Perspectives: Digital dementia and conference interpreters

Of all knowledge workers one could possibly think of, interpreters are among the few that, due to the very nature of their task, cannot take full advantage of new technologies that have the potential to completely revolutionize their work. Translators, lawyers, doctors and journalists, while still being paid for their specialized, creative and knowledgeable work, can make valuable use of the vast amount of information available, out of which special bits can be retrieved in just a few seconds using search functions.

In both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, however, the act of retrieving information is still hampered by the fact that interpreting requires quite a big portion of — if not all — the interpreter’s attention. Looking up a term is not as trivial as it is when translating, writing proceedings or talking to a patient. So the profession of interpretation has probably not been affected as profoundly as others by digitization, at least not in its core activity. With an ever-increasing specialization of the events or meetings to be interpreted (anything less technical than the substances used for pest-protection in Indonesian rice production can nowadays easily be sorted out relying on everybody’s school English), interpreters, to a great extent, are still forced to rely on their memory. The preparatory work of a conference interpreter, however — which accounts for about half the working time — has changed dramatically.

With all that in mind, I am all the more intrigued by the concept of “digital dementia,” coined by the German neurologist Manfred Spitzer in his 2012 book, Digitale Demenz. I really enjoyed reading his The Mind within the Net back in 1999, so I was all the more keen on reading about digital dementia. Was it really true that, thanks to digitalization, not only are we forced to accumulate ever more specialized knowledge in ever-shorter timespans, but we concurrently suffer from shorter memory spans and decreasing memory capacity due to the constant distractions of the digital world?

A common criticism about digitalization is that people are becoming antisocial in the real world due to constantly being immersed in the virtual one. However, the same complaint has arisen for a long time against people being hidden behind their newspapers during breakfast. And now, with people reading the newspaper on a tablet computer or mobile phone, at least their faces remain visible. The same goes for interpreters in the booth staring at their mobile phones or tablets, apparently disconnecting from the world they are working in. In reality, they could be busy looking up a certain regulation relevant to the conference.

And what is more, the effect of seeing or perceiving something in real life can hardly be imitated in writing, but a well-made video or animation in many cases comes much closer than a written text. For example, the abstract character of a written text describing the functioning of a waste sorting facility is nothing like visiting the plant you have been reading so much about — and virtual tours are almost as good.

The downside of all this is the sheer amount of data made available every day and the impossibility of reading it all increases the possibility of distraction and addiction. But while the dangers of digital media seem to be higher than those of paper media, the potential opportunities of digital media are all the higher if being used the right way. In Spitzer’s 2012 book, there is some evidence as to how we as conference interpreters may possibly make optimum use of the potential of digital media.

In Digitale Demenz, Spitzer explains that when it comes to remembering information, there is nothing like direct social contact; discussing things with other people leads to deep and emotional processing difficult to emulate elsewhere. In other words, information can be remembered better in the long run if it’s been discussed with another human being. Digital resources such as Wikipedia and well-made company websites allow us to search for exactly the piece of information in exactly the moment we need it most — and not many weeks later in one of those interpreting follow-up sessions we all feel are so important but are still less motivating. Looking up stuff in the booth is great, but talking it through with your booth mate makes it even better, which is something interpreters tend to naturally do without anybody having told them it enhances their memory performance.


Handwriting and notes

Whenever you talk with conference interpreters about note-taking during the preparation process, at least one in ten will most probably tell you that they just remember things better if they write them down using pen and paper. The explanation goes roughly like this: “The words just travel through the pen up my arm, entering directly into my brain.” Spitzer explains that most probably this works when you’re learning how to write letters as a child, allowing the picture of the letters to be mapped in your brain with the trace of the pen. But this does not necessarily hold true for whole words, sentences and their content. Additionally, interpreters need to be able to pronounce, not to spell, deoxyribonucleic acid, and computers have speech output that can be very helpful in this.

So while there seems to be no harm in remaining paper-only, if you feel you don’t absolutely need the safety of a pen in your hand, you are not necessarily missing something vital and may well happily indulge in the manifold amenities paperless offices have to offer, such as searching documents and sorting glossaries alphabetically, sharing information with colleagues or simply avoiding excessive use of paper and having access to your documents any place, any time.

Note-taking is one thing when you’re preparing for an assignment and noting down mainly terminological information and conceptual information. Note-taking in consecutive interpreting is another thing. Interpreters’ notes are designed exactly for encoding conceptual relations. There is a very recent study conducted by a team of researchers in the United States (Pam A. Mueller from Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer from the University of California, Los Angeles) about the question of whether the instrument of note-taking (pen vs. keyboard) influences learning, which gives us some interesting insight. Students who had taken notes of a lecture using pen and paper performed better in answering conceptual questions than those who had taken notes using a laptop computer. Even though typing has the advantage that more information can be captured, which in itself is beneficial to learning, the downside — potentially outweighing this advantage — is that when typing, people tend to transcribe verbatim instead of synthesizing the content, even when being told to avoid verbatim transcription. This in turn leads to shallower processing and impairs conceptual learning. But, interestingly, what goes for conceptual learning does not necessarily apply to other types of knowledge. For factual knowledge, the advantage pen-users showed over keyboard-users only occurred when a week had elapsed between the lecture and the test. In immediate testing, there was no difference in performance of pen vs. keyboard users.

So I can still use my laptop computer while interpreting (simultaneously or consecutively) in order to note down some numbers, names or terms, be it for myself or for my colleague, while I rely on my brain for the rest of the job. But for “real” consecutive interpreting, pen and paper (or touchscreen!) plus strong note-taking skills are the method of choice.

One interesting thing Spitzer points out (and leads directly to the fact that Google makes us dumb) is the fact that our brains tend to forget the information we have written down for the mere fact that it knows it has been saved somewhere. All it can be bothered to remember is the place you keep the information. It is like those things to do that don’t let us sleep unless we write them down, or the name of a person you couldn’t think of and then it occurs to you three days later (your brain having searched for it in the background).

But what do we learn from this? Stop writing down things? No more terminology management, no note-taking at all? I’d say no; for one thing, this is the way our brain works, and how many facts and terms about beer brewery can you possibly squeeze into your head in a working day and have them available even under the strains of simultaneous interpreting or of having to take notes and remembering a speech?

This is where another active principle of learning, also mentioned in Spitzer’s book, comes in. Active thinking increases retention compared to mere reading. While we are not very likely to stop writing down things we want to remember, we may well improve our memory by making sure that we not only read the list of the most important terms of biological waste treatment but actively learn and pronounce them (possibly with digital assistance in the form of a program or app such as Anki), or try to actively explain the way a wind separator works to someone else and not just read about it passively.


Adults and children
  learn differently

A big part of Spitzer’s book is dedicated to the effects digitalization has on children. He explains that in children’s minds, new structures are created when they learn, while adults integrate new information into existing structures. The more aspects of a given subject that are considered, the more points of connection there are to our mental structures. Furthermore, it is crucial to follow the hermeneutic circle (you understand a whole text by understanding the details and vice versa) in order to create profound knowledge structures.

In practice, if you limit your preparation and related online search activities in an unknown subject to checking vocabulary, you will remain on a shallow level of processing and not be able to integrate some loose pieces of information into the whole knowledge system. If you have no idea of balance sheets and just check equivalents for a list of words like contribution margin, breakeven point and accruals and deferrals, you are very likely to forget the words. However, once you have familiarized yourself with a given subject, punctually looking up a term, be it on the internet or in your own database, it will easily find its place in the big mental picture.

While the internet may encourage shallow information processing due to the abundance of information available, for those seeking deep conceptual information it has much more to offer than books. Apart from mere text and pictures, it provides links and relations, context and illustrative videos that come much closer to real-life experience than a book. So most internet resources, by their very nature, are more liable to generate good understanding than a plain dictionary, where brain comes after braid and before braise.

Although digitalization increases the pressure on interpreters’ knowledge acquisition, it also provides the instruments to cope with it. It may not do so as obviously as it does in other professions. But indirectly, there are many ways of harnessing digitalization to foster our mental resources and not let them decay. If we keep talking about things, challenging our memories and seeing the big picture, computers will help us a great deal while we are doing the real thing — thinking, understanding and learning by ourselves.