Republished in abridged form from the original 2014 article by Geoff Watts in Mosaic (citation at the end).
In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators
One morning this summer I paid a visit to the sole United Nations agency in London. The headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) sit on the southern bank of the Thames, a short distance upstream from the Houses of Parliament. As I approached, I saw that a ship’s prow, sculpted in metal, was grafted like a nose to the ground floor of this otherwise bland building. Inside I met a dozen or so mostly female IMO translators. They were cheerful and chatty and better dressed than you might imagine for people who are often heard but rarely seen.
I walked upstairs to a glass-fronted booth, where I prepared to witness something both absolutely remarkable and utterly routine. The booth was about the size of a garden shed, and well lit but stuffy. Below us were the gently curving desks of the delegate hall, which was about half-full, occupied mostly by men in suits. I sat down between two interpreters named Marisa Pinkney and Carmen Soliño, and soon the first delegate started talking. Pinkney switched on her microphone. She paused briefly, and then began translating the delegate’s English sentences into Spanish.
Let’s unpick what she did that morning and itemize its components.
As the delegate spoke, Pinkney had to make sense of a message composed in one language while simultaneously constructing and articulating the same message in another tongue. The process required an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor and cognitive skills, all of which had to operate in unison. She did so continuously and in real time, without asking the speaker to slow down or clarify anything. She didn’t stammer or pause. Nothing in our evolutionary history can have programmed Pinkney’s brain for a task so peculiar and demanding. Executing it required versatility and nuance beyond the reach of the most powerful computers. It is a wonder that her brain, indeed any human brain, can do it at all.
Neuroscientists have explored language for decades and produced scores of studies on multilingual speakers. Yet understanding this process – simultaneous interpretation – is a much bigger scientific challenge. So much goes on in an interpreter’s brain that it’s hard even to know where to start. Recently, however, a handful of enthusiasts have taken up the challenge, and one region of the brain – the caudate nucleus – has already caught their attention.
The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviors. Which means the results of the interpretation studies appear to tie into one of the biggest ideas to emerge from neuroscience over the past decade or two. It’s now clear that many of our most sophisticated abilities are made possible not by specialist brain areas dedicated to specific tasks, but by lightning-fast coordination between areas that control more general tasks, such as movement and hearing. Simultaneous interpretation, it seems, is yet another feat made possible by our networked brains.
Simultaneous interpretation often evokes a sense of drama. This may be because of its history: the creation of the League of Nations after World War I established the need for it, and use of the technique during the trials of senior Nazis at Nuremberg showcased its power. Doubts about accuracy lingered nonetheless; the UN Security Council didn’t fully adopt simultaneous interpretation until the early 1970s. “Until then they didn’t trust the interpreters,” says Barbara Moser-Mercer, an interpreter and researcher at the University of Geneva. But now the two traditional capitals of the multilingual conference world – the UN offices in Geneva and New York – have been joined by Brussels, as the expanding European Union incorporates more and more languages. The current total is 24, and some meetings involve interpretation of every one.
Looking down over the delegates at the IMO, I was reminded of the view from a captain’s bridge, or the gallery of a television studio. I had a feeling of control, a perverse reaction given that control is one thing interpreters lack. The words they utter and the speed at which they talk are determined by others. And even though Pinkney and Soliño had copies of some of the speeches that had been prepared for that morning, they had to be alive to humorous asides. Puns, sarcasm, irony and culture-specific jokes are an interpreter’s nightmare. As one interpreter has noted in an academic article, “Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny.” Quite.
Many of the delegates spoke in English, so the pressure on Anne Miles in the into-English booth down the hall was sporadic. Miles speaks French, German, Italian and Russian, and has been interpreting for 30 years. In between translating she told me about word order, another challenge that interpreters face daily. “With German the ‘nicht’, the ‘not’, can come at the very end of the sentence. So you may be enthusing about something and then the speaker finally says ‘nicht’. But if you’re a German native you can hear the ‘nicht’ coming by the intonation.” Word order is a particular problem in fish meetings, which Miles said she dreads. In a long sentence about a particular variety of fish, and in a language where the noun – the name of the fish – comes towards the end, the interpreter is left guessing about the subject of the sentence until it’s completed.
There’s humor in these pitfalls, of course. Miles told me about an agricultural meeting at which delegates discussed frozen bull’s semen; a French interpreter translated this as “matelot congelés”, or ‘deep-frozen sailors’. And she shared an error of her own, produced when a delegate spoke of the need to settle something “avant Milan” – ‘before Milan’, the city being the venue for a forthcoming meeting. Miles didn’t know about the Milan summit, so said that the issue wasn’t going to be settled for “mille ans”, or ‘a thousand years’.
Some speakers talk too fast. “There are various strategies. Some interpreters think it’s best just to stop and just say the delegate is speaking too fast.” Miles herself doesn’t find that useful because people have a natural pace, and someone asked to slow down is likely to pick up speed again. The alternative is to précis. “You have to be quick on the uptake. It’s not just language skills in this job, it’s being quick-brained and learning fast.”
Challenges of this kind make simultaneous interpretation tiring, and explained why the two interpreters took it in turns to rest every half an hour. Watching by video is even worse. “We don’t like it at all,” Miles told me. Studies confirm that the process is more exhausting and stressful, probably because body language and facial expressions provide part of the message, and are harder to decipher when working remotely. “You get fewer visual clues as to what’s going on, even with a video link,” said Miles.
Then there’s the tedium. Crisis talks in New York might be gripping, but the average politician, never mind the average technical expert on marine regulations, isn’t likely to induce rapt attention for hours on end. The audience may slumber, but the interpreter must remain vigilant. As the meeting sailed on into a polyglot fog of procedural niceties and resolutions, each with sections and subsections, I realized how tiring this vigilance must be. Having nodded off in many a science conference – even once when chairing – I was in awe of the interpreters’ fortitude.
Moser-Mercer trained as an interpreter – she is fluent in German, English and French – before being sidetracked by neuroscience. “I got very intrigued with what was going on in my brain while I was interpreting,” she says. “I thought there has to be a way to find out.” When she arrived at the University of Geneva in 1987 there wasn’t a way – the interpretation department was concerned with training, not research. So she set out to create one by collaborating with colleagues in the brain sciences.
“Language is one of the more complex human cognitive functions,” Narly Golestani, Group Leader of the university’s Brain and Language Lab, tells me during a recent visit. “There’s been a lot of work on bilingualism. Interpretation goes one step beyond that because the two languages are active simultaneously. And not just in one modality, because you have perception and production at the same time. So the brain regions involved go to an extremely high level, beyond language.”
In Geneva, as in many other neuroscience labs, the tool of choice is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Using fMRI, researchers can watch the brain as it performs a specific task; applied to interpretation, it has already revealed the network of brain areas that make the process possible. One of these is Broca’s area, known for its role in language production and working memory, the function that allows us to maintain a grasp on what we’re thinking and doing. The area is also linked with neighboring regions that help control language production and comprehension. “In interpretation, when a person hears something and has to translate and speak at the same time, there’s very strong functional interplay between these regions,” says Golestani.
Many other regions also seem to be involved, and there are myriad connections between them. The complexity of this network deterred Moser-Mercer from tackling them all at once; unraveling the workings of each component would have been overwhelming. Instead the Geneva researchers treat each element as a black box, and focus on understanding how the boxes are linked and coordinated. “Our research is about trying to understand the mechanisms that enable the interpreter to control these systems simultaneously,” says team member Alexis Hervais-Adelman.
Two regions in the striatum, the evolutionarily ancient core of the brain, have emerged as key to this executive management task: the caudate nucleus and the putamen. Neuroscientists already know that these structures play a role in other complex tasks, including learning and the planning and execution of movement. This means that there is no single brain center devoted exclusively to the control of interpretation, say Hervais-Adelman and his colleagues. As with many other human behaviors studied using fMRI, it turns out that the feat is accomplished by multiple areas pitching in. And the brain areas that control the process are generalists, not specialists.
One of the triggers of this piece was a trivial conversation. Someone told me of a simultaneous interpreter so proficient that he could do a crossword while working. No name or date or place was mentioned, so I was skeptical. But just to check I contacted a few professional interpreters. One thought he might have heard a rumor; the others were dismissive. An urban myth, they said.
I ask Moser-Mercer if interpreters ever do anything else while interpreting. In a job dominated by women, she tells me, some knit – or used to when it was a more popular pastime. And you can see how a regular manual action might complement the cerebral activity of translation. But a crossword puzzle? Moser-Mercer hasn’t tried it, but she tells me that under exceptional circumstances – a familiar topic, lucid speakers, etc. – she thinks she could.
That such a feat might be possible suggests that interesting things are indeed happening in the brains of simultaneous interpreters. And there are other reasons for thinking that interpreters’ brains have been shaped by their profession. They’re good at ignoring themselves, for example. Under normal circumstances listening to your voice is essential to monitoring your speech. But interpreters have to concentrate on the word they’re translating, so they learn to pay less attention to their own voice.