Probably all colleagues have experienced the same conversations with delegates at coffee breaks. Along with "Ah, so you´re an interpreter - how many languages do you speak?" (try replying "One"), one of the most recurrent questions is "Do you understand what you are saying, or do you just repeat words?"
Now there´s a can of worms. The meaning of meaning is a real philosophical bodice-ripper, but what are we to understand by understanding?
How much grey matter activity is going on
· when a dog obeys the instruction to "Sit"?
· when a toddler trained in a second language correctly points to the blue flower or the square brick or their nose ?
· when we say "Sure smoking is bad for you" but continue on forty a day?
· when an amateur translates word for word? ("From lost to the river...")
· when a UKIP voter is told "Let´s take back control of our country" or indeed when a top Tory is warned that referendums can go either way?
Ever noticed what a bad sign it is in a relationship when the phrase, "I can´t understand why you..." is used frequently? Indeed what difference does it make to reality whether we understand it or not?
Does our delegate sipping their coffee and savouring the Martinez biscuits really believe that the conference organisers would pay us what they do if we were engaged in mere psittacism? A machine could certainly do that.
Passing all comprehension is the understanding of the simultaneous or consecutive interpreter: the professional listener. This is deep listening, constantly monitoring the message for inconsistencies or contradictions, considering the speaker´s intention and register, collating with the context and our own knowledge of the subject matter, while also continuing to listen to the original, and to ourselves (ever wondered why interpreters generally only use one side of the headphones?)
What has become known as ´reformulation´ no doubt has a lot to do with all this. One of the main traits acquired in interpreting school is this separation, distance, from the form, the shape, the words, the word order, of the original discourse (I say trait, rather than technique, because it is surely an outcome of the training). Lewis Carroll understood: "Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves."
Another question often heard is what language a person thinks in. The contention that thought does not take place in any language at all is borne out by considering that there are experiences, for example dreams, which defy expression; or that often a person knows precisely what they wish to say, yet cannot find the words... It is to this conceptual plane that Seleskovitch´s immortal triangle refers: the interpreter should be processing the original words into the message, beyond words, and then, in a second stage, re-expressing that in the appropriate words of the target language. Which is part of the reason why interpreting is so tiring. And explains why you could memorise equivalents of endless sets of words until you were blue in the face, to no avail. And why it is so annoying to be asked, "What would you say for (for example) ´My widgets are discombobulated´?" Answer: "Try me - in context - sometime."
It is apparent that a translator, possibly even a virtual one, can render the words (for example) "The European Parliament urges the Council to oblige the Commission to revise its proposal on gussets" from one language to another in a comprehensible fashion. Put the same, however, through an interpreter who is not cognisant of the realities lying behind the message, and even if they succeed in uttering the right words, they will not bear a sufficient burden of meaning, of "vouloir dire", for the meaning to be apprehended by the listener: empty words.
On a good day, the conference-goer, unaware of the interpreter´s identity, may even ask them where they practise as (say) a nuclear physicist. For while it takes many years to learn how to design a nuclear power plant, the science involved can be grasped in a matter of days´ study. We charge not so much for the day´s work as for the years spent acquiring the necessary techniques.
This interpreter well remembers how, after a student had produced a succession of inadequate renditions of a message in consecutive, the aforementioned Mademoiselle S would draw herself up to her full height, stamp her foot, and loudly demand "Mais qu´est-ce que ça veut DIRE?" Very often the shock would be sufficient to galvanise the hapless candidate interpreter into finally getting away from the hypnotic effect of the original words and cutting to the essence.
Another enduring memory of interpreting school is more paradoxical. Success at the final diploma required passing six tests. Having achieved this, I was moved for some reason to seek a breakdown of the grades per test. There must have been some kind of fudge or scam, however, for in his office the Director of Interpretation, the excellent Monsieur T (interpreter to successive Présidents de la République) replied by exhorting me, "Monsieur P, ne cherchez pas à comprendre!" Seems quite reasonable to me in context, but splendidly ironic after spending two years learning to do just that!
"Thank you for your understanding."