About Interpreting

Some people seem to be envious that interpreters had a chance to learn two languages and can do the job easily now. Of course, you have to be fluent in both languages, but I don't think that is the biggest part of their job.

First, forget about the second language and think about your mother tongue. Imagine you have to sit between your boss and your client all day long and repeat everything they say. They are talking among themselves and not paying attention to you but you still have to repeat their every word. They would only look at you when you stumbled. --- I think it's a tough job.

Suppose someone is very fluent in two languages and has no trouble living in either country. What are the chances he or she knows the words for pancreaticojejunostomy," "polymorphism" or piezometric head line" in both languages? Interpreters go to meetings and conferences in all various industries and they have to prepare themselves by learning the terminology for the specific field. It's like cramming for a college exam.

However, that is the story for interpreters of two very different languages like English and Japanese. It must be much easier to interpret between two similar European languages, for instance. As for pancreaticojejunostomy (I learned it from the TV drama ER :) ), I'm pretty sure the French word is something like "pancreaticojejunostomie." I heard some European interpreters do things like knitting while they are at work.

There are two styles of interpretation. Simultaneous interpretation is the case the speaker keeps on talking without a break while the interpreter translates at the same time. Consecutive interpretation is where the speaker and the interpreter take turns saying and interpreting a few sentences each time. Simultaneous interpretation is often preferred for a speech or a presentation. The interpreters usually sit in a booth and the listeners wear a wireless receiver. If that setup is not available, the interpreter needs to sit close to the listeners (it's called "whispering"). Consecutive interpretation obviously requires twice the time but the language will be more accurate. It is preferred for business negotiations.

If you speak two languages and if you haven't tried, you will be surprised to see how well you can do the simultaneous interpretation like a pro. Just pick up a relatively slow-paced speech (like the ones by the Presidential candidates :) ) and translate every phrase for a few minutes. If you try it again next day, you might find yourself getting even better. What makes professional interpreters different is the abilities to guess the meaning when the word is unknown or the speaker is not clear, and to catch up when they are lagging behind. In the case of consecutive interpreting, remembering what the speaker just said (retention) is also a needed skill.

By the way, interpreter refers to someone who does oral translation. A translator usually translates books and other written documents. We are glad that the movie The Interpreter gave more recognition to the name of the profession, even though the story mostly wasn't about the job.