Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Interpreter’s Voice(s) - 1

The other day I was reading a comprehensive manual of interpreter training by a Spanish friend when I came upon a quotation that confirmed something I've long suspected. It's from an article by the late Hildegund Bühler. She ranks the qualities of a 'good' interpretation. Most Expert Interpreters and interpretation teachers would put something like her "Sense consistency with the original message" in first rank. Bühler's list, however, begins with "native accent" in first place. This is understandable if you know that her ranking is based not on what the experts think but on the preferences of listeners to the interpretations. As I used to say to my students, "You can get away with murder if you do it with a native accent."

But a surprise came with her second-ranking quality, still well ahead of "sense consistency", etc. It's "pleasant voice".

I like to believe this because of an incident that occurred to me when I was interpreting at a conference in Canada. A lady came up to me in one of the intervals and said shyly, “It doesn’t matter which language you’re speaking. I just love to sit and listen to your voice.” I have no illusions; I’m no Basil Rathbone. But it was a compliment I’ll never forget.

I take no credit for it. The germ of our speaking voices, like the germ of translating, is something natural that we’re born with. However, like other natural capabilities, it can be modified by culture and training. (For which reason Spaniards tend to have loud voices from childhood.)

Here, though, is a counter-story. We had a student come to us at the University of Ottawa for interpreting who was already an Expert Translator. In fact he was a staff translator for the Government of Canada who wanted to change career path. After several months in the programme, the time arrived for his final examination. He was the student we felt we had the least to worry about that year.

To our horror and astonishment, he failed.

I should explain that our juries were made up of external Professional Interpreters and not of teachers from the university. So as soon as possible, I asked one of the examiners what on earth had gone wrong. This is the reply I got:
“Oh, yes. He can translate all right and he’s fast enough. But can you imagine having to sit and listen to that dreary voice all day.”
Efforts to find a suitable voice coach for him in Ottawa failed. We turned to the university’s drama school and sent him for a course there; but it turned out to be focused on the loud voice needed for the theatre. However, there was a happy ending. With the help and criticism of colleagues, he improved and the following year he passed.

The 'compleat' Expert Interpreter needs to have mastered not one but several registers of voice. Here they are listed in order of increasing loudness:
1. Whispering
2. Microphone
3. Telephone
4. Dialogue
5. Court
6. Oratorical
Let's go through them.

1. Whispering may be true whispering, ie, to speak very softly using one's breath rather than one's throat and devoicing the voiced sounds. Or it may be murmuring, ie, using normal articulation but very quietly. This is a natural mode but it has a common fault in practice, which is to let the volume rise to a point where it disturbs other people around who don't want the interpretation.

2. Microphone voice. This is the register used in simultaneous interpreting, for an obvious reason, and hence in the stories told above. Since microphones aren't natural, nor is this register. But it's not only a matter of volume. If you've listened to your voice recorded through a mike you know – and may have heard with surprise – how the process changes its timbre and hence its character. Common faults are speaking too close to the mike, hissing on sibilants, speaking too loud. The last is made more likely by the headphones simultaneous interpreters have to wear. Today the register is needed as much for TV as for meetings or radio.

3. Telephone interpreting. Close to (2), but telephones have less fidelity than professional mikes and the context is complicated by the use of speakerphones. The rise of a telephone interpreting industry has made this register important almost overnight.

4. Dialogue interpreting. This is the register of much community/public service medical and diplomatic interpreting, where there are meetings with two or very few participants. Cecilia Wadensjö coined the term in connection with immigration and medical work. It is the register closest to everyday conversation, and is therefore natural. However, care must be taken to maintain a volume that enables all the participants to hear without straining.

5. Court interpreting. Here we take a big jump into the unnatural. It's the register not only for the courts strictly speaking, but also for tribunals and public hearings, workshops, etc., that are still often conducted without microphones. In court it is a legal as well as a practical necessity that everything the interpreter says be heard by all present, even the people seated behind the interpreter, and this requires high volume and voice 'projection'.

6. Oratorical. For large audiences. There should be a microphone for it but sometimes there isn't. I've had to do it, for example, when the equipment for simultaneous had broken down. It requires conscious boosting of volume, projection and endurance equal to what is required for the traditional theatre. Indeed I got my training for it doing amateur theatricals at school.

To be continued.

María Gracia Torres Díaz. Enseñar y aprender a interpretar: curso de interpretación de lenguas Español/Inglés. Malaga: Encasa, 2004, p. 228.

Basil Rathbone: there are several recordings of his readings of Poe’s The Raven and The Red Death on YouTube. They are the best.

Hildegund Bühler. Linguistic (semantic) and extra-linguistic (pragmatic) criteria for the evaluation of conference interpretation and interpreters. Multilingua, vol. 5, no. 4, 1986, pp. 231-235.

Cecilia Wadensjö. Interpreting as Interaction: On
dialogue-interpreting in immigration hearings and medical encounters.
Linköping University, 1992.



  1. Thanks for a lightening article and projection. Your article pinpoints skills that one has to train h/herself for. The volume and the flaw of voice waves.

  2. When I was at the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, we used to call this quality 'physical fitness'. That is, one's voice was fit for his or her pursuing training as an interpreter. It was a prerequisite for admitting a student into that instructional track. I suppose another part of physical fitness would be the ability to carry on at length, beyond the usual limits of a twenty minute stretch before being relieved. I once witnessed one of my interpreting instructors perform at a press conference for a full 45 minutes. Now that's physical fitness!