A couple of weeks ago I watched a simultaneous interpreter in action. Four days in a row, six hours a day I witnessed wizardry.
Conference interpreting is a rare assignment; it’s well-paid and highly prized. Interpreters look forward to it with great anticipation but also nervously—it is their star performance.
The star performance takes place in a dark booth. There, in front of the microphone, life narrows down to a tunnel; the interpreter puts on her headphones and the world ceases to exist. She—let’s call her Natasha K.—tunes herself to the speaker, his mood and manner, his voice and gestures, she turns into his oracle, he will now speak through her voice.
Saying she is talented would explain away too readily and detract from character and hard work. For she has put in a lot of effort even before the performance takes place—hours of reading and research—to become familiar with the topic, to understand it in a different language, to find succinct equivalents in her own, to memorize them. Yesterday in the morning she interpreted for a criminal court hearing… in the afternoon she helped architects, who knew their terminology back and forth, but she was to be their linguistic bridge… and now she’s doing the latest business model for running a fitness club… Of course, she was at her computer until midnight preparing…
Yet she is talented. Because aside from the preparation, beyond the memorized words and expressions, something magical is now taking place in her—or rather through her. As quick as her thinking is, she couldn’t consciously go through the multiple options and choose a sentence. No, something is happening on a deeper level. She says what she says in a moment of creation where there is no more thinking or mental control. It is her talent that guides her to exist in the moment, to be like the concert pianist who during a performance forgets about his technique, stops thinking about his audience, and lets something nameless and unnamable flow through him. Peek into the booth and you will see her wave her arms, make faces, move her feet—she is the dancing dervish, she is the rambling Pythia—she is possessed by the spirit of simultaneous interpreting. Her talent is that her mind is split into two: one part is listening and remembering what the speaker is saying now, the other is saying what he said five seconds ago. Her talent is that more than 200,000 words of modern Russian are in a tiny bubble bouncing on the tip of her tongue, readily jumping out in millions of combinations within the split of a second. Her talent is that when the world starts hurling at her words and ideas with a machine-gun rapidity, she turns into an elegant d’Artagnan swishing her rapier precisely and deadly, Pushkin’s Improviser weaving poetry on the spot, Harry Potter waving his wand in mortal danger.
Is anybody listening? Or is it all for nothing? Like any performer she needs feedback and is sensitive to little signs of success or failure. Someone in the audience has taken off his headphones, got up, and is walking out of the room. Oh, my God, is it because of her? Did he hate what she just said? Has he got enough of her hemming and hawing and butchered sentences?.. Oh, wait, he may not be Russian… his T-shirt says ¡Viva Barcelona! Maybe he hates the Spanish interpreter…
Only at the end of those four days she may learn that it wasn’t for nothing. When a Russian woman overcomes her shyness, walks to the booth, and says thank you, you helped us understand, you have been our eyes and ears… Then she knows: somebody was listening.
She comes home at night, puts on the kettle, sits on the couch. Her brain is still racing. Fragments of sentences, missed words, vague thoughts—she heard them all but didn’t have the time to render… she could have done it so much better… when he said that, she could have interpreted it more elegantly… it would have been so much better… there was something else more precise to say… what was it?.. can’t remember now… then he said something else that…
Even wizards fall asleep, sometimes sitting on the couch. It’s good that the kettle is electric and will turn off automatically.