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How interpreters juggle two languages at once - Ewandro Magalhaes


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Language is complex, and when abstract or nuanced concepts get lost in translation, the consequences may be catastrophic. Given the complexities of language and cultural exchange, how do these epic miscommunications not happen all the time? Ewandro Magalhaes explains how much of the answer lies with the skill and training of interpreters to overcome language barriers.

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From a distance, simultaneous interpretation looks like magic. Up close, it looks like madness: interpreters must listen and speak at the same time, repeating words and ideas that are not their own in a foreign language whilst maintaining the appropriate meaning, intent, pace and tone. They have no control over the complexity, the speed, the clarity, or the logic of the original speech. They must link their own segments of speech together. They must maintain a speechless side conversation with their booth mates, by way of meaningful looks, gestures and notes. They may also have to read through a document or look up words in a glossary while they talk, at times delaying their interpretation until the full picture can form in their mind. With all this going against it, one would think interpreting an impossible task. Yet, with the right training and the necessary equipment, it’s perfectly doable. To understand the complex mechanics and language requirements behind a multilingual United Nations meeting, here’s another video.

What is the difference between consecutive interpretation and simultaneous? For most of history, oral translation (a.k.a. interpretation) was done consecutively, with speakers pausing at regular intervals. In these situations interpreters work consecutively, standing by the speaker and taking notes as they go. Once the speaker pauses, they then reconstruct the message from memory, using their annotations to fill in the gaps as they translate the speech orally into a different language. In time, professional interpreters learn to comfortably handle speech segments of 5-8 minutes. A few outstanding interpreters can do full speeches without any notes.

The downside of consecutive interpretation is that it can be time-consuming. An experienced interpreter will learn to edit discourse for concision, but in the best-case scenario a speech rendered consecutively will take at least 60% longer. Consecutive interpretation is also inconvenient for those in the audience who speak both languages being used. Find out more about what it is like to be an interpreter by watching this: A Day in the Life of an Interpreter.

Interested in the origin of simultaneous Interpretation? It was actually a byproduct of war. On September 10, 1934, a speech was made in Nuremberg that would change the world forever. This was the moment that thousands of German youths stood in well-trimmed phalanxes on Zeppelin Field as Adolf Hitler brought the Nazi Party Congress to a close.  A few days prior, an unlawful proclamation - and landslide plebiscite - had granted the Führer unlimited authority over the country and its army. With his mesmerizing presence this Austrian-born politician, naturalized just two years before, Hitler had managed to sway a nationalistic country in his favor. 
Something else happened that day. Across the border, some 500 miles away, radio listeners in France were amazed to hear the message in their own language just as the words were being pronounced in German. Andre Kaminker, an interpreter of legendary renown in the day, had reluctantly accepted to shadow the speech as it came, rendering every word and idea into French equivalents, in real-time. Simultaneous interpreting was thus invented. Soon thereafter, the world plunged into war and the technique lay dormant for another ten years.

A decade later the eyes of the world once again turned to Nuremberg, as the Allies attempted to bring closure to the genocide Hitler had unleashed on Europe. Twenty-one Nazi officials charged with a variety of atrocities were brought to justice in what would go down in history as the first war crimes trial of modern times.  As lawyers prepared for the case, a practical problem arose. Every testimony would have to be interpreted from its original language into three others. Relying on consecutive interpreting would prove tedious as well as risky, as U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson feared that the defendants could use the trial as a platform to justify their wrongdoings and gain sympathy for their predicament. The longer the proceedings, the higher the risk that the Germans would succeed in depicting the trial as a victor’s charade.

A more expeditious method of interpreting had to be tried. IBM had been experimenting with a “simultaneous telephonic system” and offered its equipment free of charge, thereby solving the hardware issue. The challenge of actually making the new system work, using mostly untrained students, fell to Leon Dostert, formerly an interpreter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The first linguists approached were reluctant. Dostert insisted that it was feasible and set about to provide whatever minimum training could be given to translators, lawyers, and judges on how to use it. Divided into three groups of 12, the interpreters relieved one another every 45 minutes and rendered every word spoken in court into their respective languages. Watch actual footage of interpreters at work in Nuremberg, in 1946. To compensate for the overwhelming mental and psychological demands of the job, one day off was offered for every two days of work. Watch as a A Nuremberg interpreter recalls her experience half a century later.

To see more of artist Joren Cull's work, visit his website here.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Ewandro Magalhaes
  • Script Editor Amy Adkins
  • Director Andrew Foerster
  • Artist Joren Cull
  • Sound Designer Howard Sinden
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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