Beyond Words - Language Blog

Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation: Simultaneous Interpretation

At the highest rung of the translation and interpretation ladder lies simultaneous interpretation—the kind practiced at a host of international organizations like the United Nations and European Union, as well as at most major global conferences. Simultaneous interpretation happens in real time, with interpreters stationed in booths and equipped with headsets and microphones to interpret speeches as they are being read. The skills required for this profession vary a great deal from those associated with other realms of interpretation and are—as I have learned—oftentimes surprising, if not counterintuitive.

"Simultaneous interpretation has nothing to do with linguistics," claims one of my professors, in a characteristic pithy aside, "and everything to do with martial arts. While this statement came as a surprise to most students, we quickly came to realize just what he meant. Typically, speakers read or speak at break-neck speeds, oftentimes with heavy accents, frequently without form or structure, and almost inherently without any heed to the interpreters clamoring to keep up. Interpreters must extract from the information piped into their headphones the essential meaning of what is being said. While this does not imply that they can ignore actual terms, dates, facts, and figures, it does mean that technique becomes paramount to literal, word-for-word interpretation. Here, the idea of "martial arts" means looking at language like looking at punches and kicks, being able to deflect blows with deft turns of phrase and well-rehearsed aphorisms. Simultaneous interpretation is like martial arts in so much as it requires the interpreter to be quick, aware, and practiced in a very particular set of skills and techniques.

On a more tangible level, simultaneous interpretation requires information extraction and the honing of word collocations. Many of the exercises students practice are geared at making a paragraph into a sentence and a sentence into a couple of words. The goal of these exercises is to understand meaning rather than focusing on individual words and phrases, which can become cumbersome as the rate of delivery increases. Other exercises aim to drill knowledge of word pairs: How do you say "lamentable outcome" in your target language? And how about "smoothbore rifle"? Conferences are vast and varied in subject matter, and we are trained to be ready for whatever terminology is thrown our way. Conversations with working simultaneous interpreters have reinforced the notion that skill and technique far outweigh brute knowledge in this profession.

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