It’s an extremely intense activity, simultaneous interpreting. It has been calculated that you use more processes simultaneously in your brain than people in almost any other profession – although it has been said that air traffic controllers use nearly the same number of brain processes. (Ironic, then, that they make so much more money than interpreters, but I suppose that’s beside the point.)
When you’re interpreting simultaneously, you’re listening to the speaker, processing the meaning of what he says, converting it to another language, and speaking the translation while listening to the next thing the speaker says, and all of this in a continuous cycle.
It means that you’re doing so many things at the same time – constantly listening, translating, speaking, and making split-second decisions about language, sentence structure, meaning and more – that your brain is working at the very highest level of concentration, and you are using all of your physical and mental faculties to make the process work. Small wonder, then, that conference interpreters work in pairs, taking shifts of about thirty minutes. After half an hour their concentration is significantly diminished, their mental (and often physical) energy depleted, and they need a break from what they are doing. So then their colleague takes over for the next shift, and after another half hour they switch back again. This gives each interpreter enough time to re-charge the mental batteries and take his alertness back up to the highest level needed for his taxing job. And it is taxing indeed.
But ever since the very first time I was asked to interpret – which was long before I had my official training, got certified, etc. – I enjoyed the adrenalin that came with the job: the rush of doing something extremely intense with my language skills and brain capacity. Especially the more difficult assignments can be very satisfying.
Mind you, a little humility is needed when you’re an interpreter. As a translator, you can get a translation complete and perfect quite easily – if you’re good. But even the best interpreters don’t get their translations 100% complete and perfect – well, hardly ever. If you ever hear a conference interpreter claim that he worked all day and got everything 100% correct and complete, he’s either a big liar, or he just interpreted for the only series of speakers on earth who are not only relatively slow, but also perfectly understandable, don’t speak in any dialect, don’t swallow any words or syllables, don’t use any unexpected terminology, don’t slur, always articulate clearly, etc., etc. Or he had the complete text in advance and the speakers didn’t deviate from the text once.
Every single interpreter, even the very best, will slip up here and there – whether it’s mishearing something, not hearing something, forgetting something or simply not being able to come up with the right word at the right time, every working day of their lives there will be something that goes wrong. Even the best interpretations are about 99% right. But it’s not about the 1 percent they miss, it’s about getting that 99 percent right. It’s not a very exact science, interpreting: so much depends on so many circumstances and so many human factors on both sides.
There is something really special about matching the speed, voice intonation, emphasis, terminology and meaning of a speaker, especially if it is such a challenge that at times you don’t know where you’re getting the words from, possibly not just finding them in your brain, but pulling them up from your toes, in a manner of speaking. You feel the adrenalin rushing through your body, you’re almost in some kind of trance, and you feel as one with the speaker.
Imagine interpreting simultaneously for a highly educated speaker like a celebrated scholar who is trying to tell an audience about his life work in only ninety minutes, with a torrent of words coming out of his mouth at a speed that makes it clear that he’s determined to get all the information in, despite the limited time – and without ever having seen his speech or his powerpoint presentation you and your colleague manage to keep up with him, interpret his words with the right meaning, not missing anything significant, matching his intonation and emphasis. Believe me, there is nothing more satisfying than achieving that, switching off your microphone, and hearing your colleague – still completely hyped up – exclaiming:
We’re bloody geniuses!
You couldn’t have said it better yourself…