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  • Writer's pictureSasee Chanprapun

Sum Hazards in Interpreting

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Every time a number pops up in the course of interpreting, I brace myself for turbulence. I know it’s going to be a bumpy ride because unlike other parts of the message where you have coherence and context clues to help you out, numbers are unique outliers in that they seem to stand alone and their meaning is pretty much independent of the context. My worst nightmare is having to interpret a series of sums like in annual reports and economic forecasts. Here, I want to make the distinction between generic numbers, dates, and sums. When I say generic numbers I mean number that are used to identify things like car license plates, telephone numbers and room numbers, etc. These numbers don't cause so many problems for me because they can be easily paired between my A (Thai) and B (English) languages. Next on the scale of toughness is the Buddhist era. Problems usually happen when I'm doing retour from Thai to English and the speaker suddenly talks about some event happening in a certain year of the Buddhist era, which is 543 years in advance of the Christian era. In most cases, when I render the message into English, I need to convert the Buddhist era year into a corresponding year in the Christian era. Through my years of interpreting, I've learned it's not necessary to subtract the Buddhist era year by 543 every time, but to prepare a ready made conversion chart that I can easily refer to and save a considerable amount of time. Top of the list for problem triggers are the sums because they are so complex just to understand, let alone try to interpret.

The English language lexical system for indicating sums is divided into progressing levels ending with thousand, million, billion, and trillion. Within each level there are sub-levels indicated by multipliers: ten and hundred. For example, for thousand, you would have a progression starting from thousand, then ten thousand, then hundred thousand before moving on to the next level, which is million. Unfortunately, the Thai system for indicating sums is very different from the English system. In Thai, each level of progression from one to million is indicated by a unique word-no multipliers yet. The multiplication starts after million and progresses up to trillion. Literally speaking in the Thai system, after million you have 10 million, 100 million, 1,000 million, 10,000 million, 100,000 million and 1,000,000 million. You can probably guess how much trouble this causes in interpretation. Let's suppose the speaker says 1,000,000,000 in Thai, the interpreter would be inclined to transcode the sum and say "one thousand million" because that's the way it's expressed in Thai, but of course, we can't do that and we use every remaining ounce of our mental capacity to do the maths required here. So you start thinking about the sum "million" first because that's one of the words used to indicate the sum 1,000,000,000 in the Thai language. Then you think about the rungs of progression, starting from million you think about the multipliers and move your mind upwards in the progression until finally you get to "billion", which is what you should say instead of "thousand million". When interpreting from English to Thai, you have to turn your brains around in pretty much the same way with certain sums. For example, if the speaker says "ten billion" in English, the interpreter would be inclined to transcode and render the interpretation literally while the actual interpretation should be something else (the correct rendition actually reads "ten thousand million"!). In both cases, it simply won't do to just pair up words in the source and target languages.

Even without the sums, interpreting in itself is a tough job, demanding a lot of mental energy. With the additional analysis required in interpreting certain sums from Thai to English and from English to Thai, the cognitive demand is heightened even more. Most interpreters write down the numbers to help them perform better. However, we shouldn't be writing down the numbers per se. Perhaps we can use a special system which breaks up the sums according to the words that are used to indicate them (thousand, million, billion and trillion). For example, for the sum 52,000,000,000 let's not write down the numbers with the nine zeros but let's combine the numbers and word, abbreviate and write "52 b", which is much shorter, more economical, and much easier to make sense of. We can also break up the chunk by separating the numbers according to the words that are used to refer to them. For instance, for the sum 52,453,991,024 we can write "42b 453m 991t 24" because that's the way we hear it and because by looking at the visual representation of the sum we have made (by writing it down in such a way), we are able to better decipher the meaning and reformulate it into our target language.

From experience, I can say this technique has helped me immensely with sums. Our brains have limited capacity and we already work close to mental saturation most of the time (Gile, 2009). Rather than trying to force our brains to work even harder and risk having a meltdown, we can use temporary storage like note-taking to help ease the burden. I'm happy to share this technique with colleagues and very interested to hear about the

numerical and quantity systems in your languages.


Gile, D. (2009). Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


about the author

Sasee Chanprapun is a freelance conference interpreter and a member of AIIC. She teaches at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University and at the Master’s Program in Interpretation, Chalermprakiat Center of Translation and Interpretation, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University In Bangkok.

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