Interpreters Know Their ABCs – In Working Languages
At multinational events, professional conference interpreters rely on several working languages. Obviously, interpreters are considered by most people to be bilingual – fluent in two languages. However, many of us are actually multilingual and we work in what we call A, B and C Languages.
The majority of professional conference-level interpreters speak two to four languages. This is the result of an agility in the parts of the brain that processes native and second languages. To be specific, Wernicke’s area, in the posterior portion of the brain’s temporal lobe, handles language comprehension, while Broca’s area, in the frontal lobe, handles the mouth/speaking mechanics. Combine that innate ability with a passion for learning about languages and cultures, and you have the formula that leads us to become professional interpreters, fluent in multiple languages.
If you have not worked with professional translation and interpreting firms in the past, we recommend reading Translating Translation: A Helpful Guide to Translation Terminology to brush up on some basics that straddle the realms of both translation and interpretation. As a client, it’s important to understand the differences between active languages, which are the languages an interpreter can interpret into, and passive languages, the languages the interpreters are comfortable interpreting from, but not into. Based on your event’s language requirements, your language services provider will select the best interpretation team for your needs.
What are A, B and C languages?
Few interpreters can claim to have a native speaker’s grasp of language with multiple languages. In addition to the sheer scope of a particular language’s vocabulary on every level (personal, informal, formal, professional, technical, spiritual, etc.), languages do not exist in a verbal vacuum. Languages are integrally embedded and ensconced in culture, so you cannot have a native grasp of one without being immersed at length in the other. Hence, we divide our absolutely-fluent native language(s), as well as our just-about-native language(s), and our comfortable-but-not-flawlessly-fluent language(s) into various categories.
The first two categories, A and B languages, are considered active. This means the interpreter is fluent in each language and can flawlessly interpret in either direction between their A and B languages, both consecutively and simultaneously. They can continue to interpret information fluently, even within the context of very complicated information or scenarios. Below we will take a closer look at the differences.
An A language is the interpreter’s mother tongue, the language they grew up speaking, their native-level language or their language of culture. Many second-generation Americans or ex-pats may speak their parents’ native language as well as the national language(s) of the country in which they were raised. If they have parents who speak two separate languages, and they grew up speaking each of them interchangeably, and received formal education in both, as well as the language of the country where they were raised, they may even have a third A language – although this is extremely rare due to the cultural and educational relevance that must be attained for each language. In most cases, however, professional interpreters have one, and at most two, A languages. They converse flawlessly, with a perfect accent, and blend right in with the local, native speakers.
In order to truly hold more than one language as an A Language, interpreters should be able to:
- Easily comprehend other dialects and regional accents in that same language
- Understand puns, humor, cultural connotations, and colloquialisms without missing a beat
- Have a fluent grasp of proverbs, old wives tales and traditional sayings or sentiments in that language/culture
- Instantly recognize famous quotations, examples of pop culture, etc.
If your interpreter easily navigates all of the above in a particular language, it’s probably an A Language for him or her.
We should note that many native speakers cannot do all of the above. The UN turns down applications frequently from native speakers who aren’t adept enough at their own language, and who don’t have the professional training needed to be a successful interpreter. This means that knowing languages does not necessarily make someone a good interpreter. Achieving the level of a conference interpreter requires advanced education, training and experience.
This is typically the second languages an individual learns fluently. As interpreters, most of us learned our second language in high school and/or university. Then, because we couldn’t get enough of it, we traveled and lived in countries where our new language is the native tongue. As linguists, we find that the knowing of one language facilitates the knowing of another, which makes it challenging and fun to take on a third, fourth or however many B Languages our brain (and travel budget) allows us to.
That being said, we are very careful in these languages. A good interpreter should know his or her limitations with B languages. While we can work from our A Languages into one or more B Languages, some of us may only work in consecutive interpreting styles (slower and more methodical, allowing for increased “interpreting” time) rather than simultaneous interpreting, which demands real-time, instantaneous interpretation without any pauses or breaks for consideration.
This language category is considered “passive”, because while the interpreter understands it extremely well, and can speak it well enough, he or she knows there are limitations. In general, a conference interprets from his/her C language into his/her A language, but never the other way around – particularly not for conference-level engagements, and especially in a simultaneous interpreting scenario.
You can see how an overly-eager interpreter, or an interpretation service desperate for your business may be inclined to oversell their language capacity. Therefore, the quality of your company’s message – both sent and received – relies on your ability to partner with a language services provider that works with true native speakers and that has a reputation for excellence in the conference-level interpreting network.
Contact Chang-Castillo and Associates to benefit from our platinum-standard, language services solutions!