Tackling speed when interpreting

Every interpreter knows from experience that, all things being equal, a fast speaker is harder to interpret than one who delivers their speech at a normal pace… So, what is a budding conference interpreter to do when tackling the challenge caused by speed?
The obvious response is to apply speed in turn – and, indeed, when confronted by a fast speaker, interpreters must always make their brain work as fast as possible!
But: does this necessarily mean they must also speak at top speed?
Well… as in pretty much everything in interpreting (or in life for that matter), the answer is: it depends. In an ideal situation, of course, our aim is to say everything we hear. If, however, this is impossible, in the split-second decision on how to respond to the challenge one goal is paramount: to never sacrifice the message, the point, the key idea or ideas that the speaker wants to convey to the audience. The speaker’s main message(s) constitutes the very minimum that interpreters must also make sure they transmit clearly to the audience that is relying on their interpretation.
Imagine someone introducing themselves with the following sentence: “My name is A B C, I am a conference interpreter in the Spanish booth at the European Parliament working from X Y Z, and I would like to thank everyone for coming”.
Say it is so fast that it is impossible to catch every detail. What would the most important part be, in the following situations?:

If everybody in the room is a conference interpreter, some staff some freelance
If everybody in the room works at the European Parliament, in different jobs
If everybody is a Spanish interpreter with different working languages
If everybody is an interpreter working from Y into their own language
If the speaker is chairing it, or if they are a participant
If the meeting was called last minute

In general, the speaker’s point is not neutral or univocal, but depends on context. Thus, the more you know in advance about what’s going on, about the background of that speaker and their role in that particular place and time, the better you will be able to respond to the challenge of speed (or others). Proper meeting preparation and familiarity with documentation will help all interpreters in this situation, and particularly beginners. And meeting preparation should not be reduced to merely learning raw information: more intangible knowledge is also essential, such as the way different types of meetings tend to be conducted, their structure, the style of particular speakers, the relations between speakers, their role within an institution, etc.
Meeting preparation extends into the meeting itself as it evolves, since adapting to the circumstances and keeping track of the how the documents provided are being referred to will always help the quality of interpretation. This can even be a lifesaver in especially tricky situations, as I illustrate in the video!
Extreme situations like the ones described there, where one might use either maximum speed or its exact opposite, are of course not common. Often, it is enough to simply avoid the natural redundancies of the speaker that contribute to their speed, and we might only be confronted with the problem of top speed in short snippets. But for any moment where speed is a challenge, the principle stands: in order to identify the key to the speaker’s message and convey it, the interpreter can and should choose to speak at a different speed depending on the circumstances – all while thinking as fast, and hard, as they can…

Isabel Payno Jimenez-Ugarte
Staff interpreter at DG LINC, European Parliament.

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