7. per incuriam says

    “silly little shibboleths specialists like to insist on but nobody else pays attention to.”

    Something fledgling interpreters quickly learn is that distinctions that appear silly from afar often begin to make more sense as you come to understand a subject better.

    Translators and interpreters -like the ones in the report- have very different and separate careers, not unlike solicitors vs. barristers in countries where that distinction operates. The terminological differentiation is useful and necessary both for practitioners and for clients.

  8. “not unlike solicitors vs. barristers”

    Or proctology and cardiology.

  9. The terminological differentiation is useful and necessary both for practitioners and for clients.

    Sure. It’s also irrelevant to anybody else, and it would be foolish to be bothered by nonprofessionals not maintaining it. Similarly, while the distinction between phonetic and phonemic is vital in linguistics, I do not expect anyone else to know it, let alone use it.

  10. It never occurred to me that people are actually _trained_ to be translators. I have plenty of experience listening to on-the-spot translations, where the speaker speaks a sentence, or a few words, or a few sentences, then pauses for a couple seconds while the translator (and while some may prefer the term “interpreter”, they have always been known to me as translators) translated that into the other language, usually at a much faster pace. I’m not sure what to call that, as it’s not quite real-time, but neither is it consecutive interpreting as it was described above. Some speakers would cut off the translator before they could finish, and a good translator would just stop and tack the missed part onto the next phrase.

    Anyway, these translators are simply people who know both languages well and have simply been asked (sometimes on the spur of the moment with no warning, but there were regulars) to translate. You might wonder in what kind of situations this might occur. Church (do not ask which one; it is not relevant to this discussion). As lay-preachers, the speakers never had a prepared text of any sort, and as some of the speakers native languages was not English (usually one of the Scandinavian languages), of course they spoke in their native language and had translation, even if they also knew English well (sometimes there are also members of the congregation who are not fluent in English, or vice-versa). The translators were just members of the congregation who had an aptitude for it. There were also interpreters who translated into sign language for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the congregation. Again, no training of any sort, just fluent in ASL and had good hearing (this translation was simultaneous, but it’s not quite the same as simultaneous speaking). Sometimes there is even double translation, where the English is translated into Finnish, then into Swedish (or switched up a bit). On the rare occasions when this is necessary, it is pretty hard on the speakers because it is difficult to have to pause for so long while still keeping focused on what to say next or getting ahead of themselves.

    I also have another funny translation to share that happened some years ago. The speaker spoke something along the lines of “He who has read, knows” in English, and it was mistakenly translated as, “He who has a red nose” into the other language by the stressed translator. Of course, that produced a fit of giggles for a moment from those who were bilingual, not quite something you expect in church!

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