The Triathlon of simultaneous interpreting

So far, I have completed two sprint triathlons. My goal to prepare myself for a larger one soon.  When I first tried to run my first mile, I barely made it and was out of breath. The first hill I tried to take on a bike resulted in my collapsing and falling sideways halfway up the hill; I was out of breath before I could even complete one lap in the Olympic sized pool. With much practice and Pointers from others with experience, I continued to make improvements.  The biggest issue that must be managed when participating in a triathlon is fatigue.

This is obvious for a physically taxing activity or a sport, but many people don’t realize that the same principle applies to deeply focused mental activity. What simultaneous interpreters do might look easy because they have conditioned their minds to perform at an elite level, much like a highly conditioned triathlete. Nevertheless, highly professional simultaneous interpreters must still manage mental energy levels and fatigue.

What makes simultaneous interpreting so taxing on the mind that I would compare it to a triathlon?

  1. The swim (act of interpreting)
    1. The act of interpreting is a challenge because one must attentively listen to all the information in the source language, retain it, understand it, and then render it into an entirely different (target) language with perhaps a completely different sentence structure.  This requires the interpreter to be an expert in both languages.
  2. The bike ride (Complicated Terminology)
    1. The interpreter must be familiar with the complicated terminology being used. If it is in court, we are talking about complicated legal terminology for each language. Not all countries have the same type of court system, so that increases the difficulty level like riding a bike up a steep hill.
  3. The run (Concentration required for simultaneous)
    1. It is challenging enough to render an entire language into another. Now try doing this instantly while the person is still talking. There are few people capable of listening carefully, processing what is being said and then rendering it orally into another language while continuing the cycle without missing a beat.  Just reading this paragraph should cause you to imagine smoke coming out of the brain.

Scientific studies have shown that cognitive fatigue begins to set in within 20 to 30 minutes of simultaneous interpreting. Therefore, just like athletes must manage endurance in order to keep going, simultaneous interpreters must also do the same. How do they manage fatigue?

The only real way to manage mental fatigue is to give your mind a break.  The professional standard practice for court and conference interpreters is to work in teams if the case will take long. Taking turns allows interpreters to allow the mind a recess to reset and recover for the next turn at it. This doesn’t mean the interpreter does nothing. The mind still works, serving in a support role for the active interpreter. The active interpreter may need water, or an unfamiliar term may surface.  Although the mind is still working and supporting the other interpreter, it is still considered a break because the cognitive functions of working memory and language reconstruction, among others, aren’t being utilized at the elite level that it is at the time of performance. Think of it as walking instead of sprinting. You are still going but can catch your breath for the next run.

It is often difficult to convince courts and attorneys that team interpreting is necessary. They often feel that it is an unnecessary expense. This is a common problem with South Carolina Courts.  You might even reason that who cares if the interpreter is getting tired just so long as the work gets done. He shouldn’t whine, he is getting paid for his services.  Who cares if the judge is tired, as long as she gets her work done?  Who cares if the attorney is tired, as long as he gets the job done? 

The reality is that just as physical fatigue will affect the performance of an athlete, mental fatigue will affect the performance of the interpreter (and the judge and the attorneys).  

Mental fatigue can cause an interpreter to make grave mistakes and result in terrible errors and omissions.  Secondly, the same cognitive exhaustion could result in the interpreter’s inability to recognize his mistakes.  If you don’t catch your mistake, you cannot admit it and correct it. The result could be a mistrial or a grave error in judging the case.

We must respect each other’s profession.  Just as there are standards for judges and lawyers, so too for interpreters.  Those standards exist to ensure justice for all. 

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2 thoughts on “The Triathlon of simultaneous interpreting”

  1. I thought you were going to write about using three modes in one event constantly. But I like the analogy.
    Thank you for a good morning read.

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