Sunday, January 24, 2010

Which language are you speaking?

You’re probably all bilingual, and many of you speak more than two languages. Are you always aware of which of your languages you’re speaking? In the household where I live, two languages are spoken equally well. Usually we don’t think about which language we’re speaking unless something occurs to draw attention to it. The choice is automatic and unconscious, triggered by cues or stimuli from outside the speaker; the general rule is to respond in the same language as the stimulus. The stimulus is likely to be a remark or a question from somebody else, and the response a sort of ‘follow my leader’.

When translating, the situation is different. You have to be aware of which language you’re translating into because it has to be differentiated from the source language. However, there’s an aberrant behaviour that occurs from time to time in simultaneous interpretation (SI). SI is an activity that’s typical of Professional Expert Translators and therefore usually outside the scope of this blog (though see my August 27 post); but the aberration is worth mentioning because it occurs naturally and unconsciously. I call it involuntary shadowing.

Shadowing means repeating verbatim what a speaker is saying, and doing it ‘simultaneously‘. (I put ’simultaneously’ between inverted commas because, as in simultaneous interpreting, there’s always really a time lag of about two seconds.) It’s used as an exercise in interpreter training in order to accustom students to listening and speaking at the same time, and then it’s conscious and purposeful. However, something weird occasionally occurs to SI interpreters on the job. I think most conference interpreters will have had the experience or witnessed it. It’s happened to me at least two or three times, much to my momentary embarrassment. What happens is that the interpreter, instead of translating, unconsciously starts off by shadowing. It doesn’t last long, because either a colleague or the surprised reaction of the audience alerts the interpreter to the fact that something is wrong and then the interpreter is jerked into consciousness. The first time it happened to me, my booth colleague pinched my arm and whispered with a quizzical smile, “Which language are you speaking?”

There are several possible reasons for the deviance:

1) It’s leftover from the shadowing done in training. But I don’t think so, because shadowing is usually only used in the early stages of training, and most interpreters of my generation didn’t go through a methodical training anyway.

2) Even when training is over, some interpreters continue to practice it either out loud or to themselves. Properly done, it’s a good exercise for improving one’s second-language pronunciation and intonation. Yet I would think the embarrassment it causes would be strong enough to inhibit the interpreter from doing it on the job.

3) The cues that ought to trigger the right language fail to operate.

4) The interpreter has just previously been translating into the language that has now become the source language. This may happen particularly when the speaker switches his or her language in the middle of the discourse. (Bilingual speakers in Canada often do this.) The interpreter merely carries blithely on.

5) Whatever it may be that triggers the behaviour, my last suggestion is that for a brief while, upwards of a minute, the interpreter remains unconscious of which language he or she is speaking.

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