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Why Fast-Talking MEPs are not just Bad News for Interpreters

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 8, 2016

European Parliament, Strabourg. (c) Cédric Puisney via Wikipedia

It’s unusual for interpreters to make the news. Yet, a recent article on the BBC website discussed an appeal from the Secretary General of the European Union for MEPs to talk more slowly and use their native language. If you work in the language industries, this kind of appeal will be old news. But there might be more to this than meets the eye. In fact, there is a lot here for professional speakers too. But first, let’s deal with the obvious.

As an interpreter myself, I must admit that my first reaction was a kind of resigned shrug. Careless speakers will be careless. Interpreters are taught summarising skills for a reason. To some extent, we just have to get on with it. That would seem to be the obvious response.

But this “just getting on with it”, while it might be a badge of professionalism to some, masks the real issues. It’s not just interpreters who suffer when speakers go a mile a minute. Actually, everyone suffers.

Way back in the 1970s, psychologist David Gerver and his team locked down the sweet spot for excellent interpreting. They found that interpreters performed their best with texts given at a speed of 100 to 120 words per minute. Too slow, and they found it difficult to store what the speaker said. Too fast, and they got lost.

They argued that this is not just a quirk of interpreting. It is very likely that the reason why this is a sweet spot for interpreting is because it is a sweet spot for human cognition. Put simply, if you want people to keep up and take in what you are saying, aiming for a speed in-between those two limits will help you. (Think ‘BBC Newsreader’ and you will be on the right track).

So, if MEPs are racing at the speed of light, it won’t just be the interpreters who are suffering. It is likely that even people listening to them directly will be getting lost. And, if what they are saying has any importance at all, that can only be a bad thing.

Instead of playing the “interpreters are struggling” card then, might it make more sense to argue that speaking too quickly is actually bad for democracy? If you want a real discussion, if you want the voices of your constituents to be heard, s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. If you don’t, you are the one who will suffer. Oh and the people who elected you!

Of course, professional speakers should know this stuff already but it is always worth a reminder. There is always the temptation to stuff a speech so full of content that the only want to get through it is to speak like a chipmunk on caffeine high. Except it doesn’t work. Your audience will actually get less out of that talk than they would have if you slowed down and really nailed one or two key points.

One more thing. No one has yet asked why MEPs might be racing so much. You never know, they might be the victims too. If they are given a limited timeslot in which to have their say, could you blame them for trying to say as much as possible? If this is the problem, we might want to lobby for longer and more frequent parliamentary sessions.

Problems with interpreting are rarely about interpreting itself. After all, interpreting is a people activity with language attached, not a language activity with people attached. Once we look at the people problems, we get much closer to finding a solution. And in this case, it seems that the issue is much less about interpreting than it is about good public speaking, democracy and scheduling. And those are areas where we all could improve.