Introduction to the Simultaneous Interpretation Chapter (from The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition)


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Simultaneous interpretation, in which the interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker, is the most common mode of interpreting used in court. Generally, simultaneous interpreting is done from English into the second language, because it is intended to enable the defendant to understand what is going on in court proceedings. The U.S. Constitution states that every criminal defendant has a right to be present at all stages of the proceedings, and the courts have interpreted this to mean that non-English-speaking defendants are not "present" unless everything is interpreted into their native language for them. Therefore, the court interpreter is required to interpret everything that is said in the courtroom so that the defendant hears exactly what an English-speaking defendant would hear. This does not mean that the court interpreter explains what the proceedings mean; the interpreter must convey every single statement that is uttered in the courtroom, at the same language level or register in which it is stated, regardless of the defendant's ability to understand the concepts involved. Many of the proceedings are conducted at a rapid pace, as judges and attorneys are going through routine steps that they have done countless times before. The language they use is often difficult, if not impossible, for the uninitiated to understand. The challenge for the court interpreter is to render their statements into a target-language version (the target language is the language into which you are interpreting; the source language is the language out of which you are interpreting) that is as intelligible to the average non-English-speaking layman as the original message is to the average English-speaking layman, without adding or omitting anything.

Simultaneous interpretation is actually a misnomer, in that the word simultaneous suggests that the interpreter is interpreting a message as she hears it. In fact, there is a delay between the moment the interpreter hears a thought and the moment she renders that thought into the target language, because it takes time to understand the original message and generate a target-language rendition of it. Meanwhile, the speaker goes on to the next thought, so the interpreter must generate the target-language version of the first thought while processing the speaker's second thought, and so on. This delay is known as decalage, from the French word for time lag. The longer the interpreter is able to wait before beginning the target-language version, the more information she will have and the more accurate her target-language version will be.

Note that we have been speaking in terms of thoughts rather than words. It is the interpreter's task to convey the meaning of the original message. Every language organizes meaning differently, and trying to find direct equivalents in two languages often leads to absurd results. For example, consider the English expression to hand down a ruling. To translate that literally into another language is likely to produce ludicrous results--the equivalents of hand and down, for example, are unlikely to be present in a good translation into the target language. Thus, as the interpreter is listening to the source-language message, she must cast aside the external structure, the words, and attend to the underlying meaning.

The exercises in this chapter are designed to help you acquire the ability to lag behind the speaker while you analyze the meaning of the English version and generate your target-language version without losing the train of thought. This chapter presents 20 structured exercises (Lessons 1 - 20, recorded on Tapes 1B - 2B). The directions for each lesson are given both on the tape and in the script. The remaining simultaneous material consists of recordings of a variety of typical court proceedings for additional interpreting practice: Tape 3A contains expert witness testimony; Tape 3B contains general court proceedings; and Tape 4A contains jury instructions (extracts of these also appear in Lessons 1 - 20).

Here are definitions of the terms used in this chapter:

  • Shadow: Repeat what the speaker says, word for word, in the same language. Try to lag a full thought behind the speaker. This exercise allows you to become accustomed to speaking and listening at the same time. Repeat the exercise as many times as necessary, until you can shadow everything the speaker says without omitting any words. After you feel comfortable shadowing, go on to the dual task exercise. From then on, begin all of your simultaneous practice sessions with five or ten minutes of shadowing as a way of warming up.
    It is important (particularly if your native language is English) to practice shadowing in your second language. The Generic tape set provided with The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition contains only English source material. If you have one of the language-specific tape sets for The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition, you also have practice tapes in your second language. If a language-specific tape set is not available for your second language, you will need to generate practice tapes of your own. These can be recordings of foreign-language radio broadcasts, recordings of friends or relatives reading from foreign-language publications, etc.
  • Dual task: While shadowing, write something totally unrelated on a piece of paper. Begin by writing the numerals from 1 to 100, and then backwards from 100 to 1. When you can do that without omitting any of the speaker's words, count by 3s from 3 to 99, and then backwards. The point of this exercise is to increase your concentration and accustom you to working on two different tasks at once, in preparation for simultaneous interpreting, when you will have to process the source-language message while generating the target-language message. Whenever you get to the point that you can shadow the speaker easily while performing the written task, increase the difficulty of the written task (write out your name, address and social security number; then copy names and addresses from the phone book, etc.).
  • Paraphrase: Begin shadowing the speaker. As you go along, change the wording of the message wherever you can, without altering the meaning. This is a very difficult exercise (harder than interpreting, in fact) that serves several purposes: 1) it forces you to build up your decalage as you wait to hear something meaningful before rewording it; 2) it builds your vocabulary; 3) it increases your mental agility and problem-solving ability as you constantly think of different ways of saying the same thing; and 4) it enhances your analytical skills as you become more adept at ferreting out the underlying meaning of the message. It would be a good idea to look up alternative words and phrases in a synonym dictionary. Paraphrasing is a good maintenance exercise that you should return to periodically even after you begin interpreting. It is important to note that paraphrasing is a valuable learning tool and mental exercise; you should never paraphrase when you are actually interpreting in court, however.

The approximate speed at which the lesson is recorded is indicated in the script at the beginning of each lesson (e.g., 140 wpm). The tapes begin at a slow speed (115 words per minute), and build up to a maximum speed of 160 words per minute. Judges in the courtroom sometimes speak at a much faster rate (200 words per minute or more), especially when they are reading from a book. These exercises are designed for novice interpreters, however, and it is unrealistic to expect to be able to interpret at 200 words per minute at this stage. Moreover, most interpreter certification exams are given at 140 to 160 words per minute. Additional speed will come with practice and experience.

Note that you may repeat the interpreting exercises as many times as you need to; even if you have gotten to the point that you have memorized the tapes, you are still benefiting from the exercises. Lessons 1 - 20 will develop the individual components of simultaneous interpretation (concentration, analysis, speed, etc.), and repeating them many times can only enhance those skills. It will also help you to practice Tapes 3A - 4A many times, as the language of the courtroom is extremely formulaic and repetitious. Do not read the script while you are interpreting the tape; consult it afterwards to check for accuracy and to look up problem terms.

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Sample Simultaneous Interpretation Lesson (from The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition)

Simultaneous Lesson 12 (Tape 2A)

Directions: Interpret into your target language

(140 wpm)

Examination of Fingerprint Expert

Q: Detective Marlowe, can you explain to the jury, first of all, how fingerprints come about?

A: Well, a fingerprint is the impression left by the ridges of the skin on the tips of the finger. The body exudes certain oils and acids. When you touch something with your fingertips, you leave the impression of the ridges which are on your fingers.

Q: Are fingerprints unique, or is it theoretically possible for two people to have the same fingerprint?

A: No one has ever discovered a duplicate of a fingerprint, even on the same person or an identical twin, so it is possible to identify an individual with just one impression.

Q: Can a person's fingerprints change over time?

A: No, despite such factors as aging and environmental influences, a person's fingerprints do not change.

Q: Now, what is a latent fingerprint, Detective Marlowe?

A: A latent fingerprint is an invisible or unseen1 fingerprint. It is caused by the perspiration through the sweat pores on the ridges of the skin being transferred to some surface. Fingerprints also occur as residues when the finger ridges have been contaminated with such materials as oil, dirt, blood, or grease.

Q: Are there other types of fingerprints?

A: There are three different types of fingerprints. One is the type that is made deliberately when the finger is inked, as when someone applies for a driver's license. Another type is a visible impression left on a substance such as tar or wax. And the third type is the latent prints we will be discussing here, which is what you get when you touch a hard, smooth surface. The oils and acids would be left behind.

Q: How would you process latent fingerprints?

A: We would process this type with powder and a feather and we would apply dust over the area with the feather. The powder would adhere to those acids. Then, we would lift them with a clear plastic tape and apply it to a card of contrasting colors.

Q: Once you have obtained impressions of the fingerprints, how do you compare them for identification purposes?

A: We take them to the lab and compare them with known prints.

Q: And what is it you are looking for in this comparative process, Detective Marlowe?

A: Well, it is the ridge detail of the prints, including ends of ridges, their separations, and their relationship to each other, that constitutes the basis for identification of fingerprints. It takes from 10 to 12 "points," or identical characteristics, to establish individual identity.

Q: How are these points classified?

A: The major fingerprint patterns are known as arches, loops, and whorls, and they come in different variations, such as the plain arch, the double loop, etc.

Q: Thank you, Detective, that is all.

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1. These two English words are generally translated by just one word in the target language. This is often the case when a word derived from Latin (e.g., invisible) is used in conjunction with a synonym of Anglo-Saxon origin (e.g., unseen). Such combinations are typical of English legal usage.