Thursday, February 5th, 2015
( by: Megan Pray – RID: NIC) We’re well aware that our brains can do amazing things. The human brain is the “command center,” directing all bodily functions, from basic needs such as breathing, sleeping, and movement to very complex tasks which can include the comprehension and expression of emotion. But how often do we consider how many different tasks our brains are juggling all at once? Our brains are multitasking masters!
Simultaneous interpreters are also masters at multitasking. A recently published article, Gained in Translation: What simultaneous interpreters have taught us about the human brain (MacLachlan), uses scientific research to substantiate that interpreters who work between two languages simultaneously is not just hard work, but over time, will “train” the brain to function in a different, more efficient manner.
First, we must acknowledge that language in general is a complex, high-order task. Language is not simply mapping objects with words; to accurately understand language, we must be able to project and receive information, emotion, ideas, humor, etc. When you consider how many chances language has to go wrong, it’s amazing that any interpretation could be smooth and stay true to meaning at all. When you add in simultaneity, when “interpreters listen to speech in one language, process it, understand it, and translate it – in real time – into another language,” (MacLachlan) it becomes a multi-tasking mystery.
Researchers are just beginning to use simultaneous interpreters to understand how the brain can do such intense work. Using fMRI (functional-MRI) technology, scientists and researchers are able to watch which areas of the brain are in use while an interpreter is working. They found the “caudate nucleus,” which is an area deep in the center of the brain that acts as a coordination center, or to give a better picture – the conductor in front of an orchestra. The caudate nucleus synchronizes the different areas of the brain so they all work together harmoniously and allow the interpreter to multitask.
Interestingly, however, the University of Geneva studied 50 multilingual students and found something unexpected. After taking initial fMRI images of the students, some were trained to become simultaneous interpreters and some were not. After one year of training, those who were trained as simultaneous interpreters had LESS activity in the caudate nucleus than the other multilingual students. Rather than more use of the “synchronizing system,” they had less. How or why is that happening?
The article previously mentioned, Gained in Translation, references another article from Mosaic Science titled, In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators (Watt). This article included more information about the scientific studies, but in general, suggested that our brains become habituated, or used to, our work. Simultaneous interpreters have so many tasks occurring at once in their brains and their brains become so skilled at managing those tasks, that ultimately, the delegation and direction of those tasks is no longer needed. This could be due to the need for flexibility – the article suggests that there may be a need to coordinate a customized combination of brain functions to accommodate the particular interpreting task; for instance, the assignment has poor sound quality speaker has a thick accent, and the Deaf client’s sign style is unique. In this case, the interpreter’s brain may have become so skilled and habituated, that it overrides that caudate nucleus and optimizes the brain function to multitask more efficiently.
Simultaneous interpreters take in a message in one language, process that message, comprehend that message, then interpret that language and put it back out into a target language which the other party can easily understand, all while matching the source message and speaker’s intent, style, affect, register, etc. And, let’s not forget, while the interpreter is putting this message back out, the next source message is coming in, and the cycle begins again. This is truly an amazing ability of the human brain – miraculous multitasking!
MacLachlan, Allison. “Gained in Translation: What Simultaneous Interpreters Have Taught Us about the
Human Brain.” Canadian Science Writers’ Association. 5 Dec. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.
Watts, Geoff. “In Other Words: Inside the Lives and Minds of Real-time Translators.” Mosaic. 18 Nov.
2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2015. <http://mosaicscience.com/story/other-words-inside-lives-and-minds-