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)