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How interpreters juggle two languages at once – Ewandro Magalhaes


In 1956, during a diplomatic
reception in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
told Western Bloc ambassadors, “My vas pokhoronim!” His interpreter rendered that
into English as, “We will bury you!” This statement sent shockwaves
through the Western world, heightening the tension between
the Soviet Union and the US who were in the thick of the Cold War. Some believe this incident alone
set East/West relations back a decade. As it turns out, Khrushchev’s remark
was translated a bit too literally. Given the context, his words
should have been rendered as, “We will live to see you buried,” meaning that Communism
would outlast Capitalism, a less threatening comment. Though the intended meaning
was eventually clarified, the initial impact of Khrushchev’s
apparent words put the world on a path
that could have led to nuclear armageddon. So now, given the complexities of language
and cultural exchange, how does this sort of thing
not happen all the time? Much of the answer lies with the skill
and training of interpreters to overcome language barriers. For most of history, interpretation
was mainly done consecutively, with speakers and interpreters making
pauses to allow each other to speak. But after the advent of radio technology, a new simultaneous interpretations system
was developed in the wake of World War II. In the simultaneous mode interpreters instantaneously
translate a speaker’s words into a microphone while he speaks. Without pauses, those in the audience
can choose the language in which they want to follow. On the surface, it all looks seamless, but behind the scenes, human interpreters work incessantly to ensure every idea
gets across as intended. And that is no easy task. It takes about two years of training
for already fluent bilingual professionals to expand their vocabulary
and master the skills necessary to become a conference interpreter. To get used to the unnatural task
of speaking while they listen, students shadow speakers and repeat their every word
exactly as heard in the same language. In time, they begin to paraphrase
what is said, making stylistic adjustments as they go. At some point, a second language
is introduced. Practicing in this way creates new neural
pathways in the interpreter’s brain, and the constant effort of reformulation
gradually becomes second nature. Over time and through much hard work, the interpreter masters a vast array
of tricks to keep up with speed, deal with challenging terminology, and handle a multitude of foreign accents. They may resort to acronyms
to shorten long names, choose generic terms over specific, or refer to slides and other visual aides. They can even leave a term
in the original language, while they search for the most
accurate equivalent. Interpreters are also skilled at keeping
aplomb in the face of chaos. Remember, they have no control
over who is going to say what, or how articulate the speaker will sound. A curveball can be thrown at any time. Also, they often perform
to thousands of people and in very intimidating settings, like the UN General Assembly. To keep their emotions in check, they carefully prepare for an assignment, building glossaries in advance, reading voraciously
about the subject matter, and reviewing previous talks on the topic. Finally, interpreters work in pairs. While one colleague is busy translating
incoming speeches in real time, the other gives support
by locating documents, looking up words, and tracking down pertinent information. Because simultaneous interpretation
requires intense concentration, every 30 minutes, the pair switches roles. Success is heavily dependent
on skillful collaboration. Language is complex, and when abstract or nuanced concepts
get lost in translation, the consequences may be catastrophic. As Margaret Atwood famously noted,
“War is what happens when language fails.” Conference interpreters of all people
are aware of that and work diligently behind the scenes
to make sure it never does.

100 Replies to “How interpreters juggle two languages at once – Ewandro Magalhaes”

  • But how do they deal with the fact that the different languages might have opposite syntaxs? Some languages have the subject at the beginning of a sentence while others have it at the end. How can they articulate these things while also keeping up with the next sentence?

  • …Was that a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference with the highway being built through Earth? Because if it was, I am very pleased.

  • You know, I'm a native Russian speaker, but there is no way you could actually understand that phrase the "right" way. Oh yeah, the interpreter's fault, right… Because surely, Russian language have this as a metaphorical expression which means "our system will outlive yours" (no, it doesn't).

  • I thought the worst would be when dealing with two languages with very different sentence structure.

    For example, in German past tense and probably most of Japanese tense the verb is put at the last bit of the sentence – in English it's usually pretty early in the sentence.

  • I get a headache just reading books in Spanish (I'm not fluent so I have to translate it into English in my head) I don't know how they do it

  • Even the intended message could've been taken the wrong way. Live to see you buried might imply that Russia will bury America. Poor ineloquent Russians.

  • my mom is a CMI (certified medical interpreter) and that means she had to learn every medical term that doctors learn, but in english and spanish, and also have the ability to almost instantaneously translate them. it never fails to blows my mind watching her interpret because of just how difficult it is and how much intelligence and concentration it takes. these people deserve so much respect!!

  • you never stop learning new words or concepts for their entire carreer i know i did for over 35 years as a sign language interpreter

  • I love this video and the animation, but why is the Russian tricolor used when Nikita Khrushchev is present and not the flag of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the video?

  • I have now been Interpreting from English to Swahili and Swahili to English for now 19 years and the video summarize it all. Nice one to see what I have lived for and on being repeated by someone else yet we never planned to share the same together. For all your Swahili Interpretation tasks look no further! #xl8
    #MT #bilingual #translation

  • I am currently an educational interpreter at my university. Although not as intense as conference interpreting seems, there are definitely similarities. I feel so appreciated and like I can finally explain what I do!

    Thanks for the video

  • I’m completely fluent in bot English and Spanish. And it was a challenge to directly translate what was being said in the video. Every once in a while a single word would set me back a lot.

  • Should the people whose words will be translated try to talk at regular speeds or even a bit slow, to not make the interpreters' jobs harder?

  • My dad interpreted English into Tahitian for a while. There was this one speech about our prioritizing out needs over our wants. Unfortunately, in Tahitian, these are the same words. So for 20 minutes, my dad was essentially saying, "we should separate our wants-wants from our wants and not let our wants get in the way of our want-wants." He said it was one of the hardest 20 minutes of his life up through that point. 🙂

  • For the last two years Interpreters were very frustrated with Trump, because his speech is so inconsistent and confused. Usually translating politicians is easier because they keep a decently consistent and formal tone and don't make up crazy lies every couple sentences.

  • I imagine that this job shaves off at least 20 years of their lives due to the constant stress. The salary and benefits better be worth it.

  • I have a bad habit of using English words in the other languages i know. So i dont usually speak purely one language. Makes it so hard to convey myself completely in one language

  • Anyone who is a bilingual or a multilingual is actually an interpreter, albeit he does it for his own comprehension. I'm lucky to be one of those. It is truly a magical feeling being able to understand and communicate in more than one language simultaneously !

  • After five years of interpreting Mandarin, I feel this video vindicates all interpreters from thpse who insist that it's easy.

  • A round of applause for our hard work to bring the World together.👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Thumbs up if you are an interpreter or translator! 👍🏼

  • I think I might be able to do this with English/Swedish… I can read something out loud in Swedish that was written in English, fluently, as I am reading, with no real pause. I've never done it with speech though. It's probably a lot harder to talk over somebody and simultaneously translate, as opposed to reading translating and speaking. Or is it similar?

  • Not true. Мы вас похороним is "we'll bury you" and you can't translate that as "we'll see you buried", that's just not how that phrase works.

  • Am I the only one who cringes just a little bit when interpreters are called “translators”? Thank you, TED-Ed for educating the general public on the correct term. Interpreter: Spoken word
    Translator: Written word
    I love your videos!

  • Here in Malaysia we constantly juggle up to 3 languages, the Malay language, the English language and either Chinese or Tamil.

  • This is only relevant to people who only speak one languange. As a multi language speaker myself, translating is a daily part of life, so I think this is a bit far fetched

  • But how are they able to speak at the same time as they're listening? How do they not get lost or miss out any words? I find it almost impossible to actively listen to someone while talking myself.

  • mad respect for interpreters in all fields be it conference, medical or other. their jobs can be very stressful especially knowing that any error in translation could lead to huge misunderstandings. i major in linguistics but i knew from the beginning that interpreting wasn't for me

  • Ive been interpreting for 3 years. It is rewarding but I feel stuck and don’t know how to branch out to other companies or were to take my skills. Someone help?!

  • As a person who has mastered 2 languages at a very young age, I'm surprised how people find this so difficul. The only downside is that sometimes I forget a word in english so I end up saying the word in arabic and doing wierd hand gestures as if to prove my point. I am probably the worst translator.😂

  • I am fluent biligual, and grew up with a third language that I still speak but am not fluent in. On top of that three more languages which I learned at school or taught myself to intermediate levels. I never had training as a simulatenous interpreter, but ended up getting handed the job for a conference. I found it much easier translating in one direction (from German to English) than the other way round, even though I soeak both languages equally as a native speaker. In any case, I really loved the experience of speaking while listening, one has to anticipate what the speaker is saying and go along with it, it felt very intuitive as there is no time to reflect, and indeed the participants thought that this was my profession. I'm saying all this because I wonder if speaking as many as three languages within the family (as is the case is many immigrant or mixed ethnicity families) pre forms some of the neurological pathways the presenter is talking about. You kind of grow up translating simultaneously any way, so the jump isn't too far…

  • Yeah, it's extremely stressful to be a court interpreter.

    But that's not where i plan to be. In aspiring to be a family doctor interpreter for Spanish. You know, when the doctor speaks to the parent of a sick child, there is literally no rush to get messages across, i can take a reasonable amount of time between phrases to come up with an accurate translation.

    OR, I CAN JUST CIRCUMVENT THE LIVE INTERPRETING ALTOGETHER! I can just be a TRANSLATOR, for companies, translating static text documents. Again, no worry about falling behind on live translation, i can just translate the document at my own pace, and finish within my assigned deadline date.

    I don't know about any of you, but there is just something so tremendously gratifying and satisfying about knowing another language. It's so empowering to me to know that only a small percentage of other ppl around the world know this other non-native language that I do. Every time i converse with my Mexican coworkers i feel very proud, especially considering the fact that I've already reached basic fluency in just 8 months, which would take most ppl at least 2 years to achieve.

    If i keep studying at the same rate, i might be able to start my very first translation job by the end of this year.

  • I have volunteered as an interpreter since I was 10 years old. And I have never thought of it as being a stress full job. I really enjoy helping people who truly need my help and I've enjoyed it all the time. Is rewarding and satisfying to know you can assists others with your talents and skills.

  • Wow I wanted to be an interpreter for the UN when I was young. I am glad I didn’t end up doing that. I still speak 5 languages but I have taught them throughout my life one at a time. Being such a nervous person, I think I chose the better path. Lol.

  • Excellent video Ewandro! do you have it subtitled for the Spanish, Portuguese, French, German public? thanks

  • I am not a native English speaker, and I tried to translate everything you have been saying to Polish. It was really hard and I couldn't keep up with you.

  • They switch out every 30 minutes because of one interpreter for Gaddafi at the UN who passed out because he interpreted for 75 minutes straight. Really helps you understand the stress of the job!

  • any inspiring Interpreters here 😁🙋🙋🏿🙋🏼🙋🏽🙋🏻🙌🏼🙌🏿🙌🏻❤😂🤓😍😍

  • My grandfather is an ambassador and he deemed having interpreter are unnecessary so he just learn the languages himself. And he becomes a polyglot…

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