If you've ever seen the famous 'Who's on First' skit between Abbot and Costello, you might have noticed how quickly they go back and forth (check out 01:39-2:06).
Other times, interpreted discourse happens in sequence, like with consecutive interpretation. In the sequential version of interpretation, the interpreter and speaker must coordinate the stopping and starting of speaking. Done poorly, the speaker and interpreter speak over-top one another. On the other extreme, neither person talks, and the conversation's flow breaks down.
An analogy is two people trying to get through a door at the same time. If they both go through together, they end up smashing into one another and no one gets through. If they both wait to go, no one gets through just the same. People are normally pretty good at getting through doors in situations like this, because of social conventions: think of the 'lady's first' concept.
Experienced interpreters have suggested that new interpreters should wait a certain amount of time (between two to seven seconds in this case) to start speaking. The argument is that the interpreter needs to make sure that the speaker is absolutely finished talking before they 'take over' and start talking. Here's how that would look in sequence:
1. Speaker talks.
2. Speaker stops talking.
3. 2-7 second pause.
4. Interpreter talks...
But, is this pause really necessary? To answer that question, we can employ what academics call ‘Conversation Analysis’ to discover how an interpreter and the people they service might coordinate with one another – in a natural way. The basic concept is this: Conversations are made of pieces, called turns, where each person takes a turn speaking (just like is shown in the sequence shown above). For simplicity's sake, it's you're turn when you're speaking, and it's my turn when I'm speaking. Likewise, when one person is finished speaking, their turn stops and another person can take up a new turn.
In the interpreting world, such as at a business meeting, it's very important that each person eligible to speak (both attendees and interpreters) know when one turn can change into another turn. The shift from one person’s turn to another person’s turn is called turn transition. In consecutive interpretation mode, interpreters are always involved in turn transition, either as someone releasing a turn, or taking up a new turn. Here’s that previous example, in light of all this new lingo, where the interpreter takes up a turn.
1. Speaker talks (speaker's turn)
2. Speaker stops talking. (turn transition)
3. 2-7 second pause. (nobody’s turn)
4. Interpreter talking (interpreter’s turn)
This sequence is really weird. Try it yourself! Go find your best friend and talk to them. In the middle of the conversation, just pause for two-seven seconds after they finish speaking. I GUARANTEE it will feel like the world has stopped, and they will be wondering "What's wrong???” The reason for this is that such pauses almost never happen in conversation (such pauses are typically maxed out at 1 second). When they do, they clearly indicate what linguists so eloquently call 'trouble'. When such a problem arises, the common social rule is to try to identify and then correct it. The goal of the conversation has suddenly changed from talking about the weather to identifying what the problem is.
Interpreters that follow bad advice, like extended pauses, likewise indicate to everyone present that there is some kind of trouble. Put yourself in the speaker's shoes, and think about what you might assume the trouble is. If I were to be in such a situation, I would automatically assume that the trouble is that the interpreter is having trouble interpreting.
Extended pauses in conversation may redirect the topic of conversation. Interpreters should not be the cause of redirection.
How should an interpreter know when to take up their turn? That's easy! You do it all the time. Go have a conversation with your best friend again. About half way through, think to yourself about how you know when to start speaking. It just happens, right?
Academics have identified several strategies for understanding when a turn may be coming to completion, such as the following: syntactic completion (a whole concept has been presented, such as happens in written language when you see a period at the end of a sentence), intonation change (a speaker's tone might go down when a statement has been completed, or up for a question), speed change (a speaker uses one rhythm continually when speaking and then suddenly shifts into a lower or higher speed to complete their turn), and actual words that indicate completion (someone says: "I will not do it - period").
There is a cornucopia of ways in which we understand that a speaker is finished talking, and these are already intuitively built in to your everyday skills used in conversation. As an interpreter, I rely on these strategies, plus one interpreting-specific strategy that’s based on body language. When writing notes (and listening to the speaker), I look at my notepad and position my head down. When I notice the speaker completing their turn (using the indicators above), I change my body position so that when the turn ends, I have completed my note-taking - my head is positioned up - and my eyes gaze around at the audience and my notes. This position is maintained throughout my turn. When I subsequently release my turn, I switch back to the first position. These visual cues are consistently used throughout the session, and quickly become understood by everyone present.
Interpreters should render, rather than redirect, discourse in the other language.
Michael Grez, co-founder of Intran Solutions. He is a linguist specializing in interactional theories of communication.
Tian Huang, co-founder of Intran Solutions. She provides conference interpretation and translation between Chinese and English.
(picture courtesy of erfan a. setiawan)
A few months back, some soon-to-be interpreting/translation MA graduates asked me a question at the end of a presentation: How do you get gigs? Stumbling around my words, I realized it seems like they come from almost anywhere. Here’s a more focused light on that subject.
Faced with this same question as I started out, I initially broadsided agencies with emails and waited…and waited. Things started moving as soon as I began expanding my efforts, so that several ways, or what I’ll call flows (described below) appeared. The distinction between doing things like emailing and doing other things (like making a website) is subtle but also necessary, especially in the beginning stages of a freelancing career.
How flow works
From beginning to end, each gig has its own flow. By this, I mean that there is a sequence of actions that people take, which eventually ends in actual interpreting or translating work being done. That’s really academic sounding, so here’s a classic example, where I (peekaboo!) had a friend who needed work done. We agreed on the terms (price, timeline, etc.), and work was done.
But soon enough, if you’re like me, that personal network gets exhausted. This is where I adapted beyond my personal networks and email strategy. Two types of flow appeared and became apparent.
Pre-fab (Pre-fabricated) flow
This is the network that you’ve already got. All it needs is a little polish. Turns out that I had been developing this all along while in a previous life and during school – professors, visiting lecturers, past and present personal friends, etc. All I had to do was…
To start with, I reoriented how I engaged with online social platforms, like WeChat, and LinkedIn. Then some amazing flows happened, like this:
(Tian has an alumna, that has a friend, that works with a company…)
This is one of my longest flows. It shows that there are five individuals involved. All I needed to get it started was to know an alumna that believed in me. From there, the rest of the flow did the work, as I was introduced to each party down the chain. I made sure that the work done was par excellence, and hopefully now I’ve got four new flows from this one gig.
So, pre-fab flow is great, but it’s even greater when it builds upon itself to create new sources of flow. Other resources, like association memberships and a website can act as a way for freelancers like us to create our own new opportunities. Here are two actions (making my website and becoming a member of a T/I association) that I’ve taken, and actual flows coming out of those efforts.
The point here is simple: Flow is where work comes from. It starts by vacuuming you up into a process that connects you with other people, and ends in work being done. Pre-fab networks do this automatically and with little effort, because all the pieces are already in place—all you need to do is to make yourself available and trustworthy. Fab flows are only available once you make/do something new, like a website, conference, association membership, etc. Early career freelancers should be open to opportunities offered by all types of flow, and therefore open to interacting with as many valuable collaborators as possible.
We imagine that as new freelancers graduate to a more experienced career-stage, certain flows become more valuable than others. So, only valuable flow-types will be developed, and other types will fall by the way side. Any thoughts on this?
Time to go with the flow! (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)
Image (top): Ben Gray
This is one of the most common questions that interpreters get from clients. It’s even one that some interpreters themselves can be unsure about how to answer…and that is really weird. If we switch the words around a bit to, say, law, we don’t see such confusion. Do I need a lawyer or a person who knows about law? There are seemingly obvious times when someone would need a lawyer, and other times when paying for such professional services are overkill. The same goes for almost any professional service industry, like dentistry or even auto mechanics.
Here’s our guideline. You need an interpreter when the message is bigger than yourself. If this seems a bit vague, allow me a moment to unpack that a bit.
Start with bilinguals
There are lots of them. Some speak their second language so well that it’s hard to tell that they’re not a native-speaker. Others are bilingual only in certain situations, like buying coffee or taking a taxi. So, there’s all kinds of bilinguals, but the one thing they all share is a sense that they can, in fact, communicate in their second language.
All interpreters are bilinguals, but they do something different than bilinguals do… Interpreters speak for others only when other people/organizations/institutions speak together.
Are bilinguals and interpreters different?
Describe your best friend in two words. You could say anything, right? When I asked myself this question, I came up with words like ‘happy’ and ‘smart’. Now, do the same thing, but look at your best friend in a mirror while you do it. What comes to your mind now? Probably words based on what you can see in the mirror. For me, different words came to mind, like ‘bearded’, or ‘smiling’. Bilinguals speak like we all do - from the self-perspective (without the mirror). Interpreters interpret from the other-perspective (with the mirror).
Interpreters are bilinguals, but never both at the same time. I am a bilingual when I decide what to say. I am an interpreter when you decide what I say. As such, interpreters put aside all of their emotions and thoughts on what and who’s being spoken about, and interpret according to their functional role.
But what’s all this about the message being bigger than yourself? Most interpreting involves some kind of organization or institution. On one-end of the scale, there might be two governments communicating to each other across their respective languages. On the other end, there might be an individual and institution speaking together, such as happens in a court room or hospital.
The message is bigger than any person when there’s this white elephant in the room, called the institution. It’s not just two friends sitting down and having a chat. The message becomes bigger when a judge and defendant speak, because those people are part of what goes on in a courtroom – and so an interpreter is needed. Take the judge and the defendant outside and put them by the backyard pool talking shop – no interpreter might be needed (but perhaps a bilingual is!). Same goes for doctors and patients. Same goes for bilateral trade negotiators.
Use an interpreter when the message is bigger than you and the person you are speaking with.
Those of us in the translation industry know that getting an ATA certification is the gold standard in the US. For years, there has been discussion about putting the certification test on a computer, where we all naturally do our translation work.
In early April, this year (2016), I had a chance to sit for this new computer-based test. Overall, it was a good experience. I feel that I’ve got as much of a fighting chance to pass as my peers who take the written test. Still, there are some important differences that I’ll mention in this post. Feel free to consider them, as long as you keep in mind that these are my own anecdotal experiences and insights – in no way promoting or representing any organization’s views.
Why did I choose to take the computer-based test?
I didn’t even consider the computer-based test until successfully passing the practice test and looking seriously at dates and places for the certification test. I had heard about it through my local ATA chapter, NCATA, but it became a real consideration by being one of the earliest locally scheduled tests in 2016.
Consideration meant spending some time thinking about the risks that might exist in taking any new-format test, and that I would have to go all the way to Charlotte, NC (I live in DC). It turns out that CATI (Carolina Association of Translators & Interpreters) was having their annual meeting the day before the test. Since I had met some new friends at last year’s ATA Conference in Miami, this provided a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with ‘old’ friends and take the test. 2 birds one stone.
The ‘newness’ factor was the real issue, because of two things. First, I thought about the possibility that this test might not be tested in an equivalent manner to the written version. In my language pair, English to Chinese, the passing rate is at a little more than 13%. Numbers like that make me nervous as it is, and the thought that the numbers might be different for the computer version compound that feeling. The other issue was the possibility of some sort of technical hiccup occurring before or during the exam. It helped that they had a backup plan, where a written test could be done in lieu of the computer version.
Were there any surprises during the test?
Some, but not really anything huge. All in all, it was pretty simple. Go in the room. Sit down. Listen to instructions. Work, Look at the clock. Work. Instead of ending the test by putting down your pencil you save your content. To be sure, there were things to do and deal with that don’t happen in my normal working environment.
Interface: The interface I worked with during the test was different in some ways to the kind of environment I normally work in on Trados, Word, etc. These issues could be somewhat tedious at times, in that it could take an extra few steps to write/save text. Still, there were not many of these types of issues and they were clearly explained in the orientation before the test began.
References: Allowable references include printed materials brought to the test (20lb dictionaries that I haven’t used since high school) and ‘non-interactive’ online resources. This meant that about 98% of my references were sourced online, with only a few select terms being sourced from the booster seat dictionaries.
Time: I thought that one clear advantage of using a QWERTY keyboard and computer interface would be that I could type faster than I write, that my hand and wrist wouldn’t fatigue, and that I could delete information quickly and easily. These all turned out to be true, but I still found the test to take the fully allotted time. I wonder, in contrast, how my translation technique would be different on the written version.
Tests of this ilk, and the professionals who take them, are in a rough spot. Tests need to have certain qualities (they should be comparable, measurable etc.), and so ATA has chosen to time their tests. Perhaps one of the biggest issues with this is the unit/quality problem. Translators don’t typically charge by the hour (time), but instead charge by the word. Quality should mean getting the right translation, not necessarily an expeditious translation. A better test, taken in a utopian world, would reflect this.
Still, the computer-based test seems to be a clear step in the right direction. As someone who, while taking the practice exam, relived painful childhood memories of writing out countless Chinese characters, I certainly appreciate the capabilities offered by the more familiar and comfortable keyboard on the certification exam.
As a novice interpreter, I’ve been aimed at getting conference assignments since Day 1. I’ve always remembered how inspired I was at hearing seasoned conference interpreters’ anecdotes about interpreting for heads of states or among the first people to have witnessed a historic moment. I want to be one of those successful conference interpreters!
However, the path leading to the successful conference interpreters’ club is not easy. Since I’m still awaiting for the State Department’s interpreting exam results, I have had to take on some community interpreting assignments. This is where I began to have a much deeper understanding of social responsibility.
All my Chinese-speaking community interpreting clients are first generation immigrants, speaking very little English. They can only communicate with English-speaking social workers, nurses or dentists via the interpreter. In situations like this, both parties (the client and the care-provider) give their wholehearted trust to the interpreter, expecting him or her to deliver quality meaning. It also means that the client's’ lack of local-language skills could easily have themselves be the ultimate victim of poor quality interpretation and/or professionalism.
A few months back, a client told me about one such experience. Their interpreter had suggested that the client not follow a court-order, because ‘no one would find out’. Sure enough, someone did. The client ended up paying the price. I still remember my shock at hearing such lack of professionalism.
A few weeks ago, an elderly client expressed thanks at me for not scolding her for using her cane incorrectly in a demonstration to the nurse. Apparently, a prior interpreter had done just this.
Incidents like this help me realize, regardless of significant payment disparity, community interpreting is not inferior in comparison to conference interpreting. Interpreting in a conference setting makes me feel important, because I could be the voice of a reputable political figure or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. However, community interpretation provides me with a sense of doing something equally important, because I could be the voice of an immigrant who can’t otherwise communicate their needs and rights with a representative from the country where he or she lives.
One of my mentors is a Russian conference interpreter. She once told me, in the community of conference interpreters, everyone is aware of the risks in dumping. Community interpreting, while not offering the glitz and glamor and-quite frankly-monetary benefits of conference interpreting, is not so much an exception to this rule, but a complement to it. Classroom ethics training ticks boxes. Community interpretation engages the soul. I am very proud of be a member of this community.