In Matthew’s follow up to his ES>EN demo, he alludes to the fact that this wasn’t a “perfect rendition” of the source speech. He shares some of the factors that impacted his performance, including some very unusual working conditions: no live speaker, pure listeners, colleagues or prior knowledge of the speech or subject area (not to mention taking it on after an intensive day’s work!). He also points out, however, that while this is not the typical day-in-the-life of an interpreter, it bears some striking similarities to the situation interpreting students often find themselves in during exams, and gives ideas and coping strategies for dealing with such conditions.
That said, even under these pressures Matthew provides a coherent and credible speech that conveys the key points of the original and is consistent with the speaker’s aims and message. I would like to focus on the techniques and skills he brings into play to successfully do this in the following analysis. These thoughts on Matthew’s interpretation cover various sections. The points I will start with show that he is not a mindless word-conversion machine, but that while interpreting, Matthew is:
Firstly, we can see from the start that Matthew is considering the context of the source speech and the original speaker’s aim, in his adoption of an appropriate tone for the situation. While he has modulated his pace both for the listeners’ benefit and to make his own task more manageable, he maintains a calm but serious, communicative and authoritative tone appropriate to the needs of the setting.
This thinking aspect involves an awareness of the relative difficulty of different parts of the speech. If you spot a hazard while driving, you might speed up or slow down as appropriate, depending on the nature of the danger. This same alertness to the speech’s ‘surroundings’ is seen at one point when Matthew picks up the pace as he detects a sudden stream of information coming. Matthew himself has elsewhere described this as ‘changing gear,’ and the first step towards mastering it is fostering the intelligent analysis to know when some sort of adaption is needed (and what!).
Related to this, Matthew also adapts his approach to active listening based on what is going on in the source speech. We see him instinctively take a moment to listen more intently when he knows a list of names is coming, and again pay extra attention both to listening and to formulation of his own output when he senses the speech is winding to a close. He knows the speaker will likely render his final words with special force and emphasis, employing additional rhetoric and persuasive language for the close of the message…and that he must do the same!
Despite what we’ve said so far, concentration in the ‘moment of truth’ is usually not going to be enough to see an interpreter through. Matthew also must draw upon a bank of:
Knowledge and preparation
We have spoken about how tone and pace reveal Matthew’s sensitivity to the aims of his speaker. A background knowledge of the immediate situation and wider social context will also inform decisions related to micro-messages the speaker is trying to convey. Phrases such as ‘the constitution allows us to…’ show us that Matthew understands the sensitive political background within which this speech is being given, and the nuances of his speaker’s aim.
A knowledge and command of the relevant terminology in both languages or contexts should probably go without saying, so I will suffice it to point out a couple of things. Firstly, a confident command of both systems allows for renditions such as ‘parliament’ from diputados, where Matthew uses equivalent phrasing for what is being described, rather than opting automatically for the UK term, ‘MPs’. This choice was also, as Matthew mentions, informed by his chosen hypothetical audience, showing the wide level of awareness and active decision-making that takes place in real-time when interpreting.
Secondly, this knowledge and preparation requires effort to stay up-to-date with both language systems. This speech was originally given in the context of an emergent and evolving situation, where new terminology was developing that might not be based on the same terms in each language. Should cuarentena be ‘quarantine,’ or ‘self-isolation,’ is an obvious example, but some of the differences in the language used could be more subtle. Having the appropriate terms at your fingertips is key to credibility – something an interpreter wants to hold on to at all costs.
Lastly for the current section, this speech reminds us of the need to be as well-prepared as possible in a general sense, rather than just swotting up on the acronyms related to a given day’s assignment. Matthew of course didn’t know anything about the speech he was about to interpret, but in a real-world setting we would expect to at least know the subject area. Here most of our preparation might have revolved around the pandemic and healthcare, but there was a section where the focus was on issues relating to trade. This meant an abrupt switch in knowledge needed which did not throw the interpreter off. I should highlight, this isn’t really a point about pre-empting possible directions a speaker may take (helpful though that can be), but a reminder that knowledge and preparation is far-reaching, ranging from general knowledge and current events, to potentially-related fields, to making a habit of nurturing interest in as many things as possible. Be curious!
Interpreting strategies sometimes need to go beyond looking at the content itself, and consider our listeners’ reception of what they’re hearing. With a gentle touch of irony, we’ll call this section:
Covering our back
This shouldn’t be seen as a cynical approach, however. While sometimes we might be factoring our customers’ opinions into our decision-making, this area also includes avoiding setting traps for ourselves, or addressing a situation where a rendition of all the details has not been possible. There are a couple of instances where the speaker gives the number of points that will follow, but Matthew goes straight into the content of these points. This means that if the identification of each section is not clear to his listener – which could happen for many reasons, including an omission on the part of the source speaker – those relying on the interpretation won’t feel they’ve been short-changed. Similarly, where it wasn’t possible to replicate the list of shops allowed to remain open in full, Matthew indicated that the list given was not exhaustive by adding, ‘and other essential shops’.
We were able to get a privileged view of Matthew’s interpreting in the booth, and at times we could see some of the work and analysis going into his interpretation. However, note that his listeners would not have had the same impression; there was no panic in the voice, sharp intakes of breath, hurried pace, squeals or sighs to indicate that this is a pressured and challenging speech. An interpreter who is especially visible to their customers might have to put extra rehearsal into their poker face, but the point is, no matter how furiously the cogs might have to turn, we avoid letting the listeners know that as much possible. Even if we’re paddling furiously like ducks to keep afloat, that hopefully stays below the surface, with only graceful gliding visible above!
Last but certainly not least, I’d like to touch on some aspects of how the target speech is presented to the listener. The first point is, of course:
Some of these points, such as pace, tone, or keeping calm under pressure, we’ve already touched on. The main things I’d like to mention here, then, are firstly about modulation of the voice. Matthew uses his intonation to match the message of the words, giving the message as if it was his own, and not as a delivery driver who couldn’t care less what is in the parcel.
Secondly, while Matthew has gauged a suitable time lag, there are occasions where he decides more listening is needed before he has enough information to formulate the message. The lesson here is that it is okay to take a longer pause when needed. Don’t be afraid of an extra second or two of silence. If done calmly and with an air of control, your listener will trust what they are hearing and not mind at all.
Finally, then, we turn to an element we see very well exemplified in Matthew’s interpretation:
For me the definitive example of this is where the speaker says, se reducen a la mitad, which Matthew renders, ‘we will halve,’ staying true to his word and in effect halving the length of the phrase. There are various instances where he phrases messages more succinctly than the original, and he also cuts out redundancy. At one point the speaker precedes information with the idea, ‘I am letting you know that…,’ a prelude which Matthew omits completely to focus on the key information itself.
Similarly, Matthew sometimes inverts the order in which information is coming to him to ensure the vital points are not missed. Where the speaker says, En segundo lugar se cierren… the interpreter has heard and understands this point, so as the list of places follows, he fronts with that list, mitigating the risk of falling behind and missing something while he renders the initial idea. He can then easily follow his list with the fact that these establishments will be closed.
These are just a few reflections of things we can learn from the ES>EN demo. For me the key takeaway can be illustrated by looking at rock-climbing. The beginner’s instinct is to scramble up in automatic mode, grabbing on to any holds our limbs come across at random, trusting our weight to them and hoping for the best. Which instinct can sadly lead to disaster. Training, practice, and reflection teach the individual to take a much more measured approach, constantly surveying and evaluating the options available, even while on the ascent, and testing every hold before putting faith in it. The beginner can learn from the seasoned climber, and as we trade those initial reflexes for knowledge and experience, even the most challenging climb can be scaled.
Tamara MUROIWA is freelance interpreter and translator5