Interpreters and the Listening Curse

Interpreters and the Listening Curse

A few months ago, I was catching up on the phone with a dear colleague of mine based overseas when she told me about a funny argument she had had with her husband the day before. Nothing of significance, you know – just one of those spats about mundane stuff such as whose turn it is to do the dishes or take out the rubbish.

It seems that, mid-fight, her husband snapped and yelled at her to stop interrupting him and let him finish his sentences.

My friend looked at me – her face filling the screen and her kind eyes wide with honesty – and said that she didn’t mean to interrupt him, but it was just that she knew what he was going to say next.

And then she asked the million-dollar question: do you think it is an interpreter thing? Not letting people finish saying what they want to say because we already know what’s coming and are ready to reply before they’re done?

I believe it might be. And, if it is, then we are indeed cursed. I say ‘it might’ because, husband aside, it has happened to me, too.

I have found myself interrupting friends mid-sentence more often than I would like to admit and even at times (although I probably should not say this in public) have been bored stiff, having already played out the entire conversation in my head, like when you realise who the murderer is five minutes into a thriller.

Is it our fault? Are we – interpreters – horrible, impatient, heartless individuals incapable of lending a friendly ear? Aren’t we supposed to be expert listeners?

We are! – expert listeners, that is. So, if you ask me, I would say that in this case, we should not blame the interpreter, but blame interpreting.

One of the first exercises all interpreting students undertake when learning to interpret simultaneously is to anticipate what speakers will say next. Our brains learn to process context, syntax, grammar, body language, tone of voice, collocations, theta roles, and so on at the speed of light, so that we can at least predict in which direction the speaker is heading and adjust our decision-making parameters as required.

It becomes such second nature that it is almost like having our brains in a constant state of recalibration, just like the GPS in our cars and phones that search for the best route home when the signal cuts out.

Add to it thirty years of marriage and I bet my friend and her husband could have spared themselves the entire conversation – and have had their dishes done in a jiffy while at it.

I also believe our curse is exacerbated when we click with the other person and cannot wait to say ‘me too!’ or ‘I know!’ or simply show them we understand how they feel. It’s akin to a severe case of empathy overload combined with a special linguistic crystal ball.

It makes me wonder whether our professional hazard also affects other professions. Can dentists know whether someone grinds their teeth simply by watching them chew their food? Does their special skill ruin their date nights, too? Can my tango instructor tell whether someone is a good dancer by how they tie their shoes? Does that mean that s/he is hard-wired to spot the best partners while the rest of us mere mortals are stuck at the back of the dance floor struggling to keep our toes safe?

Is our work jeopardising our marriages and friendships, making us the most unpleasant of conversationalists? If so, how do we get rid of the interpreting curse?

Maybe what we need is some sort of social toggle – like the one we use to switch channels on Zoom – to allow us to turn our superpowers on and off as needed: now I am an interpreter; now I am not.

If only…

Article originally published in the August 2021 edition of the ITI London Regional Group Newsletter under A View From The Booth.

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