How Do You Do That?

Ask any interpreter what question or comment she hears most often (outside the ones being translated at an event) and, without batting an eye, she’ll respond: “How do you that?” (or, if the person asking is under 30: “Oh my God! How do you that?”). By that, the astonished audience member actually means hearing one language while coherently and engagingly speaking another. And if you deign to ask that person after a long day at a taxing conference, she’ll likely give you the answer she’s pared down to elevator-pitch length, doing her best not to roll her eyes because you are the only thing standing between her and a glass of wine (hypothetical description, of course).

If you want the dirty details, though, you’d best ask on a day she’s not working, maybe even on a quiet holiday morning (just saying). And then you’ll hear not just about how we do that, but what you need to do to help us do that well, things you should never ever do if you want us to successfully do that, the way the goings on of different industries affect our doing that, and why it matters that we’re doing that for you.

This month’s Take It From A Translator is Tom Reaoch, host of Talk2Brazil, interviewing interpreter Melissa Mann about the ins and outs of THAT: hearing one language while coherently and engagingly speaking another. Here’s the listen

Practice Makes Perfect

I was sitting through a presentation last month, suffering for my booth partner who was trying her hardest to make some sense out of the speaker’s intellibish (that’s gibberish mixed with plenty of big words and buzzwords in an attempt to pass for intelligent). Buried somewhere in the talk was some degree of expertise on the matter, but it was painfully hard to tease out. While it is a rare occurrence to face a speaker who does not know what he or she is talking about, all too often we translate veritable specialists who cannot even remotely convey a coherent message.

There are three reasons why speakers who truly know their subject matter still manage to utterly fail their audience: ludicrous speed, poor organization, and verbal crutches. Ludicrous speed means racing through 60 slides in 20 minutes, testing your listeners’ recall skills as the lag between your motor mouth and their normal processing capacity grows with each passing minute. Poor organization means thinking that the fabulous brainstorm of ideas will magically organize itself when you stand up to talk, giving artistic license for the 200 members of your audience to walk away with 200 unique lectures, none of which resembles the story in your own head. Verbal crutches: using more ums, ahs, you knows, likes and like you knows than actual words, prompting your listeners to focus more on your utter lack of verbal dexterity than the content of your discourse.

And there is one foolproof way to avoid all the pitfalls that make even the best expert an utterly ineffective speaker: video practice. Take it from a translator (who sees her fair share of horrible speakers and who has made the embarrassing mistake of not taking her own advice): stand in front of a camera, practice your lecture, observe yourself, tweak. Your audience – in any language – will thank you for a brilliant talk.

How to Become a Generalist

Renaissance (Hu)man

Once we’ve built a solid foundation of technique, we translators and interpreters get to spend much of our days diving into new medical research, following the latest business buzzwords and investment tips, contemplating the intricacies of legal theory (or, in Brazil, the legalities of a political quagmire), and learning about crop science literally on the ground. There are few branches of knowledge where we are not given at least a peek into the complex beauty within. Being generalists, we are precluded from the details and in-depth knowledge of experts, so you’ll often find good translators and interpreters making up for that lacuna by picking up one or another intellectual hobby that allows them to talk about a few subjects of interest for longer than the standard 10 cocktail minutes jokingly associated with our profession. Still, despite the shallow limitations of knowing just a little bit about so many topics… we actually know a little bit about so many topics.

Specialist friends and colleagues, ranging from hedge fund investors to oncologists, express awe that I can talk to them about the state of the art of their line of work (admittedly usually just for those established 10 minutes), and time and again ask how we do it and then how they can do it. I have a standard answer: assuming you’re not blessed with the dizzying professional command to hop from event to board meeting to international conference or to submerge yourself in wide-ranging texts (actually, even if you are), the absolute easiest, least time consuming and fastest way to quench your thirst to become a generalist in these times of omnipresent technology is very simply: listening to podcasts while driving/commuting/traveling.

There are literally thousands, covering all subjects known to modern humankind, many no longer than 30 minutes, all with transcripts online. What follows is a curated list of English-language podcasts, but I would be happy to suggest any one of the many other amazing podcasts I’ve found (in Portuguese, Spanish and English) in the comments section. For the sake of brevity (!), this list does not include podcasts featuring fiction, music or sports.

2DOCSTALK – a 15 minute check-up on current issues in medicine and health policy; A16Z– fintech; ALLUSIONIST – a podcast about language; FARMER TO FARMER – by farmers, for farmers; FREAKONOMICS – the hidden side of everything; GASTROPOD – the science and history behind food; GUARDIAN’S SCIENCE WEEKLY – discoveries and debates in biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and math; HIDDEN BRAIN – the unconscious patterns that drive human behaviour; MEMORY PALACE – short historical narrative; MORE PERFECT – how the Supreme Court got so supreme; PHILOSOPHIZE THIS! – philsophers and schools of philsophy served up by a witty 30 year old; PLANET MONEY – the economy explained; ROUGH TRANSLATION – how things are being talked about elsewhere in the world; SCIENCE VS – what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between; TWENTY THOUSAND HERTZ – the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.