Cross the Barrier of the “Very Academic”

I interpreted a lecture on ‘Tax Informatization’ last week and was surprised to find how challenging some academic lectures can still seem – even after over 3 months working with similar speakers. To sum it up I was starting to feel faint after the first hour, just in time for our break!

After thinking about this for a while I’ve come up with several ideas on  how interpreters can overcome the most taxing speakers (who clearly haven’t read my 6 tips on becoming interpreter friendly!) and not falling into the spiral of doubling efforts only to half performance. Please feel free to ask questions, offer your own suggestions and use this as a space to bounce ideas off of other like minded people.

In this particular instance the speaker, Paul, was an experienced ACCA qualified accountant and had even previously hosted a financial TV program for the BBC. He was an authority on and knew what he spoke about. However, his brisk style combined with Received Pronunciation and scholastic language resulted in a specialized talk I believe even native accountants would have struggled to follow! Yet presentation and language aside it was his academic sentence structures that posed a challenge to my interpretation. So rather than being able to give a direct interpretation I needed to first try to follow his speech in my mind, effectively restructuring it twice – convoluted > understandable then English > Chinese. The risk with this though is of over thinking one section and then failing to listen to the next – breaking the flow of information and missing out on important content.

When faced with these more difficult interpreting tasks I have seen some interpreters revert back to basics – deciding to miss out much of the deeper substance of the speech and effectively make up a completely different talk of their own instead! However this does no justice to the speaker (making them come across as an amateur ironically because of their ability) and could even be damaging to relations the interpreter is supposed to foster and nurture. Instead I prefer to learn from such experiences, improve my abilities and offer a better interpretation.

With that perspective here are three challenging sentences and the meanings I have translated for them – hopefully this can help anyone better understand the language of those in British academia, and highlight to those academics the difficulties they can afford the non-native listener.

Example 1. “Before sophisticated computer systems became a reality information theory considered that there were several accepted pathways for communication and each had relevance in different situations.” The meaning is actually quite simple—before computer and internet became popular, there were a few fixed ways of communication for different occasions.

Example 2.“ What is required is a discriminating selection which can deliver relevant data in a form usable at the echelon of decision.” Or in laymen’s terms: there needs to be filtration of information.

Example 3. “Examples of our success include the disruption of a major criminal organisation behind a concerted attempt to make false Income Tax Self Assessment repayment claims.” When interpreting this sentence, basically it had to go backward, or use simultaneous skills to break it into pieces.

I hope you find this post useful and again, please feel free to post any questions and suggestions you might have below so we can overcome this academic hurdle together!

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)


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    It is always exciting as challenging to interpret for such lecturers as Paul!I think Paul is interpreter-friendly; he just makes us realize what a long way we have to go through before we can interpret an exellent speech with the equally excellent target language. What embrassed me was that I tried, but found unable to ‘project the speaker’. After all, ‘simplification’ or ‘interpreting the meaning/impression’ is used only when there is inadequate competency.

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    Hi Eva, looks like an abstract mind crossed your path. These speakers can give you a hard time. It sounds like he was reading, was he? Were you working on consec or simo? I don’t work on consec but I guess that in consec you’d have the advantage of hindsight to squeeze the real content behind the phrasing. In simo I probably would have used the salami technique (breaking up in pieces or links) or would have stayed as far behind as possible to try to get a sense of what he meant before delivering my interpretation.

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      Actually he wasn’t reading. He was a very good public speaker, and that just made the whole situation worse. He was so passionate, full of intonations and gestures while speaking, whereas I was struggling getting the gist of his language, and didn’t have that much energy to spend on “acting” as passionate in my tone or body language.
      I work on consec a lot, and really wish to start on simo soon, especially after a long time of training.
      I am not sure in this kind of situation, which one would be easier. Because in consec, you are given that luxurious time to think and re-organize what you are going to say, a luxury you don’t have in simo. But no one would forgive you if you have been given that time to think but come up with broken pieces or illogical chunks. Maybe I should have recorded that speech and tried it on simo, see what is the best strategy, lagging behind more or breaking it up more.


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