Meet The Interpreters: 4 Things You Might Not Have Known

History is full of nasty snipes against people who work with languages. Translators are often bicultural, and with that come accusations of being two-faced; just think of the Italian pun “traduttore, tradittore” (‘translator, traitor’).

Yet people still tend to respect the craft of translation, and to recognise the skill that goes into recapturing any linguistic sleight of hand. Fewer understand, let alone respect, the sister profession of interpreting; the act of listening to input in one language while producing the same meaning in a second language. Just listen to Susan Sontag’s academic dismissal of the trade:

“Interpreting is the revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to think too hard to see through that particular load of old cobblers. With a moment’s reflection, many would agree that interpreters actually do, and have always done, one of the most important jobs in the world and they deserve real respect for it.Often heard, but rarely seen – perhaps they don’t quite have “a front row seat to history”, but you can guarantee that interpreters are always hidden somewhere in the most significant rooms.

In appreciation of these people who make the remarkable utterly routine, Today Translations has compiled a list of four things you might not have known about their lives.

1) Your interpreter is (probably) not a translator

The qualifications are different, and the job descriptions barely match. One works alone, at home, with a dictionary; the other jets around, meets, greets and rubs shoulders with clients in the flesh. Not only do the skills involved differ, but the kinds of people attracted to each profession may be dissimilar too.

One of the main misconceptions that language laymen have is that mastering multiple languages somehow makes you an all-rounded professional. Mastering multiple languages is the (necessary but insufficient) minimum entry grade for either profession. Much like having two hands is probably a minimum requirement for becoming a concert guitarist; ditto for becoming a car mechanic. Yet the chance of you mastering both solely because you meet the requirement is slim.

Perhaps the most apt analogy is with professional sportspeople. Translation and Interpreting require such different applications of language that someone being a professional translator and a professional interpreter is rather like someone being a premier league footballer and a pro tour golfer at the same time*. The interpreter has no time for ponderous reflection, as informs a translator’s choice. Interpreting values pragmatism and immediate improvisation above all else. Interpreting is a lot more than bilingualism; they are using two languages at once, in both perception and production. No wonder it’s exhausting.

*Disclaimer: There are, of course, more people who earn money as translators and interpreters than as footballers and golfers; however, it just serves to underline that these people are particularly superhuman in their skill set.

2)Interpreting is a Very Mixed Bag

Different situations call for your interpreters to do a diverse range of jobs.

• Simultaneous Interpreting

With simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter sits in their booth and transposes every sentence that they receive into their headset into the target language at the same time – knowing that any more than a few seconds lag would disrupt the entire event. With this kind of instantaneous, real-time transfer, 30 minutes is considered the absolute maximum time any individual can sustain this feat, so simultaneous interpreters typically work in teams. Untrained bilinguals who attempt this tend to reach the critical meltdown stage after 4 minutes, rather than 30.

• Consecutive Interpreting

With consecutive interpreting, the speaker has to leave gaps at the end of a sentence or a conceptual break in their content. In these breaks, the interpreter renders what has just been said into the target language. Events that use consecutive interpreting can take up to twice as long. While someone doing consecutive interpreting may have a few seconds more breathing space than with simultaneous, it is still difficult to accurately remember who does what to whom and when, and then to give a stylistically faithful rendition in the target language.

• Chuchotage

From the French verb for chuchoter, meaning ‘to whisper’. As the name would then imply, chuchotage involves the interpreter sitting next to the client and performing simultaneous interpretation in hushed tones. Too many people in a room doing this for any length of time might result in progressively raised voices and ultimately chaos, so it’s best suited for shorter, smaller meetings. This type of activity shows the stark divide between translators and interpreters. Strictly speaking, the former don’t need to have any interpersonal skills to do their job, whereas the latter couldn’t survive without them.

• Relay Interpreting

To understand why relay interpreting is necessary, we just have to imagine the complexity of the situation at the EU. There are 24 official languages, into which every single document must be translated. When it comes to conferences, the same job must be repeated verbally with interpretation. Inevitably the provision of interpreters with certain language combinations is better than for others. Languages like English and French are far more widely spoken and understood than, say, Maltese and Latvian, and it’s uncontroversial to say that you will have trouble finding many Maltese-Latvian speakers qualified to interpret in either direction. When the delegate from Latvia is to give a presentation about Marine Preservation to a conference, the simplest solution is to find a common language – for example, a Latvian-English interpreter and an English-Maltese interpreter. Thus, the Latvian delegate would give his speech in Latvian; Interpreting Booth 1 would interpret from Latvian into English for all Anglophone attendees. The interpreters in Booth 2 don’t listen directly to the original speech, but to the rendition provided by Booth 1. Then Booth 2 interprets this English version of the speech into Maltese for the Maltese attendees. Simple! Except that adding in even another language increases the scale of the challenge, and there are other language-specific obstacles to successful relay interpretation.For example, German grammar demands that the verb in a subordinate clause come at the very end of the sentence. Pity the German interpreters who must start interpreting these convoluted sentences without even knowing exactly what the sentence is about!

If any of that seems very complicated, that’s because it is. Marvel at their powers.

3. Your interpreter is a performance artist

Interpreters are hired for events where there are live audiences – they are vicarious public speakers. The stakes are tangibly very high. Every assignment entails an on-the-spot compromise. The two factors of being faithful to the literal sense and idiomatic fluency always tug at the interpreter’s coattails and often tug in two opposing directions.

Part of the performance comes with striking the balance between preservation of tone and transposition of cultural differences. A speech on a serious subject must have its austere tone transmitted; while a lighthearted, funny delivery poses the ultimate interpreter’s nightmare – spontaneous translation of humour into a different language. Using much the same mind-set as with localisation, interpreters must have a good feel for what may be funny or polite in one language but dull or shocking in another. Similarly, they have to be attuned to all of the clues that make up a linguistic message – including the slightest hints from body language.

One of the more important skills this high-stress job requires is the ability to clamber out of a hole. Even the most skilled linguist can find themselves mid-speech having forgotten a pivotal sentence, or being confronted with an unfamiliar word, or playing catch-up with an excitable speaker rambling on at 15 words per second with no consideration for the poor souls in the booth. In these situations, the good interpreter’s ability to pluck a neat précis out of the air is the way they save they day.

4. Your interpreter’s job is safe

And as much as people would love to find a way of avoiding the interpreter’s fee, the profession is safe for several reasons.

Firstly, more people than ever may be learning major global languages like English, Spanish and Mandarin, but this doesn’t foreshadow a decline of the language service industry. The amount of time, effort and investment that corporations like Google and Microsoft have lashed into automatic translation software is a testament to the growing demand of the global population have access to foreign language content. While Google Translate doesn’t provide anything in the same league of quality as a professional human translation, the service has at least prospered with the widespread misconception that it’s there, so it’ll do. No such madness with interpreting, for which the technology to parse and accurately render long & important speeches in real time simply doesn’t exist.

Not for want of trying, though. “Machine Interpreting” has at least gained notoriety as a phrase in the industry, if not a shred of credibility. It relies on the synchronisation of two pre-existing, quite shaky technologies – voice recognition followed by automatic translation. The application of speech synthesis is a further stumbling block. Even with recent advances, the best this field can offer falls well short of acceptable standards in voice tone, emphasis and pronunciation. So, it relies on three collaborating levels of automation in which things regularly go wrong – and that’s before anybody has worked out how to automate human cultural tact.

Unless we decide it’s alright to offend the entire EU delegation for the Latvian Fisheries Ministry, interpreting is a profession ring-fenced against automation by its own technique and finesse.

So, next time you work with an interpreter, spare a thought for the human being behind the booth, and remember that you haven’t paid for a computer; you’ve only gone and landed yourself a superhero.