Guest post: From pig launchers to ball machines; specialization, terminology, and technology

This is a guest post by Zilin Cui, a Chinese-English-Spanish conference interpreter and translator who I met at the recent Monterey Forum at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey. This post is based on her presentation at the 1st International New York-Nanjing Forum on Translation “Translation in the New Context” in May, 2019.

Pig launchers?

We all hear about the importance of specialization for interpreters and translators, but when we are given an assignment on short notice, how do we become quickly conversant in a new field within the time we have available before the assignment?

I had this challenge recently as I was preparing for a simultaneous interpretation assignment. Having received no preparation materials I decided to study the product catalogue of a company that the delegation would visit the next day. I ran across the term “pig launcher.” Unprompted, Google Translate gave me the literal equivalent in Chinese, 猪发射器, which conjures up a mental image of a slingshot launching pigs into the air, Angry Birds style.

Jokes aside, it got me thinking about two questions: first, how does one find the correct equivalent of a term when technology isn’t much help for a highly specialized field? Second and a larger question, how does one produce accurate, coherent and idiomatic interpretation without much context? Ideally, interpretation is about understanding the meaning behind an idea and re-expressing it in a different language, but that only works if one already understands the concept in the source and target languages. When there is no system of knowledge from which to retrieve the equivalent, finding the term is like looking for a place without a map. In this post I’ll talk about the pitfalls of some approaches I tried and the importance of building this “map” in order to improve interpreting performance.

Interpreter preparation: word lists, or something else?

When I first became an interpreter back in Chile, I thought of preparation as compiling word lists. Boy was I wrong. There I was, interpreting a ministerial meeting, and I found myself at a loss for words when the subscretario—the undersecretary—showed up instead of the minister himself. Twenty three-year-old me did not even factor in that possibility. Not knowing the term, too afraid to look it up right then and there and too embarrassed to ask, I went the literal route and said something in Chinese to the equivalent of “deputy secretary,” but the word I chose for secretary meant secretary of an office and not a cabinet minister. Seeing the Chinese delegation getting visibly annoyed, I just wanted to crawl in a hole. Oops!

The pitfall with word lists is that one cannot prepare for what one does not know, which is an even bigger problem with unfamiliar fields, which brings me to the importance of techniques. One big difference I noticed between a novice like me and experienced interpreters who are a delight to listen to is that they sound as if they were delivering their own speeches when interpreting: calm, coherent, engaging and in control, whereas I could sound rushed and nervous, churning out pieces of information that did not seem to be interconnected. While some of this difference has to do with experience, a lot of it can be overcome with techniques, which, at their core, are about a proactive approach to prioritization, as it is impossible to preserve 100% of the message in simultaneous interpretation. Ranging from the most well-known “salami technique” to less common, language-specific ones, techniques help the interpreter focus on the idea and not the words, and on primary ideas over secondary ideas so that interpreters are not led by the nose on a wild goose chase but rather, analyze the message and put it into their own words to produce idiomatic and natural renderings that are easily understood by the listener. Armed with a variety of techniques thanks to my Master’s studies at the Monterey Institute, I thought I would be ready for any new field…but not so fast!

From word lists to strategies

I realized—once back on the interpreting market—that more important than terms and techniques are strategies. Strategies are about developing the conceptual maps I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, about developing a cognitive framework in the source and target languages to know exactly where certain terms fit, how they relate to each other and come together in a narrative that makes sense. Going back to my pig launcher example: it is a piece of equipment used in pipelines, which are part of the midstream oil and gas industry. I found it to be much more helpful to take the time to understand the larger picture before going after the term itself. I found myself imagining teaching a five-year-old about the topic, using my curiosity to guide the process of building the cognitive map of the field. I came up with a list of questions whose answers were essential for drawing the map: what is the midstream sector? What, then, are the upstream and downstream sectors? What are the activities involved in the midstream sector? Who are the biggest players? What are the biggest trends and challenges? Once I was able to gather all this information I also became familiar with how industry insiders talk about these issues, which gets me closer to sounding almost like an expert to a room where I was the only outsider.

And how might technology fit into this three-step framework? The answer is, in every way. For terminology, collaborative tools like Google Sheets allow booth partners to split the workload by inputting into the same worksheet at the same time, and terminology extraction tools can cut down the manual work and the time involved. For techniques, YouTube is a treasure trove of resources when it comes to finding speeches given by the same speaker and testing out techniques to adapt to the particulars of the situation. In the fortunate event that interpreters are given presentations or even speeches beforehand, electronic tools make it easy to mark up the text for use as a visual aid. For strategies, with the wealth of information available at our fingertips, gone are the long hours spent at the library, because interpreters can access parallel texts written by experts in their native language as well as online courses for “dummies”—a personal favorite—to learn everything one needs to know to become conversant in a new field within the limited amount of time available to prepare for most interpreting assignments.

Pig launcher, or ball machine?

Thanks to my three-step methodology, I found the correct term in Chinese for “pig launchers,” 清管器发射筒, or literally, launching chute for a pipeline-cleaning device. Imagine my surprise when I used that term and heard a delegate whisper, “got it, the 发球器 (literally, a ball machine).” As it turns out, the cleaning device is a rubber ball with a diameter slightly larger than that of the pipeline. The ball is shot into the pipeline at high pressure from a chute and gathers dust and impurities as it moves through the pipeline. The ball is called a “pig” in English due to the oinky noises it makes. Who would have thought that pigs and balls would end up being equivalents in this scenario! I tried a reverse search with 发球器, and all I found was entries and images of tennis ball machines and not rubber pigs.

That led me to think about expanding my methodology. I realized that beyond terms, techniques and strategies, the human factor is always essential in any interpretation. While I found the correct term through my own research, hearing from the practitioner brought me into the jargon. Talking to people—speakers, delegates or clients when appropriate—not only helps one clarify highly specialized terms but also builds rapport. With rapport, clients may see interpretation as more of a collaborative effort to which they can contribute for their own benefit. At best, rapport and knowledge of the demanding process of interpretation can turn clients into allies, instead of the passive consumers or critics, which they may be.

Nevertheless, the human factor goes beyond that: even with the correct terminology, the perfect techniques and effective strategies, one can still produce an inadequate interpretation if they miss the intention of the speaker or fail to convey the emotions essential to the message. Jonathan Downie of the podcast Troublesome Terps put it this way, “When I started out, I thought interpreting was language skills with people attached. Now I am convinced it’s people skills with language attached.” Words are but a means to communication. Faced with the onslaught of technology, be it neural machine translation or natural language processing, what we can do as human interpreters is not to attempt to work like walking dictionaries or interpretation bots. In the end, what sets us apart will be how we use technology tools in a broad sense to enhance and expand what we do uniquely as humans—gauging intentions, engaging with listeners, using our situational awareness to adjust our approach real-time, honing our skills to process human speech input. This is not always straightforward, as the words chosen do not always correspond with what they mean; but this will allow us to carry on our legacy and future-proof our profession.

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