Coping tactics

This extract is taken from pages 191-201 of Daniel Gile’s excellent Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator training, 1995 & 2009, Benjamins of Amsterdam.

Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator training 1995 & 2009

Coping Tactics in Interpretation


In spite of interpreters’ preparation strategies, problems do arise in interpreting situations (see Gile 1989) because of processing capacity limitations (as ex­plained in chapter 7), errors in processing capacity management, and gaps in the interpreters’ Knowledge Base. Many of these problems can be said to be unavoidable, as shown by the fact that they are encountered regularly even by interpreters with a solid reputation and long professional experience. Interpre­tation has been referred to by some professionals as “crisis management,” and in the light of interpreters’ daily experience, these are apt words to describe an aspect of interpreting which is virtually unknown to the public at large.
Difficulties affect both comprehension and production, often through failure sequences as explained in chapter 7. When interpreters are aware of such problems, they tend to use a rather small set of tactics to limit their impact.
Coping tactics are a very fundamental practical skill in interpreting. Basically, they are taught within the framework of practical exercises. In most training programs, this is done by trial and correction, with trial on the student’s part and corrections from the instructor. Such corrections are gener­ally normative; instructors sometimes refer to the communication impact of the tactics in order to explain their preferences, but are not necessarily aware of other factors which influence them.
This chapter attempts to provide instructors with a list of basic coping tactics for a general view of the issue. It also presents a conceptual framework which spells out the advantages and drawbacks of each tactic, and discusses a few rules which may help explain what makes interpreters prefer one tactic over the other beyond their individual merits.

Tactics in simultaneous interpretation

2.1 Comprehension tactics

The following are the main tactics used when comprehension problems arise, and when they threaten to arise under time-related or processing capacity­related pressure.

a. Delaying the response
When a comprehension difficulty arises, interpreters may respond immedi­ately with one of the other tactics presented below. However, they may also delay their response for a while (a fraction of a second to a few seconds), so as to have some time for thought while they receive more information from the source-language speech. After a while, they may have solved the problem entirely, or else they may decide to resort to another tactic.
Because of its very nature, the Delay tactic involves an accumulation of information in short-term memory, and is associated with the risk of losing speech segments in a failure sequence as outlined in chapter 7.

b. Reconstructing the segment with the help of the context
When interpreters have not properly heard or understood a technical term, name, number, or other type of speech segment, they can try to reconstruct it in their mind using their knowledge of the language, the subject, and, the situation (their extralinguistic knowledge).
The reconstruction process is an integral part of speech comprehension in everyday situations as well. It is defined as a tactic in the present context when it becomes a conscious endeavor, as opposed to an ordinary, subconscious process.
If successful, reconstruction can result in full recovery of the information. However, it may entail some waiting until more information is available and require considerable time and processing capacity. Like the Delay tactic presented above, it is associated with a high risk of saturation and individual deficits. Reconstruction from the context can therefore not be considered a high-priority tactic.

c. Using the boothmate’s help
In simultaneous interpretation, there are theoretically at least two interpreters in the booth at all times. One is active (producing a target-language speech), while the other is passive (listening, but not speaking). The passive colleague, who can devote full attention to listening, has a better chance of understanding difficult speech segments than the active interpreter, whose processing capac­ity is being shared by the three Efforts. Moreover, on the production side, the passive interpreter can consult a glossary or another document, which takes up much time and processing capacity, and then give the information to the active colleague, generally in writing. The presence of a passive interpreter in the booth is therefore a major asset to the active interpreter.
The active interpreter can ask for the passive colleague’s help with a glance or a movement of the head. In teams that work well, the passive interpreter will sense a hesitation in the active colleague’s speech and under­stand there is a problem. He or she can also anticipate problems and write down names, numbers, technical terms, etc., without even being asked for help. When the problem is terminological, the boothmate will generally indi­cate to the active interpreter the target-language term if possible, so that it can be used for reformulation. When the problem lies with a single word, name, or number, the passive boothmate can also write it down in the source language for the benefit of the active interpreter who did not hear it correctly. It is much more difficult, however, to explain an idea efficiently, because the active interpreter does not have time to read a long explanation.
This tactic is a very good one because it does not cost much in time and processing capacity, and pooling the knowledge and intelligence of two per­sons, one of whom does not have to divide attention between listening and other tasks, provides a better chance of finding the information than using the resources of only one person.

However, in order for the tactic to work, the passive interpreter must be not only physically present in the booth, but also available and willing to make the effort and help the active colleague. This situation does not always occur:
• Because of the intense effort involved in interpreting, interpreters strongly feel the need for rest. In teams composed of two members per target language, when conditions are difficult, interpreters tend to leave the booth as soon as they have finished their active duty and only return when they are on again, or else they may stay in the booth but shut themselves out and rest.
• In conferences in which papers are to be read, documents are often given to the interpreters at the very last moment, and presentations are allocated individually to each member of the team. In such a case, all interpreters are busy reading their paper or interpreting, and no help is available to the active interpreter from other team members.
• For psychological and sociological reasons, including the awareness of one’s weaknesses and some associated frustration, interpreters may feel vulnerable and not want other colleagues to sit with them and listen while they are working.
It is important for teachers to point out the practical value of cooperation between interpreters, as well as its importance in the framework of profes­sional ethics aiming at offering clients better service. The practical aspects of such cooperation, involving in particular large and legible handwriting, should also be stressed.

d. Consulting documents in the booth When there is no passive colleague in the booth, interpreters can look for solutions in documents they have before them.
The efficiency of this tactic varies greatly: looking for a term in a com­mercial dictionary may require much time and processing capacity, but finding an important word in a document that was read and marked before the confer­ence can be very fast. This is why it is important to pay attention to both the preparation of documents and their management in the booth. Instructors should show students how to make important names and terms stand out for quick reference, using highlighters or other means. Writing important techni­cal terms and names on a sheet of paper in front of the interpreter (beside the glossary prepared for the conference) is another way of making them readily available. In particular, documents should be laid out in the booth, sorted, and marked in such a way as to minimize the time needed to access them and to recognize their identification numbers or titles, possibly with different stacks for each language, sorted by numerical sequence, type of document, etc.

2.2 Preventive tactics

The following tactics are used when time or processing capacity pressure is such that the interpreter believes a problem may arise or is about to occur. The idea is to limit the risks of failure.

a. Taking notes When the speech contains figures and names that interpreters feel they may forget and that they cannot reformulate right away for syntactic reasons, they may take them down in notes. While affording greater security as regards the items which are taken down, this tactic entails a high cost in time and process­ing capacity, which increases the risk of losing other items of information that come before or after those written down (this is an interference phenomenon, as explained in section 3). The risk is reduced significantly when it is the passive colleague who writes the information for the active colleague.

It is interesting to note that when translating in simultaneous from and into Japanese, some Japanese interpreters take down not only numbers and names, but also other information which Westerners generally do not write (in this case, it is often the passive interpreter who takes down the information for the active colleague). The reason given by them is that syntactic structures differ greatly between Japanese and other (mostly Western) languages, which leads to much waiting before the reformulation of any specific part of a sentence, hence a possible overload of short-term memory and an increased risk of losing information (see chapter 9).

b. Changing the Ear-Voice Span
By changing the Ear-Voice Span (EVS), that is the time lag between compre­hension and reformulation, interpreters can control to a certain extent the processing capacity requirements for individual Efforts. By shortening the lag, they decrease short-term memory requirements, but deprive themselves of anticipation potential and run the risk of misunderstanding a sentence and driving themselves into target-language sentences which will be difficult to complete. By lagging further behind, interpreters increase comprehension potential, but may overload short-term memory.
Teachers sometimes advise students to try to lengthen or shorten their EVS in specific cases, but there does not exist a clear-cut, consistent theory or set of operational rules on the subject. It seems that EVS regulation is learned with experience; I believe that this is the single largest benefit derived from practice in simultaneous interpretation during initial training.

c. Segmentation
When faced with potential overload of memory, as with a source language and a target language that are syntactically very different, with embedded structures in the source language, or with unclear sentence structures, interpreters may choose to reformulate speech segments earlier than they would normally do, sometimes before they have a full picture of what the speaker wants to say. In such cases, they may resort to neutral sentence beginnings or segments in the target language that do not commit them one way or another. For instance, in a source-language sentence expressing a causal relationship such as:

Because of the complex character of equation (2) as shown above, com­pounded by the difficulty of finding a unique solution to equations (3) and (4) which correspond to a steady state system

the interpreter can say in the target-language something like:

Equation (2) as shown above is complex. Equations (3) and (4) describe a steady system. It is difficult to find a unique solution to them.

While interpreting these segments, he or she will keep in mind the causal nature of the relationship, which will eventually be expressed by “Therefore ….” Segmentation can save short-term memory capacity requirements by unloading information from memory faster. On the other hand, the very formulation of several grammatically complete short sentences instead of one may involve higher processing capacity requirements in the Production Effort. Recommendations should be given on a case-by-case basis.

d. Changing the order of elements in an enumeration
Enumerations are high-density speech segments that impose a high load on short-term memory. One tactic often observed consists of reformulating the last elements first so as to free memory from the information, and then to move on to other elements. To my knowledge, no analysis has yet been performed as to why this should reduce Memory Effort load. One possible explanation is that by reformulating the last elements first, it is possible to pick them up before they have been processed in depth and integrated fully into the semantic network, thus saving processing capacity. This tactic may work best with names, which can be reproduced from echoic memory (memory of the sound), or with terms which are easily transcoded; it may not be very effective if such elements cannot be transcoded or reproduced phonetically and require more processing capacity anyway.

2.3 Reformulation tactics

Gile includes reformulation tactics as part of coping tactics. They are detailed here

Booth manners

The following text is taken from by Valerie Taylor-Bouladon’s extremely useful book, Conference Interpreting – Principles and Practice, and was kindly sent in by the author herself.

Conference Interpreting – Principles and Practice. Tayor-Bouladon, Valerie, Crawford House Adelaide. 2001

Spit and Polish
Booth behaviour and microphone manners


The only people who must always be on time for meetings are the interpreters. Sometimes at WTO your 9 a.m. meeting did not start until 11 o’clock but the interpreters had to be there, ready, because the moment the private negotiations taking place all round the room were over, the official meeting would start and there was no knowing when that would be. The official meeting might last ten minutes and then adjourn. In UNCTAD the meeting scheduled for l0 o’clock might not start until twelve-thirty but similarly the interpreters had to be there and ready at l0. It is not a good idea to arrive at the last minute, hair awry and out of breath. From the delegate’s point of view, it is most unpleasant to listen to a breathless voice, obviously unprepared for the meeting, panting into the microphone and switching off to ask in a loud, desperate voice:”Which Committee is this? What are they talking about?” 

Your group of delegates might habitually arrive late but the day you do, you may find they were on time. Interpreters need to be in the booth fifteen minutes before the scheduled starting time to check whether there are any changes in the programme, any new documents have been circulated or any ad hoc working groups convened, and so on. You may find when you arrive at the scheduled meeting room that the venue has been changed and that your group is meeting in a different wing of the building that will take you ten minutes to find. Or that there has been a last-minute team switch because of a change in the languages required. Better be early so you have plenty of time to sort out the documents that will be needed, and find out where they are on the Agenda. 

Team spirit and solidarity 

Team spirit and solidarity are the order of the day. Your team will be judged as a whole. Try to help one another by sharing vocabulary, proposed translations for new words, new technologies and new scientific concepts that have come up. You may have a mental block about one word and it keeps coming up – that is when your colleague can respond to a signal of distress and give invaluable help. If you are experienced, do not keep your know-how to yourself. Do not forget that not only are interpreters judged as a team but also that we were all beginners once. Similarly, if a colleague doesn’t know something, don’t spread it around thereby creating a source of tension but rather try to help discreetly. Remember, though, that there is nothing more irritating than a colleague determined to help when you don’t need it, who keeps pushing notes in front of you or, even worse, whispering suggested wording when you prefer to do it your own way ! If you want help from your boothmate, ask for it – scribble a few words on the notepad. If you do not, also say so. If you are a beginner and by chance know an expression or technical word which your more experienced colleague may not know, don’t antagonise him by gloating over it – you may need his help on another occasion. The best way to help your colleague is to write your suggestion on your own pad in front of you, without any fuss, so that he can read it if he wants to. 

While your colleague is “on the air” you may notice he hasn’t realized the delegate is reading from a text and is struggling with something that in fact already exists in an official text. See if you can find it in the appropriate language quietly and place it in front of him discreetly, without disturbing him. 

Sound levels

If there is a considerable difference in volume between your voice and that of your colleagues, the sound engineer will adjust the output volume whenever there is a switch from one to the other. Try to speak always from the same distance from the microphone and do not turn away while interpreting. Do not rustle papers, pour out water, drum your fingers on the work surface, etc. in front of an open microphone. Avoid noisy bangles in the booth. 


Posture is important in voice production and the work is far less tiring if your posture is correct. A slouching interpreter will not sound bright and alert, nor even reliable. Think of all you have heard about body language. All of this also applies to your posture as you sit in the booth (See Chapter 11 regarding the Alexander Technique). 

When not actually interpreting, do not leave the meeting room for longer than absolutely necessary and in your own interests avoid returning at the last minute before taking over the microphone. When not working you should relax but continue to listen to what is being said and be firm but courteous with people who drop by for a chat. If your colleague has to leave the booth for a short while, do not abruptly hand over the microphone the moment he returns – give him time to pick up the thread of the discussion again. Brief your colleague on how far the discussion has progressed and on anecdotes or unusual terms used by speakers. Likewise, if a new team is taking over after you, leave them a note in the booth telling them how far the discussion has progressed on which item and which document will be taken next, as well as any other useful information. 

As a general rule, respect your colleagues’ wishes (even unspoken) regarding socialising in the booth. Not every interpreter is able to deal with a speech from the floor and your life story in all the gaps. Do all you can to establish good working relationships with your colleagues – you all need to be able to depend on one another. 

Even if you think you are one of the best known interpreters in the profession, introduce yourself to colleagues you have not met before. Experienced interpreters should make every effort to put newcomers at ease and beginners should concentrate on doing a good job rather than impressing their boothmate. It is good to include a beginner in a team because they are the next generation of interpreters. However, it is also a good idea to obtain the agreement of the more experienced colleagues first and be sure to put the beginner in a booth with an experienced, helpful colleague who will be kind and cooperative. Beginners should be used in meetings where they can prepare beforehand. It is unfair to offer them meetings which are difficult and require experience because they may jeopardize their future career. 


Try to keep documents in logical order and by language – try not to disturb whatever system is agreed between colleagues sharing a booth. When the meeting is over, it is well worth taking ten minutes to put all the documents back in order ready for the next day. When your colleague takes over from you, pass over the pile of documents in the right order if possible. If the organisers have asked that the documents be returned to them at the end of the meeting, be sure to do so. 

Beware of handing over copies of speeches or documents to enquiring journalists or visitors. You have a duty of confidentiality. Always refer such requests to the team leader or chief interpreter. 

Booth manners 

Smoking is not prohibited in public buildings in all countries but do not smoke in the booth even if there are no non-smoking signs – it is generally forbidden in conference rooms and booths anyway. Similarly, use perfume or aftershave sparingly. Too heady a scent can be as intrusive as tobacco smoke and becomes overpowering in a small enclosed booth.

It is not advisable for the same reason to varnish your nails in the booth when you are not working or even during the coffee-break. Nor is it advisable to knit, sew, manicure your nails, or be seen to be reading a newspaper or snatching a late breakfast in full view of the delegates.

Not only is such behaviour likely to disturb your colleagues but it is also unlikely to impress the organizers and delegates with your professionalism. Do not take your mobile telephone with you into the booth unless you have checked that it is turned off. Beware of blowing your nose or coughing with the microphone on. Pity the ears of the delegates listening to the interpretation. 

Use the cough button Do not switch the microphone off when coughing, pouring water, rustling paper, because an intruder has burst into the booth to bring documents, to ask your colleague a word you have not understood or to make a brief sarcastic comment about what the speaker has just said. When you do this, the delegates’ listening to you will suddenly have their ears blasted with the floor channel which is probably gibberish to them and louder than the interpretation: there is invariably a difference in sound level. Use the cough button. Do not switch off your microphone until the speaker has finished. If your boothmate is working, go outside to cough or blow your nose. 

Only interpreters may speak over the interpretation channels. Sometimes a visiting interpreter, who may be part of a delegation speaking a rare language such as Korean or Farsi, may come into the booth to interpret into English a speech to be delivered by his delegation. This is then interpreted into the other conference languages by relay. 

Microphone manners 

Before the first session of the conference it is advisable to check that you know how the equipment works, how to switch to the required channel if there is relay and that in general the equipment is working to your satisfaction, the headphones are comfortable and the sound is right for you. When you come into the booth for subsequent meetings, make sure the microphones have not been left on by mistake by the technician, or earlier colleagues. It would be embarrassing for your private conversation with your colleagues to be broadcast all over the room. Beware of forgetting to turn the microphone off when you finish a speech. By leaving your microphone switched on after you have finished interpreting you may be preventing delegates from hearing something the Chairman has said. 

A professional interpreter turns the microphone on the moment he begins to speak and not before, and turns it off the moment he has finished. Failing to turn the microphone off immediately is courting disaster. Delegates do not want to year your comments, or the rustling of papers, coughing, nor do they want to hear the comments of your highly-strung colleague who erupts into your booth to let off steam about the stupidity of the delegate she has just interpreted. Beware of making comments – a microphone light may be hidden by a sheaf of papers. Do not laugh too loudly – this may be picked up by a microphone left on in the booth next door. 

A survey carried out by Jennifer Mackintosh shows that delegates attach greatest importance to accuracy, clarity, correct terminology and completeness, and do not like too much lagging behind the speaker and pauses. (See Appendix B entitled “How to irritate your delegates without really trying”). They want interpreters to concentrate on the essentials and to have an understanding of the subject under discussion. They want clear enunciation. I remember an embarrassing incident some years ago when the English booth, interpreting from Russian, gave the meeting the impression the Soviet Union was placing 45 vessels at the disposal of the World Weather Watch when in fact they were offering four to five. 

Correct terminology is very important as is broad general knowledge and wide cultural background. According to the survey Jennifer Mackintosh carried out, English, French and German are the most common languages, with English being used at 98 per cent of the meetings, French at 88 per cent, German at 61 per cent, Spanish at 41 per cent and Italian at 16 per cent. Lower down the list come Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Danish and Finnish, in that order. The survey indicated a direct correlation between pre-conference distribution of documents to the interpreters and high delegate satisfaction, particularly in the area of correct terminology and general understanding of the subject matter. 

Remember, life is not always easy for delegates. Some have to wear headphones most of the time and they are less well protected from extraneous noise than we are. It is tiring enough to have to follow several days’ discussions and when this has to be done via simultaneous interpretation equipment it becomes very demanding. So try to make your voice pleasant to listen to. Avoid a monotonous tone. Always seek to be clear and lively. It is advisable to keep your animation level similar to that of the speaker you are interpreting. Sometimes the speaker may be droning on in a peaceable manner, but if you switch to the various booths you might be forgiven for thinking that he was declaring war judging by the high-pitched tone coming from some of them. 

If a speaker is having to use a language other than his normal working language, try to convey the message with clarity. Never alter the emphasis of what is being said, never let your own views on the subject show through your tone of voice. Your job is to communicate the speaker’s intended meaning. It is only too easy for an unscrupulous interpreter to sabotage an argument especially if the delegates listening are monolingual. You have a responsibility and a duty to be accurate. It is dangerous, too, to try to improve on what you hear because sarcasm or vagueness may be deliberate. 

The golden rule is: as literally as possible, as freely as necessary. Be fluent in your delivery and as close to the patterns of spontaneous speech as possible. Do not speak in sharp bursts followed by long pauses, nor in a sing-song voice. Do not speak in a soporific manner, especially after lunch … Match your register to that of the speaker and the audience. If the speaker is using simple, plain words do not distort the original by using abstruse terms or arcane expressions. Conversely, do not lapse into a familiar, jocular tone or slang expressions on formal occasions. 


Always quote document numbers clearly, if possible twice. If your delegates still look lost, say the number again. 

Try to form a partnership with your listeners 

Ask for their help when documents are being distributed or if floor microphones are not working properly. Acknowledge their responsiveness. Enlist their help in slowing down fast speakers by saying something like: “We regret it is not possible to interpret accurately when a speaker is going at this speed. Please help us to help you understand by asking the Chairman to slow the speaker down.” If you still don’t get any response you may add: “We are doing our best under the circumstances but unless the speaker slows down the interpretation will not be complete.” Do not shout this into the microphone or bang on the booth window. Quiet appeals for help through the microphone are much more effective. If the speaker’s microphone goes off, it is better to say so quietly into your microphone so that your audience knows what is happening and that it isn’t you who have dried up. If the speaker moves away from the microphone so that you can only hear faintly, do not try to interpret. You must only interpret when you can hear properly. If you make a mistake you are responsible for it and once you have imparted inaccurate information the deed is done and no-one will be interested in your explaining during the coffee-break that you couldn’t hear properly. It is your duty to provide an accurate interpretation come what may. 

Microphone feedback 

A sudden high-pitched screaming noise may come through your headphones due to a speaker leaning too close to his microphone with his headphones on. Take your headphones off immediately before your ear-drums are damaged, preferably siIently, and signal to the technician what has happened. 

Introduce yourself to the technicians before the meeting. If you must make comments about volume or the equipment, do so through the team leader and politely. Remember how much you depend on the goodwill of the technician. When the meeting is over, do not leave without saying goodbye and thank you. 

As Valerie Andersen has said: “Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” – or rather “listener”, in this case the delegate. When interpreting, try to convey an interest in your listeners’ subject. See if you can communicate humour if the original does; show you take an interest in what you are doing. In a number of respects, interpreting is like acting, as I have explained in Chapter 5. Do not let your audience slip from your grasp. Watch the delegates listening to you for their reactions and hold their attention by being convincing and accurate. Make them forget they are hearing the speaker through an interpreter. Be helpful: repeat important figures or dates. 


Try to adopt a “middle of the road” accent. For example, in the English booth, a strong Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Lancashire, Indian or Australian accent might be difficult for some of your listeners to follow, especially if English is not their mother tongue: think of the Norwegian, Thai, Swedish and African delegations who will be listening to the English channel. 

“Les microphages” 

Some interpreters are “microphage” (they hog the microphone) and are reluctant to hand over to their colleague. If this happens to you, be tolerant and if they are doing a good job, listen and learn. 

Boothmates and Team mates 

Someone once said “An interpreter who is a bad colleague is a bad interpreter.” It is true that the work of the team will be much better if everyone gets on well with everyone else. However, beware of the colleague who has a plane to catch in the middle of the last afternoon and leaves you alone to finish “the last half-hour”. That half-hour may stretch to two hours. Beware too of the delegate who says “I have an important statement after the coffee-break and I want you to do it.” You will feel flattered but upsetting the working arrangements (or boasting) will not improve your relationship with your team-mates. If it is possible to comply with the request diplomatically without it being noticed or causing any changes, so much the better. 

Your team becomes your family for the duration of the conference. A warm relationship develops where you know one another’s strong points and weaknesses and can help one another. This is even more so when you are away from home on a conference, perhaps all staying at the same hotel: a wonderful spirit of comradeship develops. If one team member has a headache someone will replace him while he goes to get an aspirin, if someone’s wallet or handbag has been stolen on the city streets at night, the whole team will rally round and pass the hat around. If someone has a personal problem, everyone will provide support. A good feeling of solidarity prevails and like Josephine Baker and her “deux amours” I have always felt I had two families: my own in private life and my professional colleagues and friends.