Volume 6, No. 3 
July 2002

  Dr. Lin Wei





Reader Survey Results

Index 1997-2002

  Translator Profiles
Aerial Trap and the Lao People's Republic
by Peter Wheeler

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
What Every Novice Translator Should Know
by Antar S.Abdellah
Translation Economics 101
by Danilo Nogueira
Translator Education
Quality Assurance in Translator Training
by Moustafa Gabr 
Positive Transfer: A Neuropsychological Understanding of Interpreting and the Implications for Interpreter Training
by Lin Wei, Ph.D.

  Financial Translation
Implications in Translating Economic Texts
by Guadalupe Acedo Domínguez and Patricia Edwards Rokowski, Ph.D.
Saisir les subtilités qui existent entre l'anglais et le français ?
by Frédéric Houbert

English to Japanese—to What Extent Can Translation Be Accurate?
by Angela Loo Siang Yen

  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature—A Fond Farewell
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Translators’ Job Market

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

Translation Journal

Positive Transfer: A Neuropsychological Understanding of Interpreting and the Implications for Interpreter Training

by Lin Wei, Ph.D. (林 巍)

There are many definitions of interpreting according to different academic disciplines. This paper will attempt to approach the topic from a neuropsychological perspective, exploring the area based on some recent discoveries and my own practice with the intention of revealing some implications for interpreter training.

The neuropsychological evidence and the established mental structure have equipped us with a better understanding of the interpreting process, where the transfers taking place have both negative and positive aspects. This study will concentrate on three key areas: code-switching, attention, and working memory, and it will explore the possibilities of improving the interpreter training process in each of these areas.

Although we will make no attempt to discredit traditional teaching methods, both students and teachers will be encouraged to more frequently adopt learning and teaching strategies based on the effects of transfer. Obviously, this is only a first step toward a comprehensive approach. The aim is to maximize and fully utilize the positive influence of transfer, while minimizing the negative side for the purpose of enhancing the training efficiency.


The Neuropsychological Basis of Interpreting and the Mental Structure

aving been teaching interpreting/translation courses in China, Hong Kong, and overseas and working with students with different native languages, I truly believe that probing into the neuropsychological basis of interpreting will deepen our understanding and benefit our practice.

as we advance in our research, we should replace the term “short-term memory” with “working memory.”
In neuropsychological terms, interpreting can be viewed as an operation related to the development and function of the neural structure. We know that most of the brain's functions depend on remarkably precise interconnections among its 100 billion neurons, and the activity of interpreting is no exception (Andrew, 2001). Essentially, the interpreting process has three stages: receiving the utterances, switching the utterances, and delivering the utterances.

At the first stage, when the interpreter receives the utterance in the source language (SL), the information signal stimulates a correlated area in the cortex. As the audio stimuli evoke increased brain activity in the striate cortex and the extrastriate cortex, the nuclei of the cells start to proliferate, the nucleus of the cell migrates upward from the ventricular surface toward the pial surface; the cell's DNA is copied. Then the nucleus containing two complete copies of the genetic instructions, settles back to the ventricular surface and the cell retracts its tentacle from the pial surface (Bear & Connors & Paradiso, 2001).

The switch takes place at the second stage, where the SL utterance is matched with the stored signal in the target language (TL). While the brain activities dramatically further increase during this crucial transitional process, the regional blood flow accelerates. As a result, many daughter cells migrate by slithering along thin fibers that radiate from the ventricular zone toward the pia mater. These fibers originate from specialized radial glial cells, providing the scaffold on which the cortex is built. The immature neurons, called neuroblasts, follow this radial path from the ventricular zone toward the surface of the brain. When the cortical assembly is complete, the radial glial cells suspend their radial processes. However, not all migrating cells follow the path provided by the radial glial cells. About one-third of the neuroblasts wander horizontally on their way to the cortex. Nevertheless, this is the period of fastest cell transfer due to the intensified exchanges and increased brain activities (Mark, 2001).

At the final stage, the transferred TL utterance will be delivered based on the form of cell differentiation in the relevant cortex. As neurons differentiate, they extend axons that must find their appropriate targets. Consequently, the pathway formation in the central nervous system occurs in three phases: pathway selection, target selection, and address selection. Each of the three phases of pathway formation depends critically on communication between cells. This communication occurs in several ways: direct cell-to-cell contact, contact between cells and the extracellular secretions of other cells, and communication between cells over a distance via diffusible chemicals. As the pathways develop, the neurons also begin to communicate via action potentials and synaptic transmission—the transformed utterances to be delivered (Berg, 2002).

Based on this biological process, a more comprehensible mental structure can be built. Generally speaking, any information remains irrelevant to anyone until it is received by a "structured mind" for a certain purpose. In particular, there are three principal components in the mental structure mechanism: laying a foundation, mapping information onto the structure, and shifting to a new structure. In relation to the interpreter training process, these components can be structured as follows:

  1. Laying a Foundation
    1. Native language competence
    2. Second language competence
    3. Wide interests/broad knowledge base
  2. Mapping Information into the Structure
    1. Code-switching ability
    2. Sensitivity to utterances
  3. Shifting to New Structures
    1. Conducting different forms/types of interpreting
    2. Relating to different pieces of information

Laying A Foundation The term "interpretation study" has often, to a large extent, been synonymized with "second language acquisition" among students and educators. However, despite an overlapping area between the two, they are fundamentally different. In fact, after a period of time in training, students often find out that they are not competent enough in their native language! Meanwhile, their interests in wide range of issues such as politics, finance, education, culture, environment, and so on should be constantly broadened, which is the precondition for achieving interpreting competence.

Mapping Information into the Structure The competence in both languages may not necessarily be translated into interpreting competence, which is essentially the switching ability between two language codes and cultural systems. Moreover, sensitivity to utterances can make a difference in interpreting results and can be trained throughout the training courses.

Shifting to New Structures Different forms and types of interpreting require different terminologies, sentence or even thinking patterns and ways of expression; a competent interpreter should be able to shift skillfully from one structure to another, while conveying coherent and related information.

To fully explain and implement this process of building mental structures requires much research, which goes beyond the scope of this paper. Concerned mainly with transferability, this investigation focuses on three crucial issues:

Targeting on code-switching

Distributing attention

Shifting to working memory

Let's discuss them in the following sections.


Targeting on Code-Switching

The term "code-switching" was initially used in linguistics, meaning that there is a systematic interchange of words, phrases, and sentences between two or more languages (Odlin, 1989). However, the term is borrowed here to illustrate a key phenomenon in interpreting.

In acquiring a second language, an important task is to observe the target linguistic code system and overcome the native language influence, which is the negative aspect of linguistic transfer (Chastain,1988). In interpreting, on the contrary, the positive aspect of linguistic transfer could be emphasized for the purpose of training the code-switching skills.

Quite often, we see students who may have excellent linguistic competence in both source and target languages, but are still unable to interpret with a reasonable skill level because they are incompetent in code-switching between the languages. Neuroscientifically speaking, the stimulated neurons are confined in an area of the cortex and are unable to induce cell migration across the locations in cortex. Therefore, linguistic competence is not necessarily identical to interpreting competence.

When I taught several translation courses in the Department of Translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I developed a set of SCS (Sense of Code-Switching) exercises targeting students' code-switching abilities, placing one set of language elements, ranging from words, phrases, sentences to paragraphs, alternated with a set in another language on the task sheets. Whatever language the students encountered, they had to read loudly what was written in the alternative target language. The guidelines consisted of two parts: first, the interpreting strategy, guiding students to grasp the theme and keywords; second, the interpreting techniques, dealing with specific problems, such as grammar, vocabulary, expressions, and so on. The students found the exercises very helpful, and their test results improved steadily.

At the University of Tasmania, during the time I was teaching translation courses to native English and Japanese speakers, assisted by some software specialists, I developed a set of multimedia programs mainly for matching exercises between English words and Chinese/Japanese characters. The target language was Chinese. Basically, the exercises were conducted on three levels: semantic, syntactic and discourse levels.

At the semantic level, the phonological and semantic aspects of the characters were mapped onto a particular form—the bilingual lexical matrix. This was based on the assumption that equivalent words in two languages are connected in a learner's lexicon via one underlying non-linguistic concept (Odlin, 1989). Thus the relations of the Chinese characters to the concept it expresses are assumed to be the same as the relations of the corresponding words in the student's native language to the same concepts; the two kinds of form are simply regarded as synonyms. Therefore, the following method was developed in a program. On the computer screen, there are two boxes with arrows between them. One is labeled "Characters" and the other "Meanings." The arrows indicate that the learner may start with a character and retrieve the appropriate meanings; or vice versa, start with a meaning and look for appropriate characters to express it. The mapping can be done in many ways—some characters have several different meanings, and several different characters can express the same meaning. Repeating the drills, the students were engaged in extensive code-switching exercises.

At the syntactic level, the focus was on the formation and restructuring of grammatical and sentence frames. The purpose was to help the students make the correct connections between the target syntactic pattern with students' native syntactic patterns. Unlike English—where grammar, particularly verbs and tenses, plays a vital role in determining the meanings of sentences, and also unlike Japanese, which is often considered a "free word order" language—Chinese is a root-isolated language which has no inflection of words (in particular, verbs) according to their function in the sentence. The meaning of a sentence in Chinese is largely determined by the word order and by different functional particles. To accommodate this feature, a special program has been developed for carrying out interactive processing of the Chinese language elements, based on partial synthesis by determining the grammatical and structural accuracy of the sentences produced as a guide in composing each sentence. The program enables the system to offer the possibility of modifying and generating sentences on a comparative basis using English and Japanese sentences having the same meaning. The users then have to produce the correct or acceptable ones in Chinese.

At the discourse level, students are exposed to more advanced code-switching exercises. Apart from the functions that a digital camera can capture, they are shown vivid and adequately dubbed scenes (which are hard to duplicate to that extent in the classroom textbook or by tape recording), and given substantial "cultural notes" explaining the relevance of details both verbally and visually (Lin, 2000).

By participating in this course, students have acquired not only pure "linguistic competence," but also "switching competence" between the two languages based on the positive influence of transfer from their native tongues. Such a switching is obviously different from code-switching in a purely linguistic sense. Also it is not fall-back on the native language. Rather, it is intentional manipulation of positive transfer of linguistic and cultural influences in training for the development of interpreting skills.

Distributing Attention

Attention or, more precisely, the distribution of attention is another crucial issue in interpreter training. Language and attention have been studied for many years by linguists and psychologists, and now the underlying brain processes are being examined by neuroscientists. Our interpreter training can also benefit from the recent research in that academic field.

Students often experience the following: they know the words, sentences, and expressions perfectly under normal circumstances; however, just at the very moment of interpreting, their memory fails or they cannot keep their attention focused. Or some "storage" area in their memory is unable to attract sufficient attention during the interpreting process. As they usually say, "something went wrong with my brain in the attention area at that moment."

Neurophysiological experiments on attention provide a dramatic view of brain function in which the receptive field properties of neurons change to suit the needs of ongoing behavior. Recent studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) enable us to see the changes in human brain activity that result from increased attention (Andrew, 2001).

With the advent of modern imaging techniques, it has become possible to observe normal language processing. With PET, the level of neural activity in different parts of the brain is inferred from regional blood flow. In one study of language processing, the researcher used PET imaging to observe the differences in brain activity between the sensory responses to words and the production of speech. They began by measuring cerebral blood flow with the subject at rest. They then had the person either listen to words being read or look at words presented on a monitor. By subtracting the levels of blood flow at rest from the levels during listening or seeing, they determined the blood flow levels specifically corresponding to the activity evoked by the sensory input. The results show that the attention stimuli evoked increased brain activity in the striate cortex and the extrastriate cortex, and the auditory stimuli elicited activity in the primary and secondary auditory cortex (Millar, 2000).

There are two kinds of attention: general attention and selective attention. The ability to select one conversation to listen to out of many going on at the same time is an example of selective attention. The trained mind of an interpreter should be equipped with the special skill of selective attention. A mind does not naturally process all the incoming sensory information simultaneously for a special task; it needs to and can be trained. In Hong Kong, we used to conduct exercises called "spin and reel at the same time", virtually guiding students to read a paragraph while listening to a conversation on a completely different subject, or listen to two different conversations simultaneously. Following a pause, students were required to repeat the main points of the two. The judging criteria were: A. Accuracy (theme and key words), B. Fluency (linguistical and cultural), C. Speed (reaction and repetition). The main aim was to train students to apply themselves to two jobs at once; or, in neuroscientific terms, to learn to allocate the distributed attention adequately, which is part of the fundamental mindset in interpreting.

Biologically speaking, it is possible to learn and manipulate two different things at the same time. Nevertheless, only recently have neuroscientists begun to explore the neural effects of attention. In a recent experiment, two different visual stimuli appeared simultaneously on the test screen: a pencil in the left visual field and an apple in the right visual field. Then the subject was asked to simultaneously reach into two bags—one with each hand—and grasp with each hand the object that was on the screen. After grasping the objects, but before withdrawing them, the subject was asked to tell the experimenter what was in the two hands, and the subject (left hemisphere) replied "two apples." Much to the bewilderment of the verbal left hemisphere, when the hands were withdrawn, there was an apple in the right hand and a pencil in the left. The two hemispheres of the split-brain subject had learned two different things at exactly the same time (Mark, 2001). The implications of this neropsychological discovery for our future interpreter training curricula will be profound.

Meanwhile, a similar experimental technique has demonstrated that attention increases the reaction speed in perceptual studies. In a typical experiment, an observer fixated on a central point on the computer screen, and target stimuli were presented to either the left or the right of the fixation point. The observer was told to wait until he or she perceived a stimulus at either location and then to press a button. The researchers measured how long it took the observer to react to the presentation of a stimulus and press a button. Preceding the target was a cue stimulus, either a plus sign or an arrow pointing left or right. The arrows indicated the side to which a stimulus was more likely to appear, whereas the plus sign meant that either side was equally likely. Results from this experiment demonstrated that an observer's reaction times were influenced by where the central cue directed the observer's attention. When the central cue was a plus sign, it took about 250-300 msec to press the button. When an arrow cue correctly indicated where a target would appear (e.g. right arrow and right target), reaction times were 20-30 msec faster. Conversely, when the narrow pointed in one direction and the target appeared at the opposite location, it took 20-30 msec longer to react to the target and press the button (Bear & Connors & Paradiso, 2001).

There has long been an assumption that interpreters have no control whatsoever over their target language(s) and the contents; they can only passively deal with whatever interpreting task they are given at a speed decided by the subject. But this may not be the case anymore based on recent experimental evidence. The speed of interpreting can be much improved by relating the subject to more distributed attention, in a way that the subject can become a more "attention-based target" (Mark, 2001). Surely, much more extensive research is required in this new frontier.

Shifting to Working Memory

In classic psychological terms, interpreting has been considered to heavily rely on "short-term memory" which required holding information in mind for a short period of functional time. Short-term memory was commonly studied by measuring a person's digit span, the maximum number of randomly chosen numbers a person can repeat after hearing a list read. The normal digit span is seven plus or minus two numbers (John, 1992). However, as we advance in our research, we should replace the term "short-term memory" with "working memory." The terms have historically had different connotations (Smith & Minda, 2000).

Historically, most of the progress in neuroscience research on memory has come from experimental studies, but today theoretical neuroscience is playing an increasing role, and the use of computational models of neural systems is also widespread. In some cases, a model can provide insights into the workings of a memory system which are otherwise difficult to gain.

A typical study in this regard was the examination of a nervous system consisting of three sensory neurons (the inputs) and three postsynaptic neurons. The outputs and the inputs represented patterns of activity in visual afferent nerve fibers in response to the faces of three people (in an alternative system, learning the three faces would again alter the synaptic weights, but none of them would be zero). The result shows that the synaptic changes that store the memories can make the inputs more or less effective; memory formation does not involve only increases in synaptic strength. This is a transferred memory system because the memory of each face is stored in three synapses. Recognition of one of the input faces requires comparing the strength of activity across all of the output neurons—the memory is "transferred" across the boundary in the cortex. In a working nervous system, many thousands of synapses are involved (Andrew, 2001).

Research has further developed the assumption of an information-mapping mechanism in the mental structure building process and provided us with fascinating evidence which will persuade us to shift to the new concept—working memory.

This conceptual transition may result in changing attitudes and strategies in our interpreting practice and interpreter training. Short-term memory is a relatively passive term we usually use when the focus is on the input and storage of new information. When a rapidly presented string of digits is tested for immediate recall, for example, we generally refer to short-term memory and imply a simple recycling kind of mental activity as an explanation of recall. Likewise, concerning the interpreting process, when we focus on the role of rehearsal, we examine memory aids in the memorization of received utterances, highlighting the "control process."

Working memory, on the other hand, is the newer term for this "short" component of the memory system and has the connotation of a mental workbench, a place where conscious cognitive effort is applied and expended (Mark, 2001). During the interpreting process, an interpreter can actually more positively retrieve the utterances based on distributed attention and transferred memory system, as the neuro-experiments have demonstrated the biological possibilities. Therefore, traditional immediate memory tasks for interpreting may still be a component of working memory research, but now they are only secondary tasks to those of reasoning, comprehension, or retrieval. Therefore, it is proposed that the short-term memory responsible for digit span performance is but one component of the more elaborate working-memory system.

Moreover, further shifting of working-memory may have more meaningful relations with long-term memory, declarative memory, and non-declarative memory. Traditionally, there is a postulation that memories are stored in short-term memory and gradually converted into a permanent form via a process called memory consolidation (John, 1992). Recent discoveries, however, have proven that memory consolidation does not necessarily require short-term memory as an intermediary; working-memory and long-term memory may exist in parallel; different digit spans in different modalities are consistent with the notion of multiple temporary storage areas in the brain. In fact, there are cases where some professional dealings, terminologies, events, and special techniques during interpreting processes are held not only temporarily in interpreters' minds, but have been translated into their permanent knowledge and skills. Also, interpreting as a skill has long been regarded as one of the non-declarative memories—procedural memory. With the mechanism of "working memory" in place, its new connections with both declarative memory (knowledge-based memory, known as "conscious memory") and non-declarative memory (skill-based memory or "unconscious memory") can be established. Further exploration in this area will certainly have some considerable impact on our future interpreter training.


Recent neuropsychological discoveries and the studies of the brain structure have equipped us with a better understanding of the interpreting process where both negative and positive transfer takes place. This study has concentrated on three key areas—code-switching, attention and working memory, and explored the possibilities of improving the interpreter training process in each of those areas. Obviously, this is only a first step toward a comprehensive approach to the topic. There are many other issues requiring further exploration, such as the positive transfer relationships between the three principal components in the mental structure building process, especially the transition to new structures and its juxtaposing nature of handling different pieces of information simultaneously, and many other related topics in the training process. The intention is to maximize and fully utilize the positive transferring influence while minimizing the negative side of it for the purpose of enhancing our training efficiency.


Andrew, David G. (2001) Neuropsychology: From Theory to Practice. Hove: Psychology Press.

Bear, Mark F. & Connors, Barry W. & Paradiso Michael, A. (2001). Neuroscience Exploring the Brain. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Berg, Jeremy Mark (2002). Biochemistry. New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 5th Edition.

Chastain, Kenneth (1988). Developing Second Language Skills: Theory and Practice. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Hayward, Sheila. (1997) . Houndmills: Macmillan.

John, P.J. Pinel (1992) Biopsychology. Allyn and Bacon.

Lin, Wei, "Engaging in Creative Information-Reconstruction: An Exploration into the Framework of Multimedia Design for Teaching Chinese-English Translation to Native English and Native Japanese Speakers in An English Speaking Country". Educational Media International, (Taylor and Francis) (Issue 1 of Volume 38, 2000).

Mark H. Ashcraft (2001). Cognition. Prentice Hall.

Millar, Thomas. (2000) Biochemistry Explained: A Practical Guide to Learning Biochemistry. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

Odlin, Terence (1989). Language Transfer. Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. D., & Minda, J. P. (2000) "Thirty Categorization Results in Search of a Model". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 3-27.