Gaelic-English Simultaneous Interpreting: a one-off insight

I was at the Cothrom AGM last week, and found myself in the “Interpreter’s booth” at the back of the boardroom whispering English into a microphone for the benefit of those in attendance who had no Gaelic. There were a few folk around the room equipped with discreet headsets they’d picked up as they came in the door.

Anyway, I survived – and a couple of folk were kind enough to say that I made some kind of sense of it – but it’s not something I’ll be volunteering to do again in a hurry. There was some fairly routine, if unscripted, procedural stuff – agreeing minutes etc. But the main challenge lay in two speeches – one quite brief, the other less so. Mercifully, both speakers gave me copies of what they were going to say before they started – otherwise I definitely would have drowned.

In the event, neither speaker stuck strictly to their scripts, so for me it wasn’t “simply” a question of reading/interpreting from the page in front of me. One speaker had supplied me with their Gaelic text, while the other had gone a stage further and already translated their speech into English. Perhaps counter-intuitively I found the latter more difficult – even though it was the shorter speech. The fact that neither speaker stuck exactly to their script meant that I had to keep an ear open for what they were saying while I was whispering away into the mike. I found it easier to locate where the speaker was on the page in front of me when the written text was the original Gaelic, rather than the translated English. I guess that’s because I had an extra processing stage to go through with the latter – “re-translating” back into Gaelic to match text with what the speaker was saying at the time. Complicated stuff. And I was definitely ready for the refreshments when it was all over.

Anyway, after the event – duh – I did some googling on simultaneous interpreting and simultaneous translating. I found this link offered interesting insights, including concise tips for speakers as well as interpreters from folk who do this for a living. Not that I’m planning on making more direct use of them any time soon. Once was interesting, but quite enough. Definitely a job for professionals whenever possible.

But hats off to Cothrom for running their meeting in Gaelic. Now that the technology is more readily available it’s good to hear the language re-entering the public domain in community meetings like this.


About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 17/05/2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You were surely dropped in at the deep end there, Gordon. Back when I worked in languages at Hull University, I took a 4th year undergrad module on Italian-English interpreting, and that was a real eye-opener. Even the ‘easiest’ type of interpreting, Liaison Interpreting, where you intercede between two people asynchronously, is pretty damn hard. Conference interpreting, where you interpret after a speaker has spoken for a few paras, is a lot harder, and requires quick thinking and the ability to make very rapid, often graphical notes. Simultaneous interpreting is the hardest of all, and way beyond most folk I know, as you have to interpret in real time, often without knowing how the sentence will end (a particular difficulty with German, where the verb appears at the end of a sentence). It’s no coincidence that most interpreters are young, and that there’s a fair old rate of ‘burn-out’.

    Most non-language speakers don’t really understand how difficult it is to interpret, and usually conflate, wrongly, interpreting and translation, two very different disciplines. Interpreting requires fluency in the source and target languages, of course, but that’s not enough by a long chalk. You also need the ability to condense a passage into its essential concepts, to cut out lots of ‘fluff’ and pull out the concepts that the speaker is communicating. Quite often, at conferences, you’ll hear a speaker go on for a minute or two, then when it’s the interpreter’s turn s/he’ll just come out with a couple of sentences. It brings home to you how much ‘padding’ there is in normal speech.

    For those non-linguists reading this, to get an idea of how difficult it is to interpret, try this exercise. Record a short TV news bulletin, then play it back in ‘story’ chunks, make notes about the stories, then recount the stories to yourself or, better, a friend. You’ll be amazed at how much you miss, and how difficult it is, even when it’s in your own language. And also amazed at how difficult it is to take notes without losing information.

    I’ve immense respect for interpreters, particularly simultaneous interpreters. I remember, ages ago before the Berlin Wall fell, Mikhail Gorbachev (look him up, kids) appearing on the Clive Anderson show, flanked by his (Gorby’s) interpreter, Pavel Palazchenko. Anderson is a notorious motormouth and Gorby had very little English, but the interpreter worked so well that the two were able to trade jokes and anecdotes fluidly, without any awkward gaps. An absolutely brilliant example of the art of interpreting, which I’ll try to hunt down on YouTube. There’s a PDF paper about the interview.

    It’s no accident that interpreting courses usually take 3 years of intense work. It is a damned, damned hard occupation.

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