Inside the mind of simultaneous interpreters

simultaneous interpretation

Last summer, I wrote about a list of ten things you should never say to a translator. One of the ten things was questioning why a translator doesn’t do all aspects of translation, including simultaneous interpretation.  While there could be many reasons for this, one of the big ones is that many translators prefer not to.  If you’re wondering why, here’s some more information on that, thanks to this BBC article, which gives an intriguing glimpse into their world and minds.  Simultaneous interpreting – translating instantly from one language, to another – is a special approach to communication, with its own challenges.  Here are some especially interesting things the article uncovers about the process:

  1. It’s super-complicated. Juggling two languages without having time to reflect on things like word choice or possible wordplay doesn’t sound easy. But it goes deeper.  Despite decades of studies on language and the brain, scientists have had a hard time even understanding how simultaneous interpretation is done.  Now, they’re discovering that it actually involves multiple parts of the brain.
  1. It’s exhausting. With the brain getting such a workout, simultaneous interpreters can get tired quickly. For his article, author Geoff Watts observed three simultaneous interpreters who work at the International Maritime Organization (IMO).  One of the many things he learned is that they usually work in teams of two, so that each teammate can take a rest every half hour.
  1. Simultaneous interpreters’ biggest fear: jokes. Any translator knows that it’s really hard to make humor work – especially humor that involves cultural references, puns, and the like – in another language. When doing simultaneous translations, IMO interpreters usually just downright avoid it.  If only we all spoke the same language! Things might be a lot funnier.
  1. Video killed…the interpreter. Watts also learned that one of the worst things you could do to a simultaneous interpreter is make them interpret via a video feed. Which makes sense; Watts points out that a number of studies confirm that body language adds a lot to the meaning of what we say. Watching someone remotely makes it a lot harder to discern these things.
  1. Multi-tasking superheroes. According to one scientist Watts speaks with, “[l]anguage is one of the more complex human cognitive functions.” Studies have found that a simultaneous interpreter’s brain is actually working in two languages at once, making it in the brain’s equivalent of hyper-drive.
  1. Simultaneous interpreters plan ahead. One strategy that simultaneous interpreters come to learn is how to anticipate what someone will say. This can be hard, multilingual simultaneous interpreter Anne Miles notes, with languages like German, where the negative can come at the end of even a very long sentence (The article has some fun examples of mistakes related to this, as well as other language quirks).  But it generally seems to work.
  1. They can drive their families and friends crazy. Interpreter Barbara Moser-Mercer tells Watts that most simultaneous interpreters never stop anticipating what someone will say. In their personal lives, they tend to be the type who constantly cut in or interrupt!

Watts’ article is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a major international organization, and is also an in-depth (but accessible) exploration of the neurological aspects of simultaneous interpretation.  Whether you’re interested in language, the brain, or if you’re just curious how those interpreters work so darn fast, and so accurately – it’s definitely worth a read.

In the meantime, if you know a simultaneous interpreter, hopefully now you’ll know to be more understanding when they interrupt you.  Apparently, it’s just how their brain works.

by Alysa Salzberg

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2 thoughts on “Inside the mind of simultaneous interpreters

  1. Pingback: Tips for working with an interpreter | aiaConnect

  2. Pingback: Do you have what it takes to be a simultaneous interpreter? | aiaConnect

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