An Artice By François Grosjean, Professor Emeritus
Have you ever sat down in an interpreter’s booth, put on the headphones and tried to interpret the incoming speech? I did when I was a young and rather naive student who thought that being bilingual meant one could interpret simultaneously. No sooner had I started that problems arrived. As I was outputting the first sentence, the second one was already coming in but I hadn’t paid enough attention to it. I remembered its beginning but not its ending. Very quickly I fell behind and I just couldn’t say anything more after a few minutes!
Many years later I still remember the scene vividly and because of it, but also because of my own research on the perception and production of speech, I have the utmost respect for interpreters and the training they have to go through to do their job well.
Interpreters come in various types (community, conference, sign language) and interpreting itself is diverse in that it can be consecutive or simultaneous. I will take two extreme cases of interpreting that differ on many aspects including age: bilingual children who act as interpreters and adult simultaneous interpreters. (…)
n addition to having all the skills of translators (see here), professional interpreters must have all the linguistic and cognitive skills that allow them to go from one language to the other, either simultaneously or successively. For example, simultaneous interpreting involves careful listening, processing and comprehending the input in the source language, memorizing it, formulating the translation in the target language, and then articulating it, not to mention dual tasking, i.e. letting the next sequence come in as you are outputting the preceding one. Researcher David Gerver has reported that interpreters overlap speaking one language while listening to another up to 75% of the time!
Interpreters must activate the two languages they are working with. They have to hear the input (source) language but also the output (target) language, not only because they have to monitor what they are saying but also in case the speaker uses the target language in the form of code-switches (see here). However, they must also close down the production mechanism of the source language so that they do not simply repeat what they are hearing (as they sometimes do when they get very tired!).
Given these processing requirements, in addition to knowing translation equivalents in numerous domains and subdomains (e.g. business, economic, medical), as well as stylistic variants, it is no wonder that interpreters, like translators, are considered special bilinguals. As the saying so rightly states:
It takes more than having two hands to be a good pianist.
It takes more than knowing two languages to be a good translator or interpreter.