Save The Interpreting For Last

Question: How can I be a great interpreter?

Answer: Make sure you understand what you are interpreting.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, if we begin to interpret in our target language before processing the source, it is like trying to pedal before getting on the bicycle. You won’t get very far, and you may scratch yourself in the process.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to take full advantage of the permitted review time for sight translation and read only for comprehension the first time around. Avoiding the temptation to immediately interpret in your head is both very, very hard and very, very important. And yet, the logic is indisputable; how can you state in a second language what you have not figured out in the first?

The problem tends to be that most interpreters don’t realize they have misunderstood a phrase or overlooked its grammatical nuances until they have already begun interpreting. Unfortunately, it is very easy to plunge straight in, interpreting words instead of ideas. Thus when interpreting, “The Division of Youth and Family Services’ decision last month” we stutter, “The division of youth and family serv…of services of youth and family…the decision of the division of…” We do this because we have forgotten about disparate syntax; in Spanish, for example, we must begin all the way at the end to rephrase the sentence: literally, “last month’s decision of the division of services for youth and family…” Unfortunately our tendency is to plunge right in, then backtrack, then correct ourselves and backtrack again, garbling the interpretation and sacrificing scoring units (in the case of a test) or meaning (in real life). To push the metaphor: Beginning our interpretation on the first word is like getting on the bike before opening the garage door.

The beauty is that we are given a chance to correct for this in the form of review time in sight translation, décalage in simultaneous, and note-taking/listening in consecutive. With sight translation, we are afforded the opportunity to review first, then interpret slowly while scanning ahead to interpret the phrase correctly in one go. In simultaneous, we can use the existence of a proper noun and the possibility of a possessive to trigger our wait time, lagging behind until we know when and what to begin interpreting. And of course with consecutive, we get to hear the whole thing before we start, and if we have listened carefully, our work becomes easy.

So the old maxim, “think before you speak” isn’t just for kids, but interpreters, too. On a test, there is simply no reason to sacrifice the precious review time allotted for sight translation. Your interpretation time begins when you start speaking, so why not wait to open your mouth? Read for comprehension and then spend some time trouble-shooting before you start.  In real life, attorneys regularly request time to review their notes, and so may we for our sight translations. Simultaneous and consecutive are not so forgiving, but the same theory applies: You must understand what is being said before you interpret it. Hone your décalage skills in simultaneous and record yourself to make sure that you are not only capturing words, but that you are stringing words together in a coherent way. And with consecutive, train your ear and your hand to listen and record, and don’t allow your desperation to remember how to say a given word in the target language overpower your ability to listen carefully to the source.

These are skills that must be trained, and with the proper motivation, a pen, pad, and recording device, it can be done. Just treat yourself as you would treat your child: before pedaling the bike, he has to learn how and where to get on. So before you interpret, focus on understanding. You’ll be doing yourself and your listeners a favor.

5 Comments
  • Barbara Derthick
    Posted at 15:53h, 24 April Reply

    Very well said!!

  • Andrea
    Posted at 12:01h, 25 April Reply

    Indeed, décalage is an important strategy for simultaneous interpreting

  • Alicia
    Posted at 12:28h, 25 April Reply

    What is décalage?

    • Alix
      Posted at 02:35h, 27 April Reply

      Decalage ( in simultaneous interpretation) : the time difference between what the speaker says and its reproduction by the interpreter in the target language.

  • James Plunkett
    Posted at 12:00h, 29 April Reply

    I had fun reading your post, Athena. The illustrations and points were on the mark. Thank you for reminding us about the importance of taking our time to comprehend the message before we present it in the other language.

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