Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

"70.6 Billion World Citizens": Investigating the Difficulty of Interpreting Numbers

Academic journal article Translation & Interpreting

"70.6 Billion World Citizens": Investigating the Difficulty of Interpreting Numbers

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Simultaneous interpretation (SI) requires complex cognitive processing. Individual characteristics such as personal experiences, skills, knowledge and thematic preferences unavoidably play a role in the degree of accuracy achieved and contribute to the interpreter's perception of the difficulty of the source speech or of the element to be interpreted. However, there are some elements that seem to represent a stumbling block for virtually all interpreters. The difficulty in interpreting these elements seems to be objective rather than subjective in nature. Such elements are defined as problem triggers and are usually associated with a significantly higher error rate than subjective difficulties (Gile, 2015). Among such triggers, researchers have identified numbers as the interpreting problem trigger par excellence (Mead, 2015).

A handful of studies have explored the interpretation of numbers by Master's level interpreting students (Braun & Clarici, 1996; Mazza, 2001; Pellatt, 2006; Pinochi, 2009). Even though the study participants had nearly completed their training, the error rate in their delivery of numbers was bafflingly high in all these studies. Braun and Clarici (1996), for instance, registered an error rate of over 60% in the interpretation of a speech dense in numbers. Intersubjective differences in delivery accuracy seemed to disappear when the students were required to interpret numbers (Mazza, 2001). Korpal and Stachowiak's (2017, 2018a) use of eye tracking during interpreting showed that, even with the help of visual input, numbers created difficulties for interpreters. Because numbers represent such a significant challenge for accurate interpreting, researchers have started a dedicated line of research to define the cognitive processes involved in in the SI of numbers (Korpal & Stachowiak, 2018b). However, research on the topic remains scarce, and the prospects of a solution to the problem from the interpreter's and the trainer's side have appeared dim: "there does not seem to be any real solution to this problem. [...] Perhaps the problem should be solved at the origin and, as Pearl suggests: speakers would be well advised before using figures to reflect on whether their point could just as well be made by giving an order of magnitude, such as: 'much', 'little', 'few', 'a tremendous amount', 'sufficient' etc. (1999, p. 21) [italics added]" (Pinochi, 2009, pp. 55-56).

It may be that specific gaps in research have contributed to the field's inability to find a solution to this vexing problem. The previous studies analysed only a few variables impacting the simultaneous interpretation of numbers and identified various causes for the high error rate. These included the need to switch from 'intelligent translation' of the semantic content of the speech to 'literal translation' of the number (Braun & Clarici, 1996), issues related to working memory and note-taking (Mazza, 2001), the students' background knowledge and adaptability (Pellatt, 2006) and the interpreter's source language (Pinochi, 2009). However, the studies did not systematically correlate these potential causes of difficulty with any specific error pattern, nor did they quantify the contribution of each cause to the overall error rate, so that the extent of the impact of each cause on the delivery of numbers remains unclear. Furthermore, students' skills, training methods and students' metacognitive awareness of the task were not systematically addressed as a distinct variable influencing performance in the interpretation of numbers. As a consequence, crucial phenomena associated with intersubjective differences in skills, such as delivery contradictions and plausibility errors, were not explored. These errors include different interpretations of the same number repeated in the speech, for example "we are in the year 2018 [...] in this year, in 2016", and implausible information such as "there are 70. …

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