United Nations (UN) interpreters
Lost in translation
The United Nations annual general assembly kicked off this week, as diplomats, heads of state, and legions of staffers from 193 countries converged on New York City to discuss the fate of the world (and annoy commuters).
How can so many disparate nations communicate with each other? That’s where some of the sharpest minds in the UN come in. Without the simultaneous interpreters who convert Chinese to English, English to Russian, Russian to French, and so on in real time, international diplomacy wouldn’t get very far. The stakes are high: one mistranslated word (see Donald Trump, below) could dictate history. This week, Quartz tagged along to see and hear how they work.
Thinking in two languages at once
Simultaneous interpretation is one of the most taxing feats of the human brain. The head of the UN’s Chinese section in New York, Xiaofeng Zhou, describes it as five separate tasks: listening, memorizing, speaking, monitoring how you sound, and deciding how much to focus on each of these other tasks, based on factors like what prepared materials you have and how fast the speaker talks.
Donald Trump’s threat at the UN to “totally destroy” North Korea sounded even worse in Chinese. That threat was intended not only for Pyongyang, but for Beijing, North Korea’s most prominent backer. And if you think “totally destroy” sounded aggressive in English, in the Chinese translation it sounded downright apocalyptic.
The UN’s official interpreter chose to render the phrase as 完全消灭 in Mandarin, which means something closer to “annihilate,” “completely exterminate,” or “wipe off the face of the earth”. That could make Chinese diplomats even more nervous than Trump may have intended.
The neuroscience of interpreting
“The brain regions involved go to an extremely high level, beyond language,” Narly Golestani of the University of Geneva told Mosaic’s Geoff Watts.
Researchers there have put simultaneous translators into a functional MRI machine to identify the neurological regions at work, and it turns out there a lot of them—especially the caudate nucleus, which helps to coordinate complex behaviors within the brain.
As interpreters gain more experience, they tend to show less activity in certain brain centers, not more. “The caudate plays a role in the control of all sorts of skilled actions,” David Green, a neuroscientist at University College London, told Mosaic. “And there’s other work showing that as people get more skilled at a task you get less activation of it.”
The 2005 Sydney Pollack film “The Interpreter”—starring Nicole Kidman as a UN interpreter who overhears an assassination plot —was the first movie to be shot inside UN headquarters.
Translation through time
Ancient times: Chuchotage
From the French for “whispering,” this refers to an interpreter who sits among a small audience and quietly translates what is being said, a practice which continues today.
13th century: Dragoman
Interpreters in the Ottoman empire needed to speak Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and European languages.
In 1925: League of Nations
Businessman Edward Filene (of Filene’s department store and Filene’s Basement) came up with the idea of translating speeches using microphones and amplifiers, working with inventor Alan Gordon Finlay.
In 1945: Nuremberg Trials
The US Army’s Col. Léon Dostert comes up with the concept of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg Trials. It is subsequently adopted by the United Nations.
30 minutes is the maximum amount of time interpreters are supposed to spend translating before handing off to a colleague. After half an hour, the number of mistakes rises considerably.
PRIDE OF AN INTERPRETER
What equipment do they use?
Since 2015, the UN has used a microphone setup made by Taiden, a Chinese company. This little gadget is basically the only piece of technology in most translation booths. Interpreters select the channel they want to listen to (the source language) and the channel they are sending to (the target language). People listening on the floor have headsets set to their preferred language.
“I feel like there are two of me when I interpret. One is working, and one is detached.”
– Xiaofeng Zhou, interpreter in the UN’s Chinese section.
QUESTIONS NOT TO BE ASKED
Why not just use Google Translate?
Robot interpreters are getting better, but they are a long way from replacing the world’s best humans.
Interpretation at the highest level needs to be flexible in a way that computers are not. For example, many people at the UN give their remarks in English, but are not native English speakers, and their accents and subtle mistakes cause problems for speech-recognition algorithms.
Google, Amazon, and other companies have made huge strides in translation by harnessing the power of neural networks and machine learning. But their tools work best when the language is straightforward and predictable, based on statistics derived from massive data sets.
And crucially, AI interpreters don’t actually understand the meaning of what’s being said. If you ever get the chance to observe UN interpreters at work, you’ll see that they discard minor grammar errors from the speaker because they understand the overall context. Computers just aren’t there … yet.