Friday, July 12, 2013

Sight Interpreting

An alternative model

Theory models always simplify. They do this so that we can see the wood for the trees, but in so doing they discard important details and nuances. So the model that is illustrated strikingly by the image at the head of the preceding post is an over-generalisation. Most obviously, it shows the interpreter listening on one side and speaking on the other, which totally ignores sign language. Hence the alternative, equally over-simplified model shown above. For the moment, however, let's focus on some less-known variants in the media employed.
First, written input instead of voice input. This affects interpreters at all levels, from Expert to Natural (once they can read of course). I've told elsewhere the story of how one of my earliest encounters with Natural Translation was overhearing a young girl in a post office in Ottawa interpreting an English official form into Portuguese for her father. This hybrid of written translating and interpreting has a traditional name, sight translation, and it's a common exercise in translator training schools. It's good practice these days for dictating translations, whether to a secretary or to a computer. At a more advanced level, Expert Court Interpreters, for example, are often handed documents in court and required to give a verbal translation of them on the spot. What's less apparent is that there's a good deal of sight translation in conference interpreting. It happens because many speakers are in fact reading aloud from a prepared text and make a copy of it available to the interpreters, sometimes in advance. If the paper is very technical or the presenter has poor elocution or the acoustics are bad, it may be easier to interpret from the written text than by listening.
An extreme case of 'sight translation' in conference interpreting is when the speaker provides a prepared translation and the interpreter just has to read it out. In Canada, ministers' speeches are usually translated in advance for fast distribution to the press, etc. When a minister was scheduled for a meeting where I was to interpret, I used to hang around the entrance to the venue to catch his or her entourage as they entered, and – if I was lucky – grab a copy of the prepared official translation from one the aides.
It happens too at the United Nations occasionally, due to a curious provision in the rules for the General Assembly. Whereas speakers must normally address the UN in one of its official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish), there's an exception whereby heads of state may address the General Assembly in their own language whatever it may be. But there's also a proviso: if the head of state chooses a non-official language, then his or her delegation must provide the UN interpreters with a prepared translation into one of the official languages. (Muammar Gaddafi once threw the UN Arabic interpreters into a loop by speaking in Arabic, but in his own Libyan dialect instead of the Standard Arabic normally spoken at conferences and without providing a translation. See References.)
Then there is yet another mode of input, known in some professional circles as sight interpreting and not to be confused with sight translation (though if you google sight interpreting vs sight translation you'll see that many people are in fact confused). In this mode the interpreter both listens to the speaker and reads from the printed text at the same time. A reminder of it came in a remark in a recent email I received from Andrew Owen, a veteran sign-language church interpreter (see References):
My particular interest is in visually interpreting the public reading of Scripture, because there is no sign language Bible to read from (a Spanish interpreter can pick up her Spanish Bible and read).
Why listen while reading? For one thing, to keep in step with the speaker and not have the interpreter race ahead, which would be disconcerting for the audience. In any case, sight interpreting is difficult, because it requires attention to two input channels as well as a third output channel. It's not for Natural Interpreters, and as Andrew says, "most church interpreters are unprofessional." Even in Expert Conference Interpreting, if there are two interpreters in the booth then the one not currently interpreting should keep an ear on the one who is and another ear on the speaker in order to give the working colleague a nudge in the event that the latter gets out of step.
At the UN, the written translation provided for speakers in a non-official language is read out by a regular UN interpreter. But the UN interpreter can't understand and follow the speaker, so who's to keep speaker and interpreter in step? That task is performed by someone who does understand the speaker's language, usually a member of his or her delegation, and does so by pointing to the segment of the translation that corresponds to what the speaker is saying at the moment. For which reason, the person is known jokingly as the finger man.

  • Mail Foreign Service. 'I just can't take it any more'... Gaddafi's translator 'collapsed with exhaustion' during his UN rant. Mail Online, 25 September 2009 . Read more here.
  • The description of the United Nations exception for heads of state and of the finger man was given to my students by Remco Kraft, an interpreter trainer, when I visited the UN in New York with them in 1987, and no doubt represents actual practice. It differs from the UN regulations cited in the Wikipedia article 'Official languages of the United Nations', but only slightly.
  • Andrew Owen will be giving a paper entitled Interpreting the public reading of Scripture at the European Society for Translation Studies conference in Germersheim, Germany, Panel 19 (Translation and Interpreting in religious settings), on August 29 or 30. The conference programme is here.
Source: The Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc., Sign Language Interpreter Deaf Ministry


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