Cognitive Processes of Interpreting and Translation

by Han Mai
2 Minute Read

Ever wonder what happens in the process of translation/interpretation “under the hood?” Let’s look at the mode of interpretation first. Cognitive processes that take place in a simultaneous interpreter’s mind and brain are intense and all happening nearly at the same time. Neurons are firing in all directions, igniting different cognitive processing circuitry. The brain is literally “on fire,” as a Russian cognitive scientist puts it.

Consecutive interpreting is different from simultaneous from the perspective of the cognitive science, in that the stages of conversion of meaning and reproduction are delayed from the stage of intake and deciphering of the message. That does not, however, make the process easier.

In consecutive interpreting, an additional cognitive function is activated, memory. This mode of interpretation relies on this function rather heavily. As the interpreter makes notes in a form of shorthand signs and symbols which denote subjects, objects, and predicates, they also have to understand and remember the logical connections between the segments. A well-trained interpreter’s memory may allow one to retain very large volumes of information and to be able to retrieve it quickly while the interpreter is producing the communication in the target language. This memory is short-term: once the task is done, the information is “erased,” making space for new information.

Translation process is different from interpreting in that it relies on written text. Sight translation, although done orally, is considered to be a part of the translation mode because input is received from the written text (and memory is activated in a different way).

Cognitively, translation process involves the same major steps: decode the source communication, convert/recode it into the target language, produce target-language communication.

The translation process does not use the rapid-access short-term memory or the simultaneous processing and output of information quiet as heavily. Because the translator has the text available and more time to research and investigate before making translation decisions, they may not need to retain large amount of information in their short-term memory. Instead, they are reaching deeper. This especially pertains to any content where subject matter and language require stylistic skill and aptitude. Wherever metaphorical devices or style figures are used, the translator’s task is to reach for the associative fields, the symbolic arsenal, and the existing cultural metaphors of their target language to select an equivalent or, if one cannot be found (as they rarely are), to construct a new one. Ability to translate and express messages in an efficient (apt, clear, faithful) and stylistically appropriate form are its own type of intelligence — a linguistic IQ.