BARLEYBARLEYBARLEYBARLEY OH NO WHAT’S BARLEY IN FRENCH AAAAAAAAARGHI 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.