first experiences with simultaneous interpretation

Brussels

A couple of weeks ago, on the same day, I met two young men, each doing a week-long internship in the office of a Member of the EP. Adam had been in a session where they were discussing human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Tristan had also witnessed a debate about human rights, in the DROI subcommittee on the situation in Sri Lanka. Each of them talked about their first time experience with the simultaneous interpretation (SI) system.
Both were disoriented. Adam had the worst of it, apparently, because in the meeting he attended most of the discussion was in a language other than English and he had to rely on the SI for everything. At one point in the discussion, an interpreter realized an error had been made and offered a correction. For Adam,

the SI was “not always clear, there were pauses. They said something, then said ‘that was wrong,’ and said something else. It was confusing!” He thought some of the interpreters had pre-printed information and were “just reading it off, that was fine,” but otherwise, “it was annoying. I didn’t understand very much.”

The fieldnote I wrote to myself after we spoke was, “first time experience = bewildering (my word).”
From my vantage point – Adam was not pointing a finger in any particular direction, he was just reflecting on the complexity of the process. His experience gave me a fresh window on the experience of MEPs who’ve told me it can take up to two years to learn how to communicate effectively in this system (with the caveat that some learn fast, and others never do). Also, I want to say kudos to the interpreter! It’s humbling to have to correct a misunderstanding because it never matters to the listeners who or how the original disconnect occurred, they assume you messed up. A variation on kill-the-messenger. (One of the foci of my general critique is this assumption that a mistake or misunderstanding is an individual’s fault, rather than a feature of the communication of the whole group.)
Tristan was also confused, but most of the meeting he observed was in English, which (it seems) gave him enough grounding in the content of the debate to be able to look around when someone spoke in another language. Tristan said he “had to look to the English booth to see who was gesticulating, then I was like, ok, now I know what’s going on.” He elaborated on his experience in an email:

“i tried to look to see who was interpreting at all the committee meetings I attended…it was the first time i had experienced simultaneous interpretation, and it was an instinctive attempt to identify the person whose voice i was hearing.”

One reason (I speculate, on the basis of the smallest sample possible!) that some Members may take longer to adapt to communicating with SI (in twenty-three languages, remember) is what those early experiences are like. If most of the communication is happening in an unknown or less-fluent language, then that forces more reliance on the SI, which could be more disorienting and thus take longer to wade through as far as getting one’s bearings. If one is fortunate enough to understand the language(s) being spoken, then one relies on the SI less, and possibly gains a quicker appreciation for how to use it to individual and political purpose.

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