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The Robot Interpreter

I recently heard a fellow interpreter on the witness stand for the first time. Of course, I was curious, and as I heard the first rendition come out of her mouth, my reaction was “wow, she’s good!” In fact, for a moment I even thought she was using sim-consec, the technique by which you combine simultaneous and consecutive interpreting modes with the aid of a special pen and notepad. Basically, while you take your notes the pen acts as a recorder, and you can play back from any point in the recorded event, listening through earbuds connected to the pen. One of the manufacturers of this “smartpen” technology, describes it like this: Real ink on real paper is immediately digitized and transcribed in the Livescribe+ app where they can be stored, shared, tagged, and searched, making notes more useful than ever before. The app can also record audio and sync it to notes taken at that time in the form of a pencast.

Well, as it turned out, she was not using sim-consec. She just had a really good memory and was really good at taking notes. I am always happy when I see a good performance by a colleague. But then (of course there’s a “but”!) I started to notice something else. The interpreter was not putting in her rendition any of the intonation from the source speakers’ questions and answers. Everything came out like some sort of drone, in a single tone of voice, reminiscent of a robot in a sci-fi movie from the 50s. She was also sitting back in her chair, a bit lackadaisical, in complete contrast with her flawless renditions sans the intonation. I started to wonder if these two—her posture and her monotone rendition—didn’t go hand in hand, somehow.

The balance between detachment and involvement is a very difficult one. So is the balance between lexical accuracy and pragmatic accuracy. I suspect that if you can find the balance in one, you will find it in the other.

Judiciary interpreters have to be impartial, and detachment from whatever case we are assigned to cover is the best way to maintain that impartiality. On the other hand, I have found that “getting inside the head” of the people for whom I am interpreting is a great mnemonic strategy, because it helps me understand the source language message—not just the words—and recreate that same message in the target language the way that person would have said it, if that person could have communicated in the target language. Of course, I apply that process equally for defense attorneys, prosecutors, criminal defendants, and witnesses.

I do not get “involved” in the sense that I don’t have any interest in the outcome of a proceeding. My only interest is the accuracy of my rendition. However, my lexical accuracy—meaning, my choice of words—cannot be complete if I leave out the pragmatic aspects of an oral message. To put it in simple words: leaving out the intonation that differentiates a request from a demand, a promise from an informative statement, hesitation from self-assurance, and so forth, can change the meaning of the words you choose, even if those words are technically correct.

Emphasis on a single word can change the meaning of a complete utterance. Take, for example, the simple statement: “I went there.” If you place the emphasis on the “I”, it means “I as opposed to someone else.” If you emphasize “went”, it means you took that action (going), as opposed to not taking it (not going). If you emphasize “there”, it means you went to a specific place (which must have been mentioned before in the conversation, for this phrase to make sense) as opposed to any other place.

Leaving out intonation in consecutive interpreting can distort meaning as much as changing registers, or omitting part of the source language message. If your witness does not sound like a robot, neither should you. If your prosecutor is being hostile in his intonation, so should you. If your defense attorney is being kind and sweet during examination, so should you. A good consecutive will include all the words, but a great consecutive will include the words and their proper intonation in the target language.

- Janis Palma

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