The Way Brains Talk When Interpreters Speak

Most of us have some pretty advanced skills as interpreters. We glean entire conversations in the subtext of a boss asking if we’d like to stay back for a meeting. Parents know there are at least 86 different meanings of the word “No” when uttered by a preschooler. There are dialects used by sports broadcasters that could use their own travel phrasebooks yet we watch on.

The real super athletes in this field are those who can hear and translate simultaneously. That must use an extraordinary amount of brain power, right? If you were able to show all the brain cells lighting up you would assume it would be a new environmentally friendly light source. Or at least enough to take care of your Christmas lights.

It turns out it’s both more and less complex than that.


Tangled Webs

And that's just the cortical tissue of a mouse. [via Flickr and Zeiss Microscopy under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

And that’s just the cortical tissue of a mouse. [via Flickr and Zeiss Microscopy under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

When I was in medical school they made us learn all sorts of things about the brain. We learned about the neocortex and the six layers that made sense down a microscope. We learned about differences between pyramidal cells and stellate cells. We learned about motor bits and sensory bits. We learned about different wedges of cortex and nuclei and bits named for Broca and Wernicke. We even danced out our myotomes and dermatomes (a bit less intensely than this).

What we got less of was a dynamic sense of how the tangled mess hooked up discrete areas to get higher functions done. So it’s still easy to get a kick out of newer stuff like this.

The Talk in Talk

The excellent Mosaic piece I’ve just linked to is worth a read in full. Once you get past the sense of inadequacy from speaking one language barely adequately (well, if you’re like me) and the accompanying jealousy of those who don’t need subtitles watching international cinema there’s some interesting brain stuff.

When you think through the process of real-time interpretation it’s more than a simple matter of understanding what is being said and shifting to another language. There’s a need to listen in one language, process that auditory information into another language and then reproduce it, while still listening to the next thing that’s being said in the first language. So to a degree you have to ignore what you are saying while still producing sensible, nuanced verbiage. Just for kicks, some interpreters apparently knit while doing this.

Functional MRI scanning now appears to be showing that this complexity isn’t down to any one language area in the brain. There is a bunch of generalist areas pitching in, particularly a bit of the brain called the caudate nucleus that is well known to be involved with things that require coordination between areas. It is another example of the importance of traffic between areas of the brain (which is why it reminds me of the newer stuff on disrupting consciousness by altering the balance of traffic between bits of the brain).

So it appears that higher level talking in the form of real-time interpretation relies on its own clever talk between different localities in the brain. So many levels.

Making More From Less

The other really interesting bit is what researchers from Geneva found when they did repeat fMRI scans on students who had previously been involved in their research. Some of the students had spent a year getting trained in how to interpret for conferences. Naturally, you’d expect the caudate nucleus would have really muscled up. You’d think the pretty images would be so bright with caudate activity your retinas would hurt like you’d glanced at the sun, right?

Except that it looks like there is less going on. Activity in the caudate was there but not as abundant when they got into the interpreting test. As the conductor of the brain interpretation orchestra it might just be that the more you work it, the more efficient it becomes at getting the job done. The interpreters in the article talk about the need for different strategies when they’re at work. It’s a bit like the way truly great footballers like Lionel Messi seem to have figured out how to win games while doing less than the next guy.

Higher Functions

This sort of work makes it seem that higher functions are only a bit about clever specialisation of brain areas and a lot about the way they work together. It would be the perfect analogy for how much more we could all achieve as people in a complex society if we could just figure out how to talk to each other better. Except I’m too distracted listening to this beginner’s Italian podcast to make it.


If you’re after another pretty amazing example of processing language at a level that’s hard to grasp, witness the super impressive Nas Campanella in action. It’s a good example of the challenges broadcasting breaking news. Oh and she’s blind, can’t read Braille and listens to about 4 different audio streams while she broadcasts. 






2 thoughts on “The Way Brains Talk When Interpreters Speak

  1. It certainly is a talent; learnt or natural. I can’t help but think that someone watching a sub-titled film who can speak both languages fluently has the possibility to be more annoying than not, if they translate the original script differently to how it appears on screen. Or maybe I’m just easily annoyed by things.
    Knitting though – I can understand that. If you’re already an accomplished knitted and can do it without thinking too much. Some tasks put your mind in a certain, almost meditative state. Distracting the inquisitive part of your conscious by physically doing something from the second, mental task (translation).
    Just a thought.
    : )

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