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Frying My Brain

Once I “fried” my brain by doing a “simultaneous interpretation” work without any break.  After doing it for a week, I was bed-ridden for the subsequent week to recover from the abuse.

Frying My Brain

By James H. Choi
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When you use your body beyond its capabilities, you injure its parts.  This could be your tendon, a muscle, or bones.  But can you injure your brain?  Can you actually fry your brain?  I have.  And I’d like to tell you how I did it.

Once, I heard news through the grapevine that a company was looking for a Korean interpreter to translate from English to Korean.  Out of curiosity, I took the job, which was a temporary, one-week assignment.  So I took a week of vacation out of my regular job to work at this other company.

The job took place at a global management meeting of the company, where an executive from Korea was attending.  Not confident in his English, he wanted to hire an interpreter to assist him.  We sat at a big seminar classroom where lecturers from a corporate office were teaching global management of the company’s ways and how to conduct business, how to do accounting, and so on.

I sat next to the Korean gentleman and said, “Greetings, I am your interpreter.  Which part of the meetings and speeches would you like me to translate?”
I was expecting him to say he would indicate to me which parts he would like translated, such as when difficult words were mentioned.  Instead, he said,

“Why don’t you translate the whole thing?”

I was taken aback.  But I’d come too far to back out.  So I said, “Yes,” and started translating the whole thing.

It’s not as if I had some translation booth assigned to me.  We sat in the last row together, and I whispered everything into his ears.  It was not so quiet because, of course, he had to hear.  I probably annoyed the daylight out of all those around us by constantly mumbling in Korean, but that was not my fault.  This was my job.  So I did it.

As the lecturers began explaining certain things, ranging from cultural sensitivities to accounting and so on, I was translating the content into Korean.  These lectures didn’t wait for me a bit.  I didn’t exist (to the lecturers), so they carried on.  I had to squeeze in the translations between the lecturers’ breathing time, which was not much.

Some speakers spoke slowly, so I was OK.  Some speakers spoke really fast.  I recall the accounting lecture was a quite fast speaker, but there I found out the fast speakers tend to repeat.  I didn’t translate the repetitions, but even so I was dropping lines, despite trying my hardest to translate everything.

I’m fairly well-versed in Korean and English, so I hardly ever have to look up words in dictionaries.  Thus the vocabulary wasn’t difficult for me; however, the sentence structure was.  In English, you can say, “The house that was on the mountain.”  But in Korean, the latter part has to come first.  When someone says “house,” I cannot begin the same way in Korean.  I must wait to see what kind of house this was, all the while remembering that this was a house, not a dog.

Here’s a convoluted example of what I would translate: “The house that was on the mountain, which was owned by a gentleman from Poland, which was invaded by Germany during the second World War, which was the longest war …”  If a sentence like this came along, the translation was doomed.

But nobody was this vicious; most people didn’t talk so convolutedly.  But I still had to hold a lot of information in my head and recall it later on.  Those familiar with RPN logic on HP calculators are familiar with this type of information-memory recall because you have dealt with entering information and then running an operation later.  (In fact, I suspect RPM logic was based on Asian languages or another type of verb-at-the-end languages.)  But this kind of waiting problem is not an issue when I translate from Korean to Japanese — because the word order is the same.  In fact, translating between Korean and Japanese or Spanish and English, you don’t have to know even what the whole sentence is; you can simply translate word-for-word without holding any information.  It is equivalent to driving around using GPS, without ever knowing where those places are on the map.  However, between Korean and English, this just wasn’t the case.  I had to hold the whole string of words, juggling them in my head, and bring them back out later.

Probably on my second or third day out of six, I found some strange thing happening.  I was always under pressure to speak, delivering information in the shortest amount of time yet in a coherent way.  But I began to notice I was speaking while the lecturer was still speaking; I was no longer waiting for breathing breaks but instead speaking as soon as I had enough information to deliver.  This is called simultaneous translation.  You can see people doing this in the back booths of the United Nation.  I always admired these people, thinking they were born with special genes enabling them to talk and speak at the same time.  I have trouble repeating a sentence while listening to it, never mind interpreting it.  At least, that’s how I was.  Yet in this setting, I found myself slipping into simultaneous translation.  (I had enough brain cells left to notice that.)  I got fascinated by this.  I was now one of the simultaneous translators, the people I’d considered super heroes.  I might be super.

I got better and better.  The next day, I intentionally pushed.  I intentionally spoke while the presenter was still talking, and I was succeeding.  This was super.  I felt good about myself and this completely new ability and happily did my work enthusiastically.

As soon as the translating week was over, I went back to my routine life.  Or so I thought.

The day after I got home, I fell mysteriously sick.  I got so sick I was bed ridden for one week.  I used up one week of vacation to make extra money and the other lying in bed.  That’s how I blew two weeks of vacation.

But this illness was peculiar.  I didn’t cough.  I didn’t have a fever.  I just fell dead on a bed and couldn’t stand up.  I didn’t know the cause.   Later, I accidentally found out what happened to my body.  These simultaneous interpreters work 30 minutes at most, and then they need a break.  There’s a team of two translators who rotate to relieve each other because this type of interpretation is so taxing on the brain that even the professionals cannot do it more than 30 minutes without frying their brains.  I’d been doing it for eight hours a day for three days.  I unwittingly had been frying my own brain, and I had to pay for this.

I hope that didn’t do permanent damage (although my friends who know me might say this story explains a lot).  The story doesn’t end there, though.  I got invited back for the same executive from Korea at the same event the next year.

Did I take the job?

Yes, I did.  Perhaps you have to have lived as a poor immigrant to understand how difficult it is to give up an opportunity to make a few thousand bucks.   But it was not just the money.  I was curious whether I’d be able to handle the mental taxation this time: if I could handle what it costs our brains, what the burden is.  So this time I was determined to survive and planned accordingly.  I was able to do the simultaneous translation from day one; the training had stuck from a year before although I never attempted it since.  But this time, I was aware I was frying my brain.  So this time, when there was no lectures, I didn’t talk.  I rested my brain and thought as little as possible.  During meal times, when I’d previously been translating all table conversations, this time I spoke as least often as possible.  Also, after work, I would jog around the hotel garden area, and I then slept nine hours each day.  So I did my best to protect my brain and health; I ate healthily too, mostly salads.

And after a week?

Remember, even the professionals spend only 30 minutes on this, but I was spending far more than that.  I was spending hours on end, and for six days in a row this time.  But my sheer arrogance made me believe that I should be able to handle the burden and survive it.

Did I survive?

Yes, I did.   After the conference finished, I returned home, resuming my normal life without falling sick this time.  So it is possible to work as a simultaneous interpreter without frying your brain (or maybe my brain strengthened; I don’t know what happened, but I was OK).

Would I do this job again, if someone lured me with another couple thousand bucks of income?

I don’t think so.  Just thinking about those days stresses me.  Even more than solving math-competition problems, the simultaneous translation was the most challenging task I did with my brain.  I think the difference between this translation and math-problem solving is the time pressure I have.  The speakers in front of me were not even aware of my presence while talking at their own paces,  and it was my responsibility to put the adjectives and relative clauses in the right spots, holding the noun while waiting for the relative clauses to finish, translating that and bringing back the noun — all that in real time was simply too stressful.

Although I’ve shown I have what it takes to do that job, I have no desire to make that my career.  It’s just too hard, and the responsibilities are too big.  (I worry: What if I drop a single word “not” in a sentence “We are not going to attack you” while interpreting under time pressure between the United States and North Korea?  I could trigger a war!)  For all those reasons, I’d rather not do that job.

And because of all the stress I experienced first-hand, I don’t want to recommend this job to you.  That said, when the responsibilities are not so high, and the pocket money is pretty good (a few thousand bucks in a few days is not so bad!), then I recommend you try it.  Learn what it feels like to fry your brain.  Just make sure to allocate a few sick days right after your work days.


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