Less Is More: What a 17th Century Mathematician Can Teach 21st Century Interpreters

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead[1]. So said Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Christian philosopher in a letter to a friend in December 1656.[2]

The quote, often misattributed to Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, encapsulates two truths that are typically very difficult to attain: the idea that less is more, and how hard it is to actually achieve that state.

Less is more is a mantra that has come to dominate my work as a public speaker, teacher and trainer, and court and community interpreter. Disparate though these activities may seem, I have come to realize that the more effective I am in not just capturing information, but distilling it down to its core message, the better speaker, teacher, and interpreter I am.

This year I was honored to be part of a lightning talks panel on the state of interpreting that the American Translators Association organized for their 53rd annual conference in San Diego.[3] When the call comes and you are asked to say something relevant in 5 minutes, several thoughts go through your mind: The first is, what on earth can I say about the state of our profession in 300 seconds that will catch an audience’s attention and be relevant? The second is how on earth can I express that message so that it is meaningful? After all, I’m an interpreter. My job is to produce words, not limit them to a strict diet of 5 minutes.

Yet as the wild popularity of the the TED and TEDx conferences, which use the lightning talk format exclusively, shows, the ability to cut to the chase is rare and highly-valued. Why? Wouldn’t we benefit more from the detailed information these distinguished speakers could surely share?

I believe that answer lies in the power of simplicity to produce understanding. We are all familiar with idioms that use minimal words to capture core truths about humanity.  “Every wall is a door,” “practice makes perfect,” or “nothing ventured, nothing gained” are good examples of how profound concepts can be expressed with short, simple phrasing.

As I struggled to put together my 5-minute lightning talk on Branding the Interpreting Profession, I realized that distilling a message down to its essence is not just the hallmark of a good public speaker, it is both a fundamental task of good teaching, as well as core function that all interpreters endeavor to achieve day in and day out. Simplicity in both leads to better and more lasting understanding.

When I design workshops and classes, less is more, less is more, less is more,  is the mantra I chant to myself non-stop. How can I get participants to walk out of a 50-minute note-taking or simul workshop having grasped the fundamental purpose of these skills, with a clear, realistic plan to improve them? Better yet, what do I need to do to ensure they will remember what they learned 1 week, 1 month, 1 year after the fact?

My head says I can’t possibly cut out lecture notes on Rozan’s note-taking method[4], but my heart insists that sticking to one or two core messages will get me closer to my goal. I want the participants to walk out of the workshop fired up with enthusiasm and the certainty that they, too, will soon be scribbling down cryptic symbols and abbreviations that will allow them to render what they interpret into flawless, idiomatic language for the person they are interpreting for. If the information I may initially think is critical does not actually support that goal, I have learned to leave it on the cutting room floor.

Despite that focus for my speaking and teaching activities, it was only recently that the light bulb went on and I realized that “less is more” is equally true for interpreting itself.

After all, what are we doing over and over but hearing a message in the original language and taking a moment to distill its essence, transfer the core, and then render it in as close to the perfect paraphrase in the target language as we can?

Now, hey, wait a minute, you might say. It’s our job to render everything that’s said accurately and completely. If the speaker rambles, we ramble. No matter how much we distill, we still have to capture all the nuances. How on earth does “less is more” apply in that case?

But I would argue that it does apply. It’s the difference between verbatim translation and accurate interpreting. If I stay right behind the judge when he reads his verdict, I may capture everything, but express little of significance. Likewise, if I parrot the defendant’s testimony without truly absorbing the meaning of everything s/he says, I may produce a technically correct interpretation, but leave understanding on the side of the road. I would be expressing the meaning of individual words, not the true essence of the message communicated by those words when taken as a whole.

Twice a month on Interpreter Day, (and yes, cases really are assigned accordingly), I have the opportunity to interpret in my local Superior Court in preparation for taking court interpreter certification exams. As the “less is more” mantra slowly expands from my public speaking and teaching to my interpreting, I find myself sitting back with less tension, listening a bit longer to the judge before starting my simultaneous rendition, and trusting my notes when the defendant takes a while to tell his side of the story. Sometimes, when I get into “the zone,” pure distilled meaning flows from my lips and I catch a glimpse of the beauty, and ultimately, the precision simplicity can achieve in my quest for full and complete communication.


Next June, at the 4th InterpretAmerica Summit, we are inaugurating Interpret-ED, a session with 5-10 minutes quick talks on the important, inspiring and controversial topics that touch all of us as in the interpreting field. If you have something compelling to share, consider distilling your insight to its core and submitting a proposal to become an Interpret-ED speaker! www.interpretamerica.net/summit4


[1] http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=177502

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal#Legacy

[3] http://atanet.org/conf/2012/byspecial.php#TIP-1

[4] http://interpreters.free.fr/consecnotes/rozan.htm

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