Simultaneous InterpretationThe various types of memory in the human brain fall into three main categories: Sensory, Short-Term (Working), and Long-Term (Explicit or Implicit). Working memory refers to the system of the brain that is responsible for reasoning, comprehension, learning and updating memory. In simultaneous interpreting, this system of memory is used in a general way but only long enough for a translation equivalent to be formed. The information retained by interpreters is only held onto as long as it is necessary for the interpretation and after the translation is produced, that particular bit of information is let go from working memory. This ‘letting go’ of information is a habit that simultaneous interpreters get into even outside of their work and it is common to involuntarily forget dates and times unless they are immediately written down or relayed to another person. Since they are truly testing the capabilities of their working memory and articulatory control concurrently, adjusting their focus moment-by-moment is a key factor in accessing specific information.

A process linked to ‘articulatory suppression’ is also at play during the act of interpretation, which refers to the production of the target language while listening to the source language at the same time. Similar to an articulatory loop, the speech produced in the target language is more automated than original, naturally occurring speech. As linguist Akira Mizuno states, “In order to perform this feat, interpreters must undertake various tasks such as listening and comprehension, information retention, retrieval, production, and monitoring almost concurrently. These tasks involved in simultaneous interpretation cannot be handled by the working memory alone”.

Although, working memory certainly has its limits: evidence suggests that memory activation fades after about 10-20 seconds unless it is accessed again. With simultaneous interpretation, those 10-20 seconds can represent a large amount of information and failing to keep up with it can botch the entire rhythm of the process. This is why keeping calm and maintaining a clear focus is essential to the simultaneous interpretation process. How to use working memory while practicing articulatory control is not a clear cut formula that each interpreter must follow step-by-step; instead, each interpreter has to learn what to focus most on moment-to-moment in order to help them make the entire process more fluid and accurate.

Let us know what you thought of this article and please share any questions or comments below!


Here are some more articles that you may be interested in.

Simultaneous Interpretation: How Does the Brain Tackle such a Demanding Task?

Ethics for Interpreters

The History of Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment