When Your Brain Splits in Two

Did you know humans can’t actually multi-task? We are capable of lightning concentration if we try, and we can quickly shift focus if we practice. But we can’t actually do two things at once. When we interpret simultaneously, for example, we listen. Then we process. Then we speak. Then we listen. Then we process. Then we speak. Then we… etc.

Like a juggler who starts with one ball then adds a second and a third, we can direct our attention to precise elements and then switch, very quickly. Until we miss something, of course, and the balls start falling to the floor.

I’m not here to reinvent scientific explanations, and papers have already been written on the topic. However, a little bit of practical understanding of the magic of our brains can help us to maximize our interpreting abilities.

I have a trick to demonstrate this. Try interpreting something. You can perform the exercise in any mode: consecutive, simultaneous, or sight translation. If you’re performing consecutive, you should listen and take notes. If you’ve picked sight translation or simultaneous, just dive in. Interpret. Do the best you can.

Done? Good. Now, I want you to do something else. This time, cut out the interpreting. If you had audio input, just listen. If you were sight translating a document, just read.

Okay. You did it. What happened?

The trick never fails. The second time through, when you listen just for listening’s sake, or you read simply to understand… the content makes more sense. We capture more nuance. Our comprehension goes up.

It has to, of course. Before, your energy was split. Your brain has a finite amount of energy and attention, and when you are interpreting, it is split. This is important because it means that when we are interpreting, we cannot listen at 100%. A portion of our brain has to process and speak, too. So maybe we can devote only 60% to listening. That means 20% is processing and 20% is speaking, so no wonder we say ridiculous things when we are interpreting. (The fancy name to explain that phenomenon is booth brain.)

The point is, interpreting is like running with weights on your ankles. It’s harder, and your legs won’t work as well until you build the muscle.

The conclusion? Well, if we are aware of our split attention, we can control it. When I interpret from Spanish to my native language of English, I purposely put more energy into comprehension because that will be more challenging. Alternatively, when I interpret into Spanish, I focus more energy on my output because speaking in Spanish is harder for me than listening in English.

The other thing is that since we cannot listen at 100% while we are interpreting, we have to make sure that our diminished capacity is still darn good. That means practicing listening. I’m serious. We take listening for granted, as though all listeners were made equal, but let me tell you: We were not made equal. And your 60% has to look like someone else’s 100%. That means devoting time just to listening comprehension. You want to level up your listening skills so that when you interpret, you keep that listening-for-listening’s-sake ability to capture nuance.

Then, don’t forget output! You have to also spend time learning to speak clearly and confidently.

The important thing here is that we separate the elements. Get used to one ball. Then you can start juggling with more.

I encounter a lot of resistance when I ask my students to perform shadowing, paraphrasing, and dual-task exercises. I encounter even more resistance when I tell them to practice reading aloud, to work on reading and listening comprehension, or to create their own speeches. People tend to think that that’s not helpful. So instead, they repeat the same mistakes, with different materials, over and over again. Then they get mad when their interpreting skills don’t improve.

The moral of the story? Our brain splits in two when we interpret. Sometimes into three or four. So we have to maximize each piece of our brain as best we can and create the ideal circumstances for success. We must isolate the different elements of interpreting and practice accordingly.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it, and see what you think!


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

Main photo by geralt from Pixabay. Body photo also by geralt from Pixabay.

7 Comments
  • Vicki Santamaria
    Posted at 12:17h, 31 January Reply

    Athena,

    Besides the shadowing, paraphrasing was one of the most useful techniques I was taught in interp school.

    I also found that my time on my high school speech team had helped me be a better speaker because naturally I’m very soft-spoken.

    You must be a dynamite teacher!

    • Athena
      Posted at 21:13h, 23 February Reply

      Thank you, that’s so sweet to say. That’s so cool you had a speech team…that must have been fun 🙂

  • Nicholas J Zacherl
    Posted at 18:01h, 31 January Reply

    Absolutely! Great article! It has long been clear that we need to do things quickly and cannot actually multitask some activities. Predictive knowledge and repeating the muscle memory of certain neural pathways mean that preparation and background knowledge acquisition can really help us to make the tasks that we need to conduct as lightning fast as possible. It’s really about being faster than what we’re asked to do 🙂 wonderful example though!

    • Athena
      Posted at 21:14h, 23 February Reply

      That’s very true. We’re not in two places at once…we’re just racing back and forth REALLY fast!

  • Sam Martin
    Posted at 21:47h, 31 January Reply

    What a delightfully-written article, Athena! It draws us in with a question, keeps our attention with a juggling visual, then throws in words like “magic” and “I have a trick to demonstrate this.” By now, we’re hooked. And to top it all off, there’s real substance behind the “trick”–it shows and clarifies in an entertaining way and leads smoothly to the lesson of the article: that smart practice is essential to good interpreting. Thanks, yet again, for this always-important reminder–for interpreters of all “ages”.

    • Athena
      Posted at 21:15h, 23 February Reply

      Awww thank you for the kind, specific feedback on my writing. It’s fun to nerd out in print.

  • Tam Marion
    Posted at 07:46h, 21 April Reply

    “I fell in love …” with this article. Thank you for enlightening me.
    Now the hard work begins, and your knowledge sharing really matters.

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