A great post by Céline of Naked Translations about the way her brain works while she’s doing simultaneous translation:

I was interpreting in a brewery a couple of weeks ago (yes, it was as fun as it sounds), and the person who was showing us around said: “The reason why this type of beer is produced in Kent is that, among other things, this region is excellent for growing barley.” So I started conveying this to the French visitors, and while one half of my brain was busy with the converting/talking process (Ce type de bière est produit dans le Kent car etc.), this is what was going on in the other half:


Thankfully, both parts of my brain came together exactly when needed, right at the end of the sentence… How is this possible? What actually goes on in an interpreter’s brain? Does anyone know if “The Idiot’s guide to the brain and language” has been written?

Personally, I’m much more interested in stories like this than in current theories about what might be happening in the brain, but if anyone knows of such a book, please let her know.


  1. That happens to me all the time. (Well, as “all the time” as is possible for someone who doesn’t usually have act as an interpreter very often.)

  2. And I think it’s pretty a straightforward application of the brain’s ability to do something it’s used to (in this case, expressing an already-formulated thought in a language that the brain’s owner knows well) while thinking about something else.

  3. All I know is that when I haul out my now somewhat rusty German, I can get well into a sentence with a subordinate clause and then realise I have no idea what the final verb is.

  4. There’s at least one other complication: not all of us think in words. For a simple example, I know people who think in visual images.
    I think in kinesthetic diagrams, bits of emotion, and a few other things — including words, but they’re a minor component. Synesthesia is a complicating factor.

  5. Simultaneous interpretation walking around a brewery? More likely consecutive. The brain processes involved are not the same, even allowing for the beer.

  6. Stephen,
    that reminds me of an interpreting story one of my teacher once told us. It starts with a lengthy speech given by a German dignitary and ends with the words “The verb, the verb, give me the bloody verb!” coming out of the interpreters’ booth.

  7. More likely consecutive.
    You’re quite right, of course.

  8. I believe there is quite a lot around on interpreting strategies. (Short term memory, first in first out – FIFO, etc.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much from Google. This page does refer to heaps of papers on related issues, but not all of it is terribly interesting:
    The verb in German is one famous example of torture for interpreters. The negative in Japanese, which only comes at the end after the entire sentence is out, is another.

  9. The word for f*** in Polish is Kurwa, which Ironically sounds like “cow” in Polish, so now, when I drink milk, I feel kind of dirty….does that help?

  10. great blog!

  11. *greg, kurwa is not f***, it’s a whore. Your chain-association is rather like connecting Mother Theresa with porn. [M.T.-> charity to the sick->a naughty nurse] But hey, if it does help you…in every sense…
    Mechanisms of memory stimulating are not only described in the book(s), they are taught as subject in college, and produce most palpable results: winning “Who wants to be a millionaire” games.
    [via God of the machine]

  12. Well, you are right and wrong. If two people were looking at the word bitch, and one said it was a vulgar word for woman. The other said, “’s a verb and it means to complain.” Well it does also mean to complain, but the first person was still correct. I am glad you brought this to my attention though because I’ve had a different perspective on women in milk commercials since marrying a Pole as well. I thought I was just catching on to that eastern lactose intolerant thing, but I guess we may have crawled upon another facet of my synesthesia.
    My chain association is more like a foreigner who learns the word, “fork” or “sheet” in English.
    I don’t even talk about cows in Polish, I could get like a black eye or something.

  13. greg,
    kurwa is a noun meaning “bitch (n), whore (n)”. In can also be used as an interjection and in that manner – and only in that manner – it’s an equivalent of the English “F***!” (note the exlamation mark).
    And I’m probably wired differently, but “kurwa” and “krowa” doesn’t seem that close to me.

  14. There is only a difference of one letter. It’s a “U” for an “O” as well. The “r” jumps around there, but a little dyslexia fixes that right up. Viola! boom! Same word. They’re closer than “fork” and “f***”
    “Civil” sounds like a word closer to “she-ball” (f***) to Koreans. How does that happen? I don’t know, but they think it’s great. Making statements like “civil disobedience,” “civil war,”
    etc. kind of funny for them.
    The actual meaning? Well, I always think of multiple meanings when I learn foreign words. I also think of double meanings to form unusual sentences. Here’s a fun one…. “I mean, I’m mean for good for good.” Or “I will will you the will, when I get the will.” Or “Kurwa! To fajna krowa!” “I want to fork you like an Animal.” etc.

  15. michael farrism says

    Literally, kurwa means ‘whore’. In modern Polish usage, it’s mostly used as a virtually meaningless expletive, almost exactly like American f**k, as in:
    Zamknij się kurwa!
    Shut the f**k up!
    The more common rude word to refer to a prostitute would be dziwka (or tirówka for a side of the highway prostitute whose customers are truck drivers).
    And yes it’s quite easy for a non-native speaker to mix up kurwa and krowa. Many years ago in a Polish lesson I was trying to describe what a relative (cattle rancher) does and said: “wychowuje kurwy…” (he raises whores).

  16. Forgive me, Michael, I’m sure your Polish is way more superior than mine, but I think in your example the speaker is addressing the opponent to whom he’s proposing to shut up. Whereas in American translation (which is more an approxiamtion) it’s more of an exclamation structure.
    There is no way two are interchangeable.

  17. michael farris says

    Well, the first (not the last) time I heard the expression in question I quoted a guy was addressing a good (male) friend and was in no way suggesting he was a prostitute, just that the friend’s talking was getting on his nerves (it was getting on everyone’s nerves).
    If he was calling his friend a whore, he’d probably use vocative case, which would be kurwo (while the vocative is often replaced in everyday speech, I think it would probably be used in this case if it’s used to address someone).
    Other examples:
    Co cię to, kurwa, obchodzi!
    What the f**k do you care!
    Co ja tu, kurwa, robię!!!
    What the f**k am I doing here!!!
    I would say the functionally kurwa is equivalent to f**k in American English as a semantically empty expletive though it does have a different literal meaning.

  18. Michael, yeah, the usage floats, it’s possible to make up non-sensical in literal meaning “7-storied” (as we say in Russian) mat combinations, which nevertheless never gets misunderstood by any native speaker.
    However, since original greg’s comment didn’t involve all these complexities
    [let me quote: “The word for f*** in Polish is Kurwa”] – quite categorical, don’t you think?
    -and judging by his admitted confusion between cows and whores/ common utensils and common f*ckers – there is definitely room for improvement) –
    my first comment is still right.

  19. michael farris says

    Yes, you’re absolutely right, the statement:
    “The word for f*** in Polish is Kurwa”
    is wrong (the words for f**k are literally pierdolić and jebać).
    I just hope this thread doesn’t generate a lot of p oя n sp *m.

  20. Let’s think for a moment about what makes a word “vulgar.” If instead of the f-word, I said “COFFEE!” when I smashed my finger with a hammer while nailing something; no old ladies would scowl, nor would young church goers blush. Why not? Well it would not put the picture of something nasty in their minds. Consequently, I understand why the f-word is inappropriate in the company of some. When my slow Polish brain turns the wheels and gears to make speech, I imagine the f-word, then my brain has a little note that says, “F**K = Kurwa” then I think….”is that cow?” This has created a “Cow ~ f**k pathway in my little attic. So now, when I am turning the basic gears in my mind to produce Polish, “Kurwa and Krowa” are closely knitted together because of the many times people have looked at me confused as to why I shouted “cow” or look angry when I say, “You have a big ‘ol cow there in your yard….I meant the non-your-wife thing.” So back to the initial question that spawned this whole blog, I just wanted to point out that some make wired paths based on experiences and / or phonetics relative to the person’s mother tongue. The initial question was based on what happens in a person’s brain when they translate? Well, “COW!” I think this is relative.

  21. The neurobiology of translation is, actually, fascinating. No, really! And the scientists get to take pretty pictures of brain activity while people are doing it. And Céline’s intuition that there are different parts of her brain doing the processing is spot on, and what so interestes the neurolinguists. As a general introduction to the brain Susan Greenfield’s The Private Life of the Brain might be a good place to start if interested in these things. I seem to recall there’s a section on language but can’t find the book itself to check. There’s a paper here which goes into some detail about the mechanisms involved during translation.

  22. I have the same experience described by Céline just when I’m speaking English. Not often, but sometimes I’m looking for a word I need at the end of the sentence and have a devil of a time coming up with it, and I have that “aargh” dialogue with myself. Now, I’m not a native English speaker but have been speaking and thinking primarily in English for the last 45 out of 57 years. Is this relevant, or does the same thing happen to native speakers?

  23. I work with a bunch of Aboriginal Languages in Australia and I love the way these languages have a really salient word to use when you can’t think of the word. English is a bit more wishywashy – we can say ‘thingy’, ‘whatsit’ and so on, but in these languages it’s very clear.
    In Marra if the word doesn’t come to you straight away you just say ‘wumbul’ (whatsit). In Alawa, ‘nganja’.
    Even better, in Ngandi and Waagilak, the equivalent word also takes prefixes and suffixes. Waagilak speakers who have forgotten the word they’re looking for say ‘nhawuy’. But if the word they’re looking for is supposed to dative, they’ll say ‘nhawuygu’, with the dative suffix.
    In Ngandi, the word for ‘whatsit’ is ‘jarra’, but Ngandi has 5 genders. So ‘jarra’ is always prefixed to mark whatever gender the ‘whatsit’ should be: ‘a-jarra’ (that a-class thing), ‘gu-jarra’ (that gu-class thing), etc. And then you can case mark it too: ‘bi-jarra-gitj’ (to ‘whatchamacallit’ place).
    Maybe the problem is that European languages just don’t make it easy for you if you can’t remember the word.

  24. One could make the case that the functionally “kurwa” in Polish is equivalent to “putin” in French. And one may even speculate that their Catholic histories result in a favouring of invectives that sound like the hailing of a saint. And then there is the style of Captain Haddock

  25. I’m sure many Poles would make the case that “Putin” is functionally equivalent to “kurwa”…

  26. Siganus Sutor says

    Imagine you are typing some text and the phone rings. You pick it up and start speaking while, at the same time, you carry on typing your LH comment, your business letter or whatever. The two “conversations” can be held in the same language, but they can be in different ones as well. (I’m sure I’m not the only one to have experienced such a splitting of the brain — more or less successfully.)
    Isn’t it related to what happened in Céline’s mind?

  27. michael farris says

    Coming in here (on topic) fairly late, but …
    I think part of what’s going on in Celine’s case is just normal ‘living in a foreign language environment’.
    The same thing happens to me all the time, someone asks me ‘how do you say (Polish word or phrase) in English?’
    This is often a not especially arcane or rare word or phrase but a distressingly high percentage of the time I just can’t think of it very quickly.
    This recently has happened with ‘światłowód’ and all I could say was:
    “light cable? no …. something with thread or textiles …. what is it?…” (etc etc etc for about 10 minutes until the person asking me gave up).
    A day or so later unbidden the answer flashed into my brain … fiber optic (cable).

  28. Terry Collmann says

    “Cow” means prostitute in some parts of Britain, too – there’s a Billy Connolly joke about a Highland farmer on a trip to Glasgow which depends on that fact for the punchline, and a Chas and Dave record (“Gertcha”) which got away with using in the lyrics the Cockney expression “cow son”, which means “son of a whore” …

  29. I just thought of something interesting to contribute to this increasingly Carrollian (as in Lewis) blog…
    In Polish, one could say, “To byla dobra kurwa.”
    “That was a good whore.” Now, think for a moment how close that is to the statement, “That was a good f***.” My wife thinks this is a bit of a stretch, but what would one mean if they said, “that was a good whore?” I doubt they mean, “That was a good(righteous, kind etc.) whore.” No, they most likely are referring to her ability to perform her job. So, these two sentences (in english)are loosely similar. I wonder if there are any languages that have a word for “whore” that is related, similar to, or even identical to a vulgar action noun. (Like “f**k.” What are those called?) Anyway, if there isn’t, why not? Any ideas?
    Note: This has nothing to do with my initial comment about how my brain handles the words, that is a completely different deal.

  30. The French word for “whore” is “putain”, not putin (nothing to do with the Russian name transliterated in English as Putin, pronounced approximately like French “poutine”, a mix of fries and melted cheese popular in Eastern Canada). In Northern French is is used as a noun, but in Southern French it is also an expletive like the ones discussed on this post.
    As for “une vache” (a cow), it means the same as “pig” in American English – a policeman.

  31. “European languages don’t make it easy for you if you can’t remember the word” —
    In French it is very easy to replace a forgotten noun for a concrete object: you can call it “un machin”, “un truc”, “un bidule”, and probably a few more modern words. Same with proper names: if you don’t remember the name of a new acquaintance, you can (VERY informally) call: “Machin!” or for a female: “Machine!” or refer to some person as “Truc-machin-chouette” (and I am sure there are more such names out there too).
    There is a 19th century novel by Alphonse Daudet called “Le Petit Chose” (based his unhappy childhood and youth): the schoolmaster could never remember his last name and would say “Eh! vous! le petit Chose!” (“You! the Thing boy”!).

  32. January First-of-May says

    The word for f*** in Polish is Kurwa, which Ironically sounds like “cow” in Polish

    This coincidence (or, its North Slavic cognate, at least) actually came up in the story of birch bark letter 531 (early 13th century).

    The letter is a long complaint from Anna to her brother Klimyata (Clement) about someone named Kosnyatin (Constantine), who had done a lot of bad things to her; one of the bad things mentioned was that he had назовало еси сьтроу мою коровою и доцере блѧдею “called my sister a korova and daughter a whore”.

    Of course korova is exactly the East (and North) Slavic word for “cow”, and that is exactly how the first editors had translated it.
    But later researchers realized that this could also be (a slightly variant spelling of) the local cognate of kurwa, and this version of the translation (where the two versions of “whore” parallel each other) had been fully accepted today.

    (Apparently the most recent translations had suggested that the wording should actually be interpreted as “called my sister and daughter a [two words for whore]”, such that the parallel swear words are not intended to refer to different people. The research on this part is still ongoing.)

  33. David Marjanović says


    Lichtleiter. A technical term of physics for “light conductors”, in practice always fiber-optic cables (Glasfaserkabeln).

    you can call it “un machin”, “un truc”, “un bidule”, and probably a few more modern words.

    It seems rather that truc & machin have outcompeted all the others; they’re both very common, but I haven’t even encountered bidule.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    Do the three spellings of “sister (acc)” have any significance: setrou, s[yat]trou(twice), sestrou?

  35. January First-of-May says

    Do the three spellings of “sister (acc)” have any significance

    …I was briefly misled by your phrasing; the letter in the twice-occurring spelling is not the yat but the (little/front) yer. In the usual orthography of the birch-bark texts, this letter is mostly interchangeable with e, so this particular variation is not very significant.
    Aside from that…

    The usual explanation for the missing second s (which shows up in a few other forms of that word in the same text) is simply that it was not written, because of inattention and/or some form of dysgraphia; there are many other, usually clearer, cases of missing letters and/or syllables in that text. (And about as many more where the author started to write something wrong and corrected herself.) It really was written quite sloppily even (especially?) by birch bark letter standards.

    But this specific word is written the exact same wrong way (modulo less-important orthographic differences) multiple times, so maybe she really didn’t pronounce that sound in it for some reason. There’s been other similar consistently-weird-spelling cases that eventually turned out to be (probably) real sound changes/dialectal features, and AFAICT this specific case hadn’t (so far) been proven to be one of those but also hadn’t been proven not to. It had certainly been suggested.

    I’m not exactly an expert in the Old Novgorod dialect(s), so I can’t really comment much more than that. It’s a topic that interests me but I wouldn’t know enough to seriously discuss theories at this level.

  36. John Cowan says

    f you don’t remember the name of a new acquaintance, you can (VERY informally) call: “Machin!”

    This must be very confusing to people whose surname actually is “Machin” (spelling variant of “Machen” or Spanish word for ‘machinist’). In Fredric Brown’s comic masterpiece Martians Go Home!, the Martians insist on calling all humans either “Mack” or “Toots” depending on gender (or their equivalents in other languages).

  37. must be very confusing

    Yes, much clearer to call everybody ‘Bruce’.

  38. John Cowan says

    But only at Eric Conspiracy meetings or on Conspiracy business. To avoid confusion.

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