Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Interpreting drawbacks

Céline wrote an amusing post recently (also picked up by Language Hat). She described what one half of her brain does when she runs into a word that she can’t remember while she’s translating. Basically, it screams things like:
BARLEYBARLEYBARLEYBARLEY OH NO WHAT’S BARLEY IN FRENCH AAAAAAAAARGH
I think I’ve mentioned before that I do some freelance conference interpreting and so this is a familiar feeling. However the truth is that the multi-tasking cognitive confusion doesn’t stop at the screaming. It's really more like having multiple brains than two brains.

If I’m in an interpreting booth and an elusive word comes up, one brain immediately starts desperately flicking through its files to find a direct translation. This can take a while because the files often seem to be in a terrible mess (It's not there, I'm telling you.) Meanwhile another brain may then remember that I actually included this word in a specially prepared glossary in which case it will have to resort to flicking through real paper and dealing with alphabetical order. I might even remember having seen it in one of the documents I used to prepare for the conference (I can see it, half way down the page on the right hand side) which is not particularly helpful. Or maybe I’ll remember that I’ve already come across the word and its translation but in a completely different context and my already overheating brains will have to retrieve and replay a video-memory of what that context was (It was a Thursday. I was wearing that black skirt).

Meanwhile the nanoseconds tick by and new words to be translated keep streaming in ready for processing. (It’s a bit like the ironing, you can’t allow yourself to fall behind — the pile just gets higher and higher).

At the same time I have to be preparing an escape route: thinking about what to do if I just can’t find the slippery translation (Quick paraphrase ! Hollyhocks are really just tall flowering plants, that’ll do). I may have to attract the attention of my partner in the booth to see if s/he heard the pesky word and has a suitable suggestion (pull on partner's sleeve; form quizzical expression with face), maybe even scribble the word down on a pad for him/her to puzzle over while I’m still translating the build up to it. My brains will probably also be admonishing me for not seeing this word coming (you idiot, I told you you should have spent longer preparing last night) or telling me that this is undoubtedly not going to be the last time the speaker uses the word (we're doomed I tell ye). My poor brains may even realise that the entire presentation hinges on this one lexical item in which case, I’ll already be typing the word into a specialist dictionary for use later (How do you spell that again?).

And those are just the straight one-word-for-one-word translations. There are also the words that require careful handling, the ones that slip into my brain(s) through the headphones and set off alarm bells because they appear easy but they’re not: false friends for example or terms that have one translation in one context but something completely different in another.

When people ask me about simultaneous interpreting (and for some reason a lot of people do seem to find it a fascinating party trick) I modestly explain that it’s nothing more than a sort of mental gymnastics. But imagine, if you will, the somersaults (nay the triple saltos) that my brain performed when, having mugged up on an extensive list of appropriate building terminology, I was translating the architect William Alsop and he unexpectedly announced that he found a detail on one of his buildings reminiscent of a foreskin.

PANIC. Lexical networks are instantly fleshed out. At least I know what it looks like, now if I could just find the word. Brain helpfully sends images ... just in time I tell it to put the videos on hold. Paraphrases flood in, unfortunately mixed in with dredged-up jokes (What’s the biggest drawback in the jungle? An elephant’s foreskin. Boom, boom.). ….. I never did quite put my finger on the word prépuce. But, believe me, I’ll be ready for it next time.

7 comments:

deborah said...

Quote : ... my already overheating brains will have to retrieve and replay a video-memory of what that context was (It was a Thursday. I was wearing that black skirt).

Yes, but 'have to retrieve' sounds like something you choose, most of the time these video-memories (wonderful words to describe it) seem to spring into action unasked and a whole day goes on and on through the mind ( ... black skirt and it was snowing and I fell over the pile of ironing then the car wouldn't start ', useless but can't be avoided. However so fast that it doesn't matter and you get to the 'word' in the end ... (sometimes)!

Quote : ... what to do if I just can’t find the slippery translation (Quick paraphrase ! Hollyhocks are really just tall flowering plants, that’ll do)

This reminded me of that useful trick to get students talking, explain how paraphrases work and away they go! It gives them confidence and they don't have to use their dictionaries until later. But this is preaching to the converted!

Those two links are fascinating and the comments 'passionants', now how do you say that in English, let me see ....

Sarah Mackenzie said...

Nice to see you blogging again. I've missed it. Would that I could even begin to imagine having a problem like that. Right now I have a boy asking me if "Are you anorin me?" I have to go stick the hair on his playmobile figures. Thankfully they don't have foreskins.

Lesley said...

Aaaaarggh, there's something wrong with Blogger (or maybe it's just MY blog). My Bloglines feed isn't working (lthough the google feed seems to be okay) and I left a comment here yesterday which seems to have got gobbled up. So:

Deborah: A lot of my conversation in French involves paraphrasing in any case because I forgot to say that when I do eventually find the noun I need, I usually realise that I don't know whether it's masculine or feminine so have to enginner the sentence to leave out any articles etc.

Sarah: You may have hit on something there: anatomically VERY accurate playthings....

Lesley said...

And I also can't type when I'm flustered.

Anonymous said...

lesley my blog feed isn't working either - I can't figure out why.

Do you know - I think prepuce is as bad a word as pubes. And vagina. Aaagh. (sorry... I have a qwerty keyboard and don't know how to do the accents.)

heather said...

excellent post, good to see you back. This feed didn't come through on bloglines until the 27th.

Lesley said...

Wendz & Heather: In the end I sent the people at Bloglines an e-mail and they reset the feed. Very strange.