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The Incredible Mental Agility of Interpreters

If you’ve ever witnessed an interpreter in action, you know you’ve seen something amazing: how a skilled professional can rapidly process and express ideas in another language—in a flash. Watching such a scene of graceful and rapid interpretation might have left you in a state of awe. How could the human brain possibly manage such a complicated and speedy feat?

BBC Future investigated the “networked brains” of real-time interpreters, to analyze how interpreters utilize multiple mental domains in an instant. These mental skill areas include:


A broad meaning of the term cognition is “thinking,” yet it involves other hidden processes as well. Interpreters access their short-term and long-term memories as they work. Some topics might be technical or specialized, creating more “cognitive demand” for the interpreter.

Interpreters must also quickly deconstruct meaning from slang and informal usages of words. Additionally, they must intently focus their attention with laser-beam precision—capturing every single word without letting anything slide.

Motor Skills

During a speedy bout of interpreting, the brain of a real-time interpreter also works to send signals that allow for proper oral-motor functioning. (Motor here means “movement.”) Interpreters must coordinate their lips, tongue, and teeth to accurately produce the sounds of their spoken language, in a voice which is both clear and comprehensible.

Sensory Skills

Interpreters must use their senses to perceive the meaning and intent of the foreign-language speaker. As they watch and listen to the speaker, their brains must instantly convert these visuals and sounds into something meaningful. Of course, we all watch people and listen to them in our everyday lives—but interpreters need to possess an especially keen sense of perception, so they won’t miss a beat.

Coordinated Skills

The networked brains of interpreters allow for the coordination of all of these efforts. Multiple regions across the brain work together to accomplish the feat of instant interpretation. A forebrain structure known as the caudate nucleus seems to be an important part of these activities.

An illuminating study at the University of Geneva demonstrated that students who underwent conference interpreter training actually developed less active parts of the right caudate, as their brains became more efficient at their skill-coordinating tasks. At the University of Geneva’s Brain and Language Lab, group leader Narly Golestani spoke of how interpreters’ brains can coordinate “perception and production” at the same time. Golestani emphasized that these regions of the brain “go to an extremely high level, beyond language.”

And that is the true feat of interpreters: they access a state of higher functioning that the rest of us can only observe, in a pure state of awe.

ALTA Language Services offers a host of interpreting services, including interpreting training as well as on-site and remote interpreters for events. Interested in brushing up on your interpretation skills? We also offer interpreter training.

About the author:
Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she also enjoys writing novels.

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