The Power of the Inflected Voice

            We hardly pay attention to the way in which we say things, but we certainly know intuitively that we should raise our volume when we want to emphasize something, or lower it when our intention is a bit more secretive or intimate. We know to slow down when we think our listener is not understanding, or to rush when we think someone is trying to interrupt our train of thought. Seldom do we speak without some sort of inflection in our voice, be it to make a forceful statement, to ask a question, to show surprise or delight, or disgust. Yet, when we interpret, we sometimes forget to include those inflections in our voice as we render someone else’s words.

            Modulating our voice not only makes it more pleasant for our listeners, but also contributes to the accuracy of our renditions. For example, if a witness were to say “I was not carrying that gun!”—stressing the “I”—everyone would understand that statement to mean “someone else was carrying it, not me.” On the other hand, if he were to say “I was not carrying that gun!”—stressing the word “that”—then the message would be quite different, more along the lines of “I may have been carrying something, but it was not that gun.” If the witness stressed the word “not”, instead, he could mean he had the gun in his pants pocket but was not actually carrying it in his hand. So you see, voice inflection can have a great impact on the message we convey and what the fact finders will weigh in order to assess credibility or arrive at a verdict.

            The human voice can convey emotions without actual words, and as interpreters we cannot always reproduce those nonverbal elements, such as when someone sobs, or laughs; but we can change the pitch of our voice so it is softer when someone cries while testifying, rather than using a shrill—and incongruent—pitch. The pitch of our voices is created through vibrations of the vocal folds. The rate at which these folds vibrate changes the way our voices sound, with faster rates resulting in higher pitches. Imagine a very angry female witness telling the opposing side’s attorney, “You are not understanding me!” in what will sound to you, the interpreter, like a desperate cry. Now think of yourself conveying those same words in a low husky voice. That simple change in the way we use our voice may have jurors perceiving a completely different message from a pleading or submissive witness as opposed to an irritated or overbearing one.

            Voice inflections can convey politeness, respect, boredom, sarcasm, disbelief, pity, gratitude, and just about any attitude humans can have when addressing each other. We as interpreters also have to be very careful not to insert our own attitudes towards a witness or a case in our voice inflections when we are interpreting, or to overdo what comes across so it sounds aberrant or artificial.

            When we perform, in the broadest sense of the word, we actually have to be really good actors. Think soap opera, rather than newscast. An article in the webpage of The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts defines acting in a way that could very well be applied to interpreters (just substitute “camera” for “courtroom” and… voilá!): “Actors are able to delve into the roles they play as though putting on the suit of another person’s body. When they appear in front of the camera, they are not acting the characteristics of that person, they are that person.”

            When an interpreter “becomes” the person for whom he or she is interpreting, it is easier to place the right inflection in the voice during the target language delivery. It has been my experience that this, in turn, helps with the short-term memory retention in the consecutive mode, because we are not thinking of words in isolation; we are thinking of the message as a whole.  In the simultaneous mode it helps us anticipate where the speaker is going with the overall discursive thread, and I have found that engaging in this holistic type of performance I can stay focused much longer while retaining a high degree of accuracy. Plus, it is a lot more fun to render target language equivalencies with the proper voice inflection than with a monotone delivery.


15 thoughts on “The Power of the Inflected Voice”

  1. Maria Ceballos-Wallis says:

    Timely blog! Thank you, Janis! It is so important that interpreters monitor the inflection in their voice to present a complete rendition.

    I find the biggest challenge in balancing inflection with all the other requirements of the craft occurs during witness testimony when you have to switch between two or more parties and adopt their ‘personas’ in rapid fire succession. A few months back I took a sketch comedy improv class, precisely to develop more fluidity in this area. Not only was it fun, but it made me work with creative side of my brain in an environment which I normally associate with analysis and logic.

  2. Janis Palma says:

    You are absolutely right, María. And that is so cool that you took that improv class. I’ll bet it has already helped you with your performance!

  3. Pura Reyes says:

    Excellent blog! A few years ago I attended a lecture at the University of Puerto Rico on neuroscience. The speaker was dynamic and fun and spontaneous, but the interpreter spoke in such a monotone and with such a tired look on his face that it ruined the doctor’s fascinating talk and delivery. It was a lesson I learned well that day. Inflection, tone, pitch, and volume add so much to making the translation one that faithfully interprets saying and meaning.

  4. Janis Palma says:

    I am so glad to hear about your experience, Pura. Not because of the monotonous (and boring) interpreter, but because you were able to take something positive from that and use it to become a much better interpreter yourself! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Konnie Garrido says:

    Janis, excellent blog. Thank you – a must read for all newbies to the interpreting profession!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Konnie! I really do appreciate your comments. I hope newbies, as you say, read it too.

  6. James Plunkett says:

    Janis, a basic but crucial topic that will help beginning and advanced interpreters alike. Thank you so much. I especially noted what you said about the tone helping one better remember the testimony given for the consecutive interpretation. Could you comment, on a related topic, on the opinion some colleagues have about replicating the witness’s tones? For example, an aggressive and angry husband blaming a wife for something during a divorce hearing, or a defendant disrespectfully raising his voice to the Court? Un abrazo.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, James! I do believe we somehow have to convey that anger or aggressiveness, or whatever attitude is coming across through voice inflection, so the source language speaker’s intent in his or her tone of voice is not lost, but not to the extreme that it becomes almost farcical and therefore distracting for the listeners. I always think in terms of a language completely unfamiliar to me, like Russian or Mandarin. I would have no idea what the tone of voice would mean when used by a speaker of one of those languages, therefore I would have to rely on the interpreter to convey it so I can fully understand what the speaker of that language means to tell me. Otherwise, I’ve lost that portion of the message.

      If a defendant yells an insult at the judge because he did not like the sentence imposed (and it has happened), the interpreter cannot simply utter the insult without inflection. And yet, it would sound like a mockery if the interpreter were to yell at the judge as well. It is a delicate balancing act, but we encounter situations every day that require an instant judgment call; this is just one more of those, in my opinion.

      Un fuerte abrazo para ti también.

  7. Hal Sillers says:

    Great insight, Janis. You are absolutely correct inflection does help short term memory in consecutive mode as well as helping convey meaning in simultaneous mode. One must take care not to “overdo,” but raising an lowering the voice, pausing appropriately, changing tone and other techniques, all add to the fluidity and validity of the interpreter’s rendition.

    I once worked for a judge who was very good at reprimanding juvenile defendants, and it was a bit of a challenge to follow the change-ups he employed in his admonitions. He seldom raised his voice when on the bench and he was very logical, straight forward and deliberate in his manner of speaking,in other words, easy for an interpreter to follow. He could move, however, from praising, to cajoling, to counseling, to impatience, to graciousness, turn on a dime and then warn juvenile in no uncertain terms about where he was headed if he did not start taking responsibility for himself/herself and his/her actions. He sometimes said that he would watch the face of the parents as they listened to the simultaneous interpretation through headphone, in order to gauge whether or not he was creating the desired effect and getting his point across. I probably should not say that it was fun to interpret for him when he scolded a juvenile or took the parents to task, but it was… and it was very good practice.

    Thank you for an excellent blog, Janis


  8. Janis Palma says:

    Hal, I have a judge just like that too! And it is very rewarding (okay, let’s not say “fun”) to be able to convey such a broad range of attitudes: compassion, impatience, understanding, intolerance, fatherly advice or reprimand, etc. In my case, I am the one who watches the face of the defendant to make sure I am getting through exactly as the judge wants to get across. It keeps me on my toes and definitely breaks the monotony of repetitive proceedings, like revocations and sentencing hearings.

    And thanks for the validation. It’s good to know other interpreters find that incorporating voice inflections helps with retention and accuracy.

  9. Edna says:

    I enjoyed your post very much although rather than seeing interpreters as actors, who depend so much on facial expressions and body language, I think of interpreters more in terms of a good narrator (such as the ones we listen to in NPR broadcasts).

    A good narrator uses a loud and clear voice and an interpreter like a good narrator, also has to use emotion, but be able to use it under complete control. The interpreter or narrator uses emotion as a tool; the emotion does not control the interpreter.

    And thankfully we take notes, otherwise the temptation to use our hands more would be overwhelming!
    Thank you Janis for reminding us that style and content go hand in hand in our renditions.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      That is a very interesting comparison, Edna! Thinking of yourself as a dramatic narrator (we don’t want to be like a sports narrator, which comes to mind now with the FIFA World Cup) no doubt makes you focus on your voice and nothing else, so it should reduce the natural tendency to use hand movements and facial expressions to “complete” the message. Thank you for that feedback, Edna. I am so glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Hi, Janis!
    One mode of interpreting where voice inflection didn’t come so naturally to me was the simultaneous mode (when interpreting proceedings in a low voice). I was on-the-job trained to use whispering (which I soon discovered kills the vocal cords) but once had a defendant who, despite full-blast volume amplifier equipment, couldn’t hear me if I whispered. All the parties and the jury had to learn to tune me out as I proceeded to interpret the trial in a low voice rather than whisper into the mic. It worked, and I’ve never gone back to whispering. I noticed that I was able to use inflection to my advantage when I spoke low, whereas with whispering I couldn’t make it happen.

    One other note is that inflection can also help differentiate between speakers. Although I do my darndest to pause ever so slightly when interpreting English testimony when going between speakers, sometimes using slight changes in my voice can help the listener differentiate.

    For sure, in good old fashioned into English interpreting, I enjoy using my voice inflections to “become” the speaker (although less dramatic, of course). The biggest compliment is when the parties are impacted by a witness testifying in Spanish with a ‘tude and they “hear” the ‘tude from my rendition. Very satisfying day.

    Thanks again!

  11. Janis Palma says:

    Hi Jen:

    Great feedback! There may be some interpreters reading this who still whisper (yes, it does “kill” your vocal chords!) rather than speak in a very low volume.

    I have also heard of other interpreters who try to change their voice inflections just a bit to help the listeners differentiate one speaker from another. Sometimes this is not possible, but it’s really great if you can do it.

    I think “good old fashioned into English interpreting” is the greatest challenge for all of us, and by using voice inflection consciously it can become an exercise in self-improvement every time we have to engage in consecutive interpreting. Yeah, let’s give ‘em ‘tude!! 😉

  12. Athena Matilsky says:

    Very insightful! I was on a trial once with another interpreter whose renditions sounded so snippy. Although she was faithfully interpreting the content, her tone made all the witness’s answers sound sarcastic. In retrospect, as her partner I should have talked to her about this, but it sounds so much more subjective to say, “your tone is off” rather than “plaintiff said X, and you interpreted Y.” Add the power dynamic of her being on staff and me working freelance, and I kept my mouth shut. In my own work, I try to get an overall idea of a litigant or judge’s demeanor, register and tone, and then replicate it as best I can but not to the point where it seems I am mocking them. This is way easier said than done.

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