Interpreters with at least some training or professional experience know very well the challenges and pressures they face when rendering a message into another language in real-time. But the point is most effectively driven home when we ourselves become the beneficiaries of the interpretation. I encountered just such a reminder last week, as I watched the October 21st webcast of Democracy Now!, a news show that I otherwise admire. Amy Goodman had invited Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, for an interview. Because she did not feel confident with her level of English, she decided to give the interview in Arabic. With her there was a legal worker for her organization who would “translate” her message, in what is known as short consecutive interpretation.
The legal worker was obviously not a trained interpreter. From the beginning, he stopped and halted even in very short sentences. He was visibly nervous, sitting rigidly upright with barely a blink. Later, when he began to interpret with fewer hiccups, he still appeared strained. It kind of made me feel sorry for him, knowing how difficult it is to be on the spot, being relied on by two parties eager to understand each other as you grope for word after pesky word eluding your grasp.
Short consecutive, which consists of rendering the interpreted message after one or two phrases or sentences, is a very common modality in what is known as community interpretation, an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of interpretation contexts, but most prominently medical consults, legal situations (trials, depositions, etc.) and mediations.
While many people in the profession might think of short consecutive as the “easiest” type of the different modalities of interpretation, this is only an unfortunate prejudice. It is true that community interpreters do not enjoy the same glamour and high regard generally accorded to conference interpreters, which is the kind that comes to most people’s minds thanks, in no small part, to the popular UN booth workers with their high stakes political discussions, unique lingo and impossible examinations. But the supposed difference in difficulty is mostly an illusion resulting from each modality requiring a different skill set: simultaneous interpretation requires the ability to process an incoming message while converting the one preceding it into a foreign language with only microseconds to spare, while longer consecutive interpretation relies more on short term memory and note-taking. In short consecutive, nevertheless, there is less note-taking and the strain on short-term memory is not so deep, as the segments to be interpreted are shorter.
Short consecutive is tricky in another way, though. If you interpret every phrase –like our Democracy Now! interpreter did, breaking off full sentences into three or four chunks– you risk breaking the rhythm of the message. However, if you give your speaker too much leisure to pronounce an entire sentence, you risk having them go on for too long for your memory to recall. Therefore, the interpreter needs to be able to read people and have the appropriate management skills to lengthen or shorten their speaker’s message. And while the strain on memory skills is not as deep as with longer consecutive, good memory skills are still very necessary for one simple reason: if you are expending less energy and mental resources on keeping the parts of the message from escaping your memory, then you have more resources available for finding good translations, maintaining proper syntax and pronunciation and monitoring yourself for errors. (In truth, all interpretation is about managing mental resources effectively and striking a good balance among the different tasks involved.)
What was unfortunate about the Democracy Now! interview and the reason why I was reminded of the importance of proper interpreter training was that, even though I was very interested in the topic, I constantly found myself tuning off the message because it was too disrupted for me to keep engaged. Following closely the rhythm of a message and knowing how to physically signal to your speaker in a transparent but barely noticeable way that they need to stop talking is no easy task, and one I am sure even some conference interpreters would be hard-pressed to deal with. Short consecutive is more about being in tune with people, picking up on their hesitations and expressions, being quick to react and seize the second-long windows of opportunity that arise. The interpreter needs to be able to do all that while trying to preserve as much as possible –given the interruptions– the seamlessness and fluidity of the message, and then sound and look like they’re not even breaking a sweat. Tone variations are also a key element: a little (and just a little) voice acting is definitely in order.
I of course understand the constraints both the show and the Yemeni activist may have faced to be able to secure a professional interpreter. And still, I cannot help but lament it when an important, vibrant message loses some of its potency because of problems in translation or interpretation. That said, I did enjoy the interview to a certain extent and was glad I had the opportunity of hearing at least some of this activist’s thoughts.