conference interpreter training, grad school, Interpreter Training, new interpreters, oral exam preparation

When Lagging Behind is a Good Thing

headphone-1417670It can be easy to understand the necessity of leaving a lag between the time your speaker begins speaking and the time you begin interpreting, especially when working with a combination like English to Spanish. When a speaker begins with, “We’ve got some high-quality, outstanding, ground-breaking, innovative…” I’m like, come on man, GIVE ME A NOUN. Is is products? Teams? Team members? Strategies? I need a noun before I can say one word, so I have no choice but to lag behind a bit. But there are many other benefits to mastering a healthy lag.

I’ve wanted to write about this, but I didn’t want to write in general terms; I wanted to give specific, language-neutral examples that bring the strategies to life. I just interpreted at a big sales and marketing conference, and I jotted down some examples from the work I did, where I was able to keep my head above water even with difficult speakers by using a long lag and some special strategies I learned in my training as a conference interpreter. Want to know my tricks? Here we go!

The rhetorical question: I love it. I probably overuse it, especially with fast speakers, or speakers who make me nervous because I’m not sure where they’re going. It saves energy, makes my interpretation way easier to follow, and is probably my fave technique. Here’s what it looks like:

“But the reason I love this is…” turns into “Why do I love this?” Or if you’re really crunched for time and mental space, forget the rhetorical question and a simple, “I love it!” will do.

“The reason for that is…” turns into a simple, “Why?”

“We’ve done so much over the past few years in terms of…” turns into, “So what have we done in the past few years? We’ve…”

Segmentation: Similar to the rhetorical question, this took a long time for me to wrap my head around. In both cases, you’re taking a chunk of information as soon as possible and turning it into an individual sentence (or question), even if the speaker hasn’t finished his sentence yet. Here’s what it looks like:

“Another thing that we did was…” turns into “We did something else.”

“What I love about your story is that although it’s unique, it has so much in common with everyone else’s story” turns into “I love your story. It’s unique. It has so much in common with everyone else’s story.”

“Before I get down to business, we’re going to bring out our next guest” turns into “I’m going to get down to business. But first we’ll bring out our next guest.”

Why is this useful? What’s wrong with just interpreting all of this as-is? Fundamentally, nothing. It doesn’t seem too complicated, right? Except when the speaker starts talking in circles with, “But the reason I love this is–And I love what Mike said about this before–Is that it’s so simple, I mean when we survey our clients, what they want is–And we all know that we’re here to focus on what the client wants…” You will be glad that you turned that first thing into a rhetorical question or a short sentence, and got it off your plate so that you’re not trying to follow the crazy ramblings of someone going off script, or someone following a really terrible script.

The whole thing can be broken down like this: “Why do I love this? Mike already said it. It’s simple. We survey our clients. What do they want? We’re going to focus on just that.” You can see it’s also very useful for fast speakers. Since you’re just spitting out smaller chunks, you have more time to listen and understand where the speaker is going, and less possibilities to get lost and/or drown.

General trickiness, especially when working into your B language: Since finishing my training, I have worked exclusively into my B language when interpreting simultaneously, and I’ve learned to work with the present tense and verb infinitives whenever possible. Here’s what it looks like:

“We never would have met if it hadn’t been for this organization” turns into “We met because of this organization.”

“If your sales could skyrocket, your life would change,” turns into “Your sales skyrocket! Your life changes!”

“I don’t think I could tell your team anything that you haven’t already told them” turns into “You’ve already said it all to your team.”

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than this event” turns into “This event is the best way to celebrate.”

So what about the lag? I’ve heard some ASL interpreters refer to this as “processing time”. Whatever you want to call it, the idea is the same: Listening until you have enough information to be sure that when you open your mouth, something is going to come out that makes sense. You’ll notice that all the examples above require doing exactly that. It would be impossible to do any of this if you’re right on the speaker’s heals, which is generally a bad strategy unless numbers are flying at you–Then you might want to tighten up that lag.

It’s intuitive that a good short-term memory is key for consecutive interpreting, but given these examples, you can see that we also engage it for simultaneous. The better your short-term memory, the longer your lag, and the more you can engage some of these techniques when the going gets tough. It’s a constant storing, maybe rearranging, and queueing up small bits of information that are then delivered to your dear listener’s ear.

Now. Lest anyone think that having a good command of your lag and few techniques is a magic bullet, none of that matters unless you’re rested, prepared, and have a good team. After finishing my training, it took about a year of work to really get a handle on these techniques, and I’m still working on them. What are your favorite techniques? How have you learned to use the lag to your benefit? Share with us in the comments!

1 thought on “When Lagging Behind is a Good Thing”

  1. Great strategies and thank you for sharing your knowledge. I will consider incorporating your suggestions.

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