My viral TED-Ed Lesson: How Interpreters Juggle Two Languages at Once
In 1956, during a diplomatic reception in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told western bloc ambassadors – “Мы вас похороним!” His interpreter rendered that into English as “we will bury you!” This statement sent shockwaves through the western world, heightening the tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S., who were in the thick of the Cold War.
Some believe this incident alone set East-West relations back a decade. As it turns out, Khrushchev’s remark was translated a bit too literally. Given the context, his words should have been rendered as “we will live to see you buried,” meaning that communism would outlast capitalism – a less threatening comment. Though the intended meaning was eventually clarified, the initial impact of Khrushchev’s apparent words put the world on a path that could have led to nuclear armageddon.
So now, given the complexities of language and cultural exchange, how does this sort of thing not happen all the time? Much of the answer lies with the skill and training of interpreters to overcome language barriers.
For most of history, interpretation was mainly done consecutively, with speakers and interpreters making pauses to allow each other to speak. But after the advent of radio technology, a new simultaneous interpretation system was developed in the wake of World War II. In the simultaneous mode, interpreters instantaneously translate a speaker’s words into a microphone while he speaks without pauses. Those in the audience can choose the language in which they want to follow. On the surface, it all looks seamless. But behind the scenes, human interpreters work incessantly to ensure every idea gets across as intended. And that is no easy task. It takes about two years of training for already fluent bilingual professionals to expand their vocabulary and master the skills necessary to become a conference interpreter.
To get used to the unnatural task of speaking while they listen, students shadow speakers and repeat their every word exactly as heard in the same language. In time, they begin to paraphrase what is said, making stylistic adjustments as they go. At some point, a second language is introduced. Practicing in this way creates new neural pathways in an interpreter’s brain. And a constant effort of reformulation gradually becomes second nature. Over time and through much hard work, the interpreter masters a vast array of tricks to keep up with speed, deal with challenging terminology, and handle a multitude of foreign accents. They may resort to acronyms to shorten long names, choose generic terms over specific, or refer to slides and other visual aids. They can even leave a term in the original language while they search for the most accurate equivalent.
Interpreters are also skilled at keeping aplomb in the face of chaos. Remember: they have no control over who is going to say what or how articulate the speaker will sound. A curve ball can be thrown at any time. Also, they often perform to thousands of people and in very intimidating settings like the UN General Assembly. To keep their emotions in check, they carefully prepare for an assignment – building glossaries in advance, reading voraciously about the subject matter, and reviewing previous talks on the topic.
Finally, interpreters work in pairs. While one colleague is busy translating incoming speeches in real time, the other gives support by locating documents, looking up words and tracking down pertinent information. Because simultaneous interpretation requires intense concentration, every thirty minutes, the pairs switch roles. Success is heavily dependent on skillful collaboration.
Language is complex. And when abstract or nuanced concepts get lost in translation, the consequences may be catastrophic. As Margaret Atwood famously noted, “war is what happens when language fails.” Conference interpreters of all people are aware of that, and work diligently behind the scenes to make sure it never does.