Preparing on numbers: Yes, we CAN (and SHOULD)! – A Guest Article by Francesca Maria Frittella

A new client requested you to interpret at his business’s annual press conference. It’s quite a big assignment and the event takes place in only five days, but you are not worried: the best practices that you have developed through your training and professional experience allow you to prepare efficiently and effectively. So, you get started with your preparation. You find out more about the company’s departments and positions and prepare a multilingual list of speakers and participants. You learn more about the company’s products and create a glossary using your favourite computer-assisted interpreting tools. Of course, you also prepare strategically on numerical facts and organise key data for easy access in the booth.

The following statement will, therefore, appear obscure to you:

“ Preparation, as a means to overcome number problems, is not very efficient. Most numbers that arise in speeches do not form part of interpreters’ general knowledge.“

I was surprised when I read this comment to one of my articles by a peer reviewer in one of the most influential scientific magazines in interpreting research. After all, the conviction that preparation is key to interpret numbers successfully seems not to be shared by all experts in our field. Time and again, this observation found confirmation in my research studies on the topic as well as in my experience teaching my course on the simultaneous interpretation of numbers, talking at conferences and exchanging views with colleagues on this topic. A large number of students, trainers and professionals are unclear about why, when and how preparation is helpful to interpret numbers. In this blog post, I will try to clarify these points and share with you some general principles to guide your numerical preparation for assignments.

Of course, preparation on numerical facts, just like general preparation, may only be efficient and effective if it is goal-directed and systematic. In other words, if we do not want to waste our time and make sure that our numerical preparation actually allows us to improve our interpretation quality, we need a technique for numerical preparation―a set of procedures and methods that allow us to achieve the desired effect. To develop and refine our technique for numerical preparation, it is, therefore, first and foremost important to define its purpose.

1. The function of preparation in interpreting

The function of numerical preparation can be compared to the function of preparation in general. When we prepare for our assignments, we conduct two distinct types of preparation: terminological and knowledge-based. Both types have their own function, and both are, therefore, necessary.
Terminological preparation is aimed at finding target-language equivalents for source-language terms. To be useful, this type of preparation should guarantee that we have identified all the most relevant terms to our assignment.
Knowledge-based preparation is aimed at acquiring encyclopaedic knowledge about the topic of our assignment. Such background knowledge is fundamental because it allows us to understand the meaning of the information in the source speech, summarise, reformulate, clarify concepts and check our delivery for plausibility.

2. The function of numerical preparation: why and when is it important?

The same principles apply to numerical preparation. Preparation on numerical facts can, too, be divided into two types, each with its own function.
The first type of numerical preparation aims at identifying the key components of the numerical information unit. Numbers (the bare arithmetical value) are always accompanied by other elements that constitute the information unit, such as referent (the thing that the number quantifies or defines) and unit of measurement (the accepted standard of measurement of quantity), like in the example below:

a 19[arithmetical value]-inch[unit of measurement] tablet [referent]

A number without a referent is like a sentence without a subject. All elements of the numerical information unit must be interpreted accurately to convey the information. For instance, if I didn’t know the equivalent term of the unit of measurement ‘inch’ in the target language, I wouldn’t be able to provide my audience with an accurate rendition of the source-language numerical information.

The second type of numerical preparation is aimed at acquiring encyclopaedic numerical knowledge about the topic of our assignment. Like general encyclopaedic knowledge in understanding, the knowledge of some reference numerical facts allows us to understand the numbers in the source-speech. This enables us to apply interpreting strategies when needed or desirable. For instance, if I didn’t know the correct translation of the word ‘inch’ but I could convert this unit of measurement into centimetre, I would still be able to provide my audience with equivalent information. This type of preparation also allows us to perform a plausibility check of our delivery, which can save us from painful plausibility errors. For instance, knowing the rough length of an inch in the real world, I would not confuse ’19 inches’ with ’90 inches’ when talking about the width of a laptop screen. Even if similar-sounding numerals are a frequent problem trigger, thanks to my background numerical knowledge, I would immediately judge the second option as implausible, see this here.
3. Numerical preparation: how to do it efficiently and effectively?

To summarise, we may distinguish two distinct types of numerical preparation:
1) Preparation on the components of the numerical information unit, like terminological preparation, allows us to increase the accuracy of our delivery, by ensuring that we can rapidly and precisely deliver the information in the target language;
2) Preparation on encyclopaedic numerical knowledge makes it possible for us to understand the meaning of the numerical information, select adequate strategies to solve interpreting-related problems (summarising, reformulating, clarifying etc.), and check our delivery for plausibility.
A common problem with numerical preparation is choosing the right elements to focus on. When you prepare for numerical facts remember a general rule of thumb: less is more but may not be enough. You want to make sure that you do not waste your time trying to memorise endless lists of data but you still need to find the fundamental information that will help you achieve the objective of a more accurate and effortless delivery. To make sure that you are preparing on numerical facts both efficiently and effectively, try asking yourself the following questions:

• What are the top 5 most important numerical facts about this event/topic?―Sure you can do more if you have time, but starting with the 5 most relevant numbers will help you focus your preparation and decrease the likelihood of overseeing fundamental facts that you really should know.
• What are the elements that accompany those 5 key numerical information units?―For each numerical fact, make sure to learn the fundamental elements of the numerical information unit in both the source and the target language. This will help you make sure that you can interpret the information completely and accurately.
• What are the benchmark values for these 5 key numerical facts?―The previous knowledge of some reference values (for instance the highest and lowest values) will allow you to gauge the plausibility of the information in the source speech and in your delivery.

If this all sounds too abstract, don’t worry! A course on the topic will soon be available on www.interpremy.com. We will also be holding a seminar on the topic at AIIC Germany’s PRIMS conference in July 2020. Get in touch to be kept posted!


About the author:

Francesca Maria Frittella

      • Conference Interpreter IT-EN-DE-CN, MA Germersheim, based in Beijing (China), fmfinterpreting.com, contact: francesca@interpremy.com
      • Researcher in interpreting pedagogy and course design
      • Co-founder of InterpreMY – my interpreting academy: online academy for interpreters with goal-centred, research-based courses, interpremy.com (coming soon: July 2020)
      • Publications:

    Frittella F. M. (2017) Numeri in interpretazione simultanea. Difficoltà oggettive e soggettive: un contributo sperimentale (in English, Numbers in Simultaneous Interpreting. Objective and Subjective Difficulties: An experimental study), Rome, Europa Edizioni.
    Frittella F. M. (2019) „70.6 billion world citizens: Investigating the difficulty of interpreting numbers“, Translation & Interpreting 11/1.

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