The activity of interpreting

One of the things which a lot of people don’t actually know about me is that I trained as an interpreter in my twenties. I have a diploma from the University of Westminster, which, at the time, was the leading interpreting school in the United Kingdom. While I don’t interpret any more, I’m still interested in on a tangential basis and that’s why I found this article from Mosaic very interesting yesterday. I’ve always wondered about how it can be possible to carry out simultaneous interpreting even as I did it. A lot of it is practice related, and technique/strategy building. In certain respects, I found it a lot like playing music. It’s a skill you learn by doing, not so much by understanding how it works inside your mind. And yet:

The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviours.

I strongly recommend reading the piece – even aside from the whole question of interpreting, the piece brings up some interesting information in the area of the neurosciences. I wasn’t familiar with the site before now, but it had an interesting collection of science writing on it from a number of different fields in the life science sector so the interpreting piece aside, I (so far) find it a valuable resource.

One of the aspects of programming life that most software developers will talk about, in terms of getting anything done, is flow. When you’re in a zone where everything is just working together nicely, the problem solving is happening, it’s you and the code and the phone isn’t ringing. There’s a space I used to get into in interpreting – I miss it a lot – which is broadly similar; I called it the zone; I imagine other people approach it different because like most effects, it can be quite personal. I actually did an interpreting test for the first time in more than ten years last year and while it didn’t go perfectly for me, I did, in the course of practice, hit that zone a couple of times. I’d love to see what my brain activity looks like when I hit; it’s a place where you’ve to fight for nothing mentally.

There are a couple of different paths into a career as a conference interpreter. The University of Westminster cancelled the course I did a number of years ago and appear to have replaced it with an MA in Translating & Interpreting, but there appears, in Ireland, to be a course at the National University in Galway, and in the UK, there are joint translation/interpreting courses at the University of Bath, the University of Leeds, London Metropolitan University, The University of Manchester, the University of Salford and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Outside the English speaking colleges, there are options in France and Belgium at ESTI and ISTI and in Germany at Hamburg and Heidelberg (at least). These courses are postgraduate courses so fees are very obviously going to be a factor to consider.

Ultimately, the two big employers of interpreters in the world are the United Nations and the European Union institutions.

From the point of view of what you need to go down the road of interpreting, the obvious ones are a) a very strong command of your mother tongue and b) comprehensive understanding of two other languages.

You also need the ability to research and get up to speed with various different fields of expertise. The one which used to make my blood run cold during my training was any discussion of European fisheries policy as fish species in English were ongoing hassle, never mind fish species in French and German.

In many respects, it’s a career which allows you access to learn about a lot of other different areas; I’d be happy to go back. But I’d also like to look at breaking down the challenges in automating it as well and that’s a really hard problem to solve; not least because we haven’t solved machine translation very effectively either although a lot of work is happening in the area. Not because I would like to see a bunch of interpreters lose their jobs – they shouldn’t because for all that we might get actual words automatically translated, we are missing a lot of the non-verbal nuances and cultural markers that come not directly from the words themselves, but how they are used, and marked with non-verbal clues, for example. Computers don’t get irony or sarcasm.

One of the reasons I really like the Mosaic piece is that it provides some useful other references for you to carry out your own research. With respect to science writing online, this is really helpful. I have to say kudos to them.