In my 25+ years of interpreting, numbers have been my worst enemy. I brace myself for impact every time I see a sum looming ahead in SI. I'm sure other interpreters more or less have the same problem. In my language combination, I have yet to see an interpreter come out unscathed after being bombarded with rapid fire quantities.

Part of the reason why it's so difficult to interpret sums in the English-Thai language pair is because the English and Thai languages use very different multipliers to delimit quantities. While the only two multipliers used in the English language are "ten" and "hundred", the multipliers used in the Thai language are "ten", "hundred", "thousand", "ten thousand", "hundred thousand", and "million". These multipliers are placed in front of another word signifying a quantity just like in the English language, (but not quite like in the English language). However, there's a very big difference in how multipliers are used in English and in Thai. In English, there are words which represent base quantities, i.e. thousand, million, billion, etc., in front of which multipliers are placed and multiplied to the base figure to delimit quantities which progress up the quantity ladder. The system is divided into sets of three rungs each ending with the words "thousand", "million", "billion", etc. In the progression to a higher digit, the multipliers ten and hundred are used before the base figure(word) changes and the process is repeated again.

In the Thai language, the progression of digits starts with one and climbs to million (one, ten, hundred, thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand, million). After million, the very same words used to represent base figures are again used as multipliers (literally translated as "one million", "ten million", "hundred million", "thousand million", "ten thousand million", "hundred thousand million", and "million million"). However, we know that "thousand million", "ten thousand million", "hundred thousand million", and "million million" do not make sense in English and must be interpreted as "billion", "ten billion", "hundred billion", and "trillion". We can see that in such cases, simple lexical pairing will not do the job and additional effort is required to do the maths before the quantity can be interpreted.

Literal Translation of How Quantities are Expressed in the Thai Language

* In English, the figures 10,000 and 100,000 are represented by placing the multipliers “ten” and “hundred” in front of the word “thousand”, but in Thai, the two figures take on completely new words. The same applies for the sums “ten billion” and “hundred billion”, which are literally stated as “ten thousand million” and “hundred thousand million” in Thai.

With regard to directionality, when interpreting from English to Thai, the sums to watch out for are "ten thousand", "hundred thousand", "ten billion", and "hundred billion" because these sums take on completely new words in the Thai language and cannot be interpreted by just pairing up words but must involve an additional analytical step to formulate the target language rendition. For example, for "ten thousand", the interpreter needs to start his analysis of the source message by thinking about "thousand" and finding a word(sum) to represent it in the Thai language. Then, he multiplies that (sum) by ten to get the actual interpretation of "ten thousand". In cases like this, "doing the maths" in the target language formulation stage adds to the cognitive load for the interpreter.

Likewise, when interpreting from Thai to English, the sums to watch out for are "billion", "ten billion", and "hundred billion" because interpreters may forget to do the maths and jump to literally interpreting "billion" as "thousand million", "ten billion" as "ten thousand million" and "hundred billion" as "hundred thousand million", which are the outcomes of simple word pairing. In order to correctly interpret these quantities, the interpreter needs to put in extra effort and do a bit of multiplication as well.

In light of this, we may say that the problem with multipliers is they create increased cognitive load. There seems to be an accepted notion that numbers are problem triggers. To that, I would like to add that numbers with multipliers are bigger problem triggers because they demand more mental capacity. To handle the situation, we should be looking for ways to reduce the cognitive load involved. One method I find very useful is writing down the sums in short form for which I use a combination of numbers and abbreviations. For example, for "10,000", I write "10 th", which is more efficient time-wise. I'm sure every interpreter has his own system of abbreviations in note-taking and this is just a suggestion. The point of the matter is to find a tool that helps reduce the demand on your mental resources.

So numbers are very problematic but instead of being afraid, what we should do is prepare ourselves to tackle them. It's always good to have a plan ahead of time so we know immediately what to do when the speaker starts that rapid fire of figures!

About the Author

Sasee Chanprapun teaches interpretation at the Chalermprakiat Center of Translation and Interpretation, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. She is a freelance conference interpreter and member of AIIC. Her research interests are cognitive load and SI coping strategies.

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