The mindful interpreter

Simultaneous translation is a hugely important role. It’s a skill that lies at the heart of InsightAsia's work, but one that often gets overlooked. IA's Marjolein Winkelman reports...

If you’ve ever struggled to learn a second language, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that to be a good interpreter you simply need to learn some vocabulary and understand the grammar. Of course, fluency in language is essential, but being a good interpreter involves so much more.

If we truly want to understand how people respond to a product, often in new markets and across cultural practices, it’s not simply a matter of hearing what people say, but also knowing how they feel. The interpreter becomes the eyes and ears of the client, who may not be native speakers themselves, so a good interpreter understands not only what we say, but how we say it. 


How do you become an interpreter, anyway?

Interpretation, therefore, is absolutely vital, and IA works hard to find the best interpreters around, like our man in Thailand, Wachirapat ‘Tommy’ Thasarn. People talk about being able to do two things at once, and yes, I can boil an egg whilst listening to the radio, but being able to listen to a conversation and translate it at the same time takes multi-tasking to a whole new level. So, I asked Tommy how he does it, and it turns out that the answer is all to do with mindfulness.

Tommy trained as a vet before gaining an MA in translation and communication; landing him a job with British Airways. This high-energy lifestyle and daily interaction with customers provided total immersion and was the perfect way for Tommy to become fully bilingual. Unexpectedly made redundant after post 9/11 cutbacks suffered by airlines everywhere, Tommy put his language skills to good use and has been a interpreter ever since.

Communication is simply the delivery of a message from sender to receiver, Tommy explains. Normally this happens directly between the speaker and the listener, but with interpretation, his role is to intercept the message and redirect it to the client. Sounds simple? Well… yes and no. The problem is that we don't always realise just how complex the process of communication can be.


Getting a feel for the language

Tommy calls the Thai language 'sloppy.' Away from formal academic discourse, most day-to-day Thai conversations are imprecise and full of slang. Words are often ambiguous, and the meaning and intention behind them can be unclear; a real problem for the interpreter.
Luckily, being naturally interested in people and what they have to say, Tommy is very good at picking up on nuances and underlying sentiments…

"Take the word แฟน. It’s pronounced 'fan,' but has no exact interpretation, and really could refer to anyone who is close to you. It could mean a best friend, a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife. It depends entirely on context.

So, when I’m in a focus group and someone says, ‘my แฟน really liked this,’ it makes a big difference as to who that person is and I have to try and work that out. Besides, I don't want to say that someone is married when they are not."

The rhythm of the conversation also varies from one culture to another. "Thai people have a habit of talking over one another. There can easily be two or three people speaking at once - a big headache. I have to listen to the underlying pattern and convey a sense of where the discussion is going.

And Thai people will repeat a question over and again out loud as they consider their response, phrasing and rephrasing it before suddenly coming to a conclusion. Its a very different way of conversing."

Many topics - traditions, religious observances, sports, food - may have no direct equivalent in the client's language. "I can't stop in the middle of a conversation and explain a whole new aspect of culture or define a word for which there is no exact translation, so I'll make a note to come back to it in a break."


Preparing to bridge the language gap

When Tommy started, before the internet, he would spend hours in the supermarket checking product details and learning specialist vocabulary. Nowadays a lot of preparation is done online.

"I've only really been caught out once. A group of mothers were discussing new nappy designs. Nothing could prepare me for the way in which they talked about their baby care routines to each other! Some of the problems they had with nappies I couldn't possibly tell you, but they were not pretty. And I'll admit, I struggled to find the right way to explain to the client just exactly what was going on!"

Tommy is a natural extrovert, perfect for using different voices and expressions to represent different points of view and capturing not just the words but the way they are being spoken. A bit like acting, it’s the difference between reading a script and seeing the actors perform. He's aware of his clients, too. If they are not native English speakers themselves, he slows down his natural exuberance to ensure they can follow, and if they have particular requirements he does his best to comply.

But Tommy's biggest trick comes as something of a surprise. He’s training to become a Buddhist monk, and spends several weeks on retreat sweeping the floors of his forest temple and meditating. "You listen to your brain ticking over and tune in to your own thoughts."
We read a lot about mindfulness as the secret to a calm and centred life, but Tommy's Buddhist training is the real deal. Hyper-aware of his own internal conversations, Tommy can increase his concentration levels many times over; perfect for the chatter of simultaneous interpretation.

"Meditation helps me disregard those uninvited thoughts that pop into our heads whilst we are trying to focus on something else - the invited thoughts. But there is so much more to it than the mindfulness of self-help books. Staying in the moment and cutting out the background noise is my real secret to simultaneous interpretation."


In-depth translation services from InsightAsia

We may be entering a brave new world of Google Translate and voice-activated software, but a good interpreter understands the subtleties, half-tones and humour, as well as what is implied and what is left unsaid. Above all, they make sure that the richness of human conversation doesn’t get lost in translation.

Whether it’s a focus group, an in-depth interview or an ethnography, it’s vital for IA's clients to be able to understand the true meaning behind what is being said, and a good interpreter is the catalyst who makes this happen.

Tommy hopes to eventually become a full-time monk, but for now he's more than happy to remain a key part of IA's loyal band of interpreters, and we're delighted to have him.

If you are thinking of doing qualitative research in Asia, please get in touch.