Current students of interpreting may be reassured to know that even seasoned conference interpreters find numbers difficult.
In this video, Louise Jarvis, a freelance conference interpreter and trainer at the University of Bath, explains why numbers are so difficult to interpret and makes five practical suggestions to help us to take them in our stride.
So why are numbers so tricky to handle? Louise suggests that there are three main reasons. First, a piece of information containing a number is usually very information-dense. Not only does the interpreter have to translate the number itself (not always as straightforward as it sounds), but they must also get the order of magnitude right, reproduce the noun that the figure refers to, and capture accompanying information such as the unit of measurement, dates, whether the figure has gone up or down and whether it is approximate or precise. Second, numbers are hard to predict: while we might be able to predict a speaker’s argument, we will find it much more challenging to predict the precise figures that will be cited in support of that argument. Finally, numbers disrupt our flow, forcing an abrupt change in décalage and a consequent hiatus before we re-establish our rhythm.
Here are five practical suggestions to help to overcome these undeniable difficulties:
1. Prepare the figures
Have the numbers of relevant pieces of legislation, patents or cases to hand, so that you can read them out when they’re mentioned. Research the names of products and the units that go with them so that they are already familiar to you, giving you more capacity to process the numbers themselves. Knowing which orders of magnitude are used will enable you to check your interpretation against your common sense. Francesca Maria Frittella has done some interesting research on preparing to interpret numbers, which is well worth a look.
2. Reformulate your sentence
In a simultaneous meeting, one way of dealing with an isolated figure is to reformulate your sentence to enable you to say the figure first, obviating the need for you to remember it for too long.
3. Write figures down
If you are faced with a whole list of figures it is advisable to write them down to ease the pressure on your brain. What’s more you can practise writing them down so that the process becomes automatic. Write them down as soon as you hear them, and have unambiguous abbreviations for different orders of magnitude. Interpreting is teamwork, and your boothmate may be able to help by writing the numbers down for you if they also work from the source language in question.
4. Differentiate clearly between from, to and by
When you’re recording increases or decreases ensure that you have an unambiguous way of distinguishing between increases from, to and by. Examples are given in the video.
5. Analyse the function of the number
Finally, use your analysis of the idea that the number is illustrating to work out what its function is, since all numbers are important, but some are more important than others. While the number of a directive or a patent needs to be absolutely spot on, a number which is illustrative of a broader point may not need to be rendered precisely. In fact, you can be of greater service to the listener by analysing the idea and giving an approximation of the figure to illustrate the speaker’s point.
Louise JARVIS, professional conference interpreter.