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The Interpreter Phenomenon

If you’re a translator who has never interpreted before, you may be rolling your eyes already. But I encourage you to read a little further. If you are an interpreter or have interpreted before, you may already know where I’m going with this.

First, let me say that what follows is just my experience and is in no way scientific. However, it is logical. Let me explain. What I refer to as “the interpreter phenomenon” is my theory that interpreting and/or sight translation contribute to making translators faster at their craft. Skeptical? Well, let me tell you my story.

A few years after graduating from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, I was still struggling to support myself full-time as a translator, as many do in the beginning of their careers. Upon graduation, I swore that I would never work as an interpreter. It didn’t suit my personality at all. I really enjoyed finding the right word and the right way to say something and interpretation felt too fast and, frankly, too messy to me. I wanted to have the time to do the appropriate research to be sure I had the right, or at least the best, answer for every single word or phrase. But it was getting to the point that I had to start thinking outside the box to support myself. Enter interpretation.

I was hired to work for a local medical interpretation agency and it is an understatement to say that I was terrified. What if I said the wrong thing? What if I didn’t know a word? But once I began, clients requested me repeatedly so it appeared I was doing something right. Still, the feeling of absolute dread every time I walked into a job never went away. Eventually, the translation side of my business grew and I realized that I was turning down higher-paying translation jobs to interpret so I stopped.

What was really interesting though was that I saw my output increasing on a regular basis while I was also working as an interpreter. When I stopped, my output began decreasing gradually. This was really frustrating and I struggled to figure out what was going on. Well, what was going on was the interpreter phenomenon.

Because I was regularly in situations where I had to be decisive and choose my terminology immediately, this decisiveness carried over into my translation work. Notice that I say decisiveness and not carelessness. It wasn’t about forgoing necessary research, it was about trusting myself and my skills. I needed to stop second-guessing everything I did. Working as an interpreter forced me out of this habit but as mentioned above, it creeped back in when I stopped interpreting. So, what could I do to get it back?

I began practicing sight translation and, almost immediately, my output began gradually increasing again. Even better, I felt more confident and sure about my choices. I even felt less anxiety when I hit send and generally felt like it was easier for me to hit a stride in every job I took. This was a huge advantage. Nowadays, I rarely practice sight translation but I retained this decisiveness. How? By using dictation software.

Dictation software has essentially allowed me to continue to practice sight translating without having to dedicate additional time to it. Every time I do a translation, I’m killing two birds with one stone and I can honestly say that these days, after dictating a translation, I change very little at the proofreading step except for the occasional dictation blooper (e.g., “March to” instead of “March 2”) or typo. While there are a lot of factors in this, the interpreter phenomenon is certainly one of them.

Posted in Productivity, Technology.

One Comment

  1. Interesting! I’m both an interpreter and a translator. I studied translation and also thought I would never work as an interpreter, and got into it for the same reason as you. However, I found I really enjoy it and am good at it!

    I thought your title “The Interpreter Phenomenon” referred to that moment in an interpretation when you hear a word in the source language and think “oh no, how do you say that in [target language] again??” and then as you are interpreting the rest of the utterance, the word comes to you at the exact moment you need it. I love that moment! I think what happens is your brain fully assimilates the meaning, and then once you have switched to the other language, you are speaking as a fluent speaker of that language and all the vocabulary you know becomes readily available to you.

    But I like your phenomenon too! I have been hearing a lot about dictation software speeding up translation and I definitely want to try it.

    Great post, thanks!

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