A look inside the mind of the ultimate multitasker: the simultaneous interpreter

The simultaneous interpreter is the ultimate multitasker. While a representative is speaking, the simultaneous interpreter has to:

  1. Understand the message in one language;
  2. Translate the message in his/her head into another language;
  3. Interpret and communicate the message to listeners;
  4. All the while listening to the speaker’s message that proceeds without interruption.

Just to be clear, for this to happen all at the same time, you need to have an exceptional combination of sensory, cognitive and motor skills. And keep in mind the interpreter doesn’t have the opportunity to ask for clarification or explanatory details. Scientists agree it’s a miracle that the human brain has the ability to do this. Not even a computer can do what a simultaneous interpreter can do

What exactly is going on in the brain of a simultaneous interpreter?

Understanding simultaneous interpretation presents a challenge to scientists. There’s so much happening in a simultaneous interpreters brain that it’s difficult to even start describing the process. In short, it seems that simultaneous interpreting is possible because different parts of the brain work together. Because two languages are active at the same time, the brain areas for interpretation, perception and production are all active. Other, much smaller areas of the brain also provide support. Because these different parts of brain work together, the brain is able to take on with the following challenges.

  1. Grapjes vertalen

Humor is een ware nachtmerrie voor een tolk. Het resultaat van een letterlijke vertaling is vaak niet grappig en dus moet een tolk zijn fantasie gebruiken om een lach op het gezicht van de luisteraar te toveren zonder er lang over na te kunnen denken. Dat vereist een snelle wisselwerking tussen verschillende hersengebieden.

  1. Translate jokes

Humour is truly an interpreter’s nightmare. The result of a literal translation is often not funny, so the interpreter has to use his imagination to get the listener to laugh without taking too long figuring out how to do it. This demands rapid interaction between different areas of the brain.

  1. Predict words

To be able to interpret without stuttering, time lag or stopping altogether, an interpreter has to predict what a speaker is about to say. Instead of waiting until a speaker has completed his sentence, an interpreter anticipates what will be said and fills in the word. ‘You didn’t let me finish what I was going to say’ is something interpreters hear a lot, but it’s meant as a compliment. Mastering this skill requires a lot of brainpower.

  1. Ignoring your inner voice

The fact that interpreters have learned to ignore themselves is astounding. Under normal circumstances you listen to your inner voice as you monitor what you say. In contrast, interpreters have to concentrate on the word they are translating and learn not to pay so much attention to their inner voice.

  1. Highly adaptable and able to cope with stress

An interpreter has the talent for adapting to different circumstances. There may be situations where there is poor sound quality, or a speaker with an accent who speaks rapidly, or a subject of which the interpreter has no prior knowledge is discussed. In any of these situations, the interpreter has to determine another strategy. This requires flexible collaboration between different parts of the brain. Something else interpreters have to be good at is coping with stress so he/she doesn’t panic in these kinds of situations.