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Interpreting is a rather complex procedure. Leaving aside the educational and training background, a subject that has been explained widely, the actual process that takes place in the brain of an interpreter in action is difficult to describe. Consider the interpreter’s head as a machine that from one side a language flows constantly in and another one pours out from the other side. A machine, only a human one. A trained interpreter has some burnt brain cells during training and perhaps some more throughout his/her career. It is inevitable!
Below I will attempt to describe some thoughts of a Greek-English-Greek interpreter (my own!) that have occurred during or looking back (not in anger!) at some of the interpreting assignments I have completed in the past.
Two interpreters are needed when an interpreting project’s duration exceeds three hours. They tend to take turns every thirty minutes to rest for a short period of time and so it goes until the end of the interpreting assignment. God forbid, when only one interpreter sits in the booth alone for more than 3 hours. I recall at the beginning of my career sitting alone in a booth and not being able to walk let alone use my head after the assignment. A fried brain is a non-working brain.
The time an interpreter is in action is a holy and sacred time. Concentration and focus are key elements. During this time, nothing exists; the interpreter is in an isolated place of her/his own, in outer space with nothing surrounding her/him but the voices in the headphones. And yes, it can happen that the brain can go blank, an interpreter may not temporarily remember a term in any language she/her speaks. It is but human. Panic does strike when this is realized and skillful bouncing back topped with lots of self-control and composure is rapidly in need.
Sometimes arguments and hot-blooded, fiery, offensive opinions are heard that can cause potential nerve turbulence in the hall. Again, the interpreter needs to step in and perhaps act as a fire-fighter. Silence on behalf of the interpreter is usually adopted until the hall quiets down.
Interpreters tend to be hidden inside their booths and act like a voice coming from afar. None usually sees them. The booth is their home; they feel secure behind its closed door. So, when one gets out of her/his comfort zone and can actually been seen, a little more stress and nervousness is added until she/he adapts to the unfamiliar habitat! Lots of eyes stare at them and they are under the spot-light.
Criticism comes with the profession, just like with any other professions! Usually it comes from people who not only are unable to perform a simple task of interpreting but being under the same stress would not even remember their own name. Applause and congratulations do come with it too, thank God! I remember seeing a moderator giving me the thumbs-up when a non-native speaker was giving his speech in my language combination.
Lots of terminology research and studying is hidden behind every interpreting assignment. I tend to see every assignment as an exam that I need to pass. An exam with no particular material, no books to prepare me for it. A topic’s terminology is so vast that could not ever be covered to its max. It is thin air! Oh, the joy and how convenient it is for me when the speeches are at my disposal days in advance! The element of surprise is minimized!
Every assignment stays in the temporary memory of my hard-drive (my brain). When the assignment is over, the temporary memory file empties, as if a Delete-button is miraculously pressed. People approach me asking what the interpreting was about and I look at them with the expression of a clueless animal curved in my face. I simply do not remember!
To all the interpreters of the world: What thoughts have come through your head during or after an interpreting assignment? Please, do not let me stand here alone, do share them with me!