The Sound of Silence

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”
—Mark Twain

Toward the end of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven experienced growing hearing impairment that eventually left him completely deaf. The progressive, humiliating condition didn’t stop the German musical genius, who continued to compose poignant and beautiful music he could still hear in his mind. His late quartets, written during the terminal phase of his ailment, contained pauses that became arguably longer, as though to impart the composer’s gradual drifting into a world of encroaching silence.

Considered by many to be Beethoven’s best, these pieces introduce an unorthodox blend of short-ringing notes and pauses to enhance the melodic phrases resulting from their encounter.

Beethoven’s pauses were clearly marked on the original sheet music as genuine notes, true “acoustic events.” He would often position them at the end of a score, to be “played” between the last sounded note and the double line that closes the bar, as if to gently usher the melody back into the silence from whence it came and without which there can be no music.

Closer to home, human speech, while arguably less likely to cause the same impact as Beethoven’s enrapturing themes, is also a succession of audible phrases and inaudible fillers daisy-chained in such a way as to convey meaning and spur emotion. As in music, a crucial element is often overlooked in speech that is exactly what allows humans to make sense of—and relate to—any string of sounds or words: the pauses between them.

Like blank spaces around words and paragraphs on a printed page, the gap between the sounds uttered by our interlocutors set the boundaries within which words, phrases, and sentences can take shape and morph into images in our minds.

Structurally speaking, the pauses in one’s speech pattern are the mortar that keeps the building blocks of language together. Ultimately, how we lay those bricks, and the amount of mortar we employ, is what confers us intelligibility while tagging our unique phonic signature.

Pauses also serve a purpose beyond structure. They can be used for emphasis, dissuasion, reiteration, or as a means to assure one’s understanding. They are markers of change in pace or subject, and they grant those on the receiving end the necessary time to process content and appreciate form. A pause also gives the speaker time to regain control and recollect his thoughts.

Few people enjoy listening to a speaker who will not stop to breathe, just like everybody dislikes a hesitant, back-tracking interpreter whose delivery is packed with audible fillers and static, in a low signal-to-noise ratio. While there is little you can do as an interpreter to improve the delivery of an underperforming speaker, there are ways to ensure that his flawed rhetoric will not rub off on you and erode your credibility. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Start by questioning the typical interpreter’s obsession with getting every word in. You’re not a voice-over talent. If the original delivery is poor, shift your loyalty to content.
  2. Lower the incoming audio feed to a comfortable level. Empirical evidence suggests that the louder the volume, the faster an interpreter will tend to speak.
  3. Save for quotations, virtually any concept can be articulated in fewer words without sacrificing content. Cut through alliterations and slash any unnecessary repetition. Look for acronyms and industry-accepted abbreviations. Saying E2 instead of dihydrolipoyl transacetylase takes a fraction of the time and may make just as much sense to a room of biochemists, especially a second time around.
  4. Learn to identify crutches that could be dropped, such as phrases bearing little or no impact on substance (e.g., “for whatever it is worth” or “next slide, please”).
  5. Practice the use of adverbs such as thereby, hitherto, and therein. They may sound pedantic, but will save you a ton of time if used correctly.
  6. Provided they read well to everyone in the room, refer to slides, handouts, and other visual or teaching aids containing long lists of items, names, or figures that the speaker insists on spelling out.
  7. Have shorter, off-the-shelf versions of time-consuming enunciations that are used frequently. Saying “the Minister is otherwise engaged” works better than listing a series of irrelevant excuses as to why Her Excellency is not in attendance.

As with any other tool in interpreting, mastering these suggestions takes time. It may also require a slight shift in how you look upon your role as an interpreter. To flatten the learning curve, practice rendering high-speed content in as few words as possible. Use the same audio feed repeatedly and take note of the strategies that work best for you.

Make silence your friend and pace yourself consistently. Whatever you do, refrain from asking the speaker to slow down, unless you appreciate hearing empty promises. He is not trying to upset you deliberately. His accelerated pace might be just a coping strategy for anxiety, and suggesting he change anything in his delivery is not just disruptive but pointless. Come to think of it, shouting at Beethoven for attention would be just as effective.

*I would like to acknowledge fellow interpreter and classical music connoisseur Mauro Lando for some of the insights above.

Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and interpreter trainer. He has a master’s degree in conference interpretation from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He is the head of conference management service, and former chief interpreter, at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, Switzerland. He is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete—o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea (Parábola Editorial). You can read his blog at

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters. 

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