Ground rules of Interpreting

The following is taken from p.108 of the excellent…

Conference Interpreting – A Complete Course by

Robin Setton and Andrew Dawrant

Dos and don’ts: ground rules of interpreting

These first realistic exercises with afford an opportunity to get across some very basic dos and don’ts of interpreting for beginners:

  1. DO NOT react overtly when listening to the speaker. Don’t nod enthusiastically (at most an initial neutral nod of acknowledgement is acceptable). Don’t mumble “uh huh” in agreement, shake your head, frown in amazement or disagreement, or laugh out loud at the speaker’s jokes.
  2. DO speak in the first person, as if you were the speaker.
  3. Do project the speaker’s tone and energy, but at an appropriate level of intensity; DO NOT “ham it up”, or mimic, upstage or outshine the speaker.
  4. DO NOT embellish or over-interpret; if uncertain, be cautious and wait for more context (or ask the speaker to clarify).
  5. DO state ideas clearly for your audience – “make sense”; DO NOT blindly “translate” what you have not understood.
  6. DO finish your sentences, and avoid backtracking
  7. DO follow the basic rules of good delivery: project your voice, make eye contact, eliminate fillers.

Reading back your notes

The following is taken from Roderick Jones’ fantastic book, Conference Interpreting Explained. It is the best little bit of text about presentation in consecutive interpreting that you will find and is reprinted without the kind permission of St Jeromepublishers. You should buy the book and then I may be let off posting bits of it to this site.

Conference Interpreting Explained. Roderick Jones. 1998. ISBN 1-900650-09-6

It may seem strange to even mention how to read back notes. However, interpreter should be aware of the risk of communicating less well because of looking too much at their notes and not enough at their audience. This risk is particularly great if the intepreter takes relatively complete notes. Interpreters, like public speakers, must learn the art of glancing down at their notes to remind them of what they are to say next and then delivering that part of the text while looking at the audience. The clearer the notes, both in content and lay-out, the easier this will be.. And the clearer the ideas in the interpreter’s mind, the more cursory the glances down at the notes can be. 

     There is a specific technique that interpreters can try to develop, and which can be compared to a pianist reading music while playing but not sight-reading. The pianist who has practised a piece is in a similar situation to the consecutive interpreter: essentially they know what they want to play but the sheet-music is there to remind them. the pianist looks at the opening bars and then starts playing, and continues reading ahead of the notes they are playing, their eyes on the music always being a little ahead of their fingers on the keyboard. Similarly the interpreter should look at the first page of their notes then start speaking while looking up at their audience. As the interpreter moves towards the end of the passage they have looked at, they glance down at their notes again to read the next passage. In other words they do not wait until they finished one passage to look again at their notes, which would mean that the interpretation would become jerky, reading then speaking, reading then speaking. Rather the interpreter, while still talking, is already reading ahead, preparing the next passage, thus providing for a smooth, uninterrupted and efficient interpretation.

Presentation in consecutive

“The consecutive interpreter has to speak in public. They must therefore have some speaking skills.” Thiéry 1981:102


            Any posture you take up should be chosen to make us appear professional; facilitate our interpreting; and promote the audience’s confidence in our interpreting. That means: being able to: read your notes; look up at your audience while speaking; hide your nerves by limiting any unintended body language; and eliminate physical tics.

When standing separate your feet from one another, both side-ways and front-to-back, you will be more firmly rooted in the ground and you will feel more stable. Stand with your weight equally on both feet. Try it out. This stability will give more confidence to attack the interpreting task.

Keep your hands still and out of the way. Occasional hand gestures which reinforce what you are saying are welcome but beware of waving your hands around all the time.

When sitting…sit slightly forwards on the chair so that you are not leaning back into the backrest. You are far enough forward to have some of your weight on your feet. This will create a solid base. This will also stop you from slouching.

Your feet should be flat on the ground and slightly apart. This will stop you fidgeting.

            I recommend grounding your arms in the same way as we ground our feet. To do this rest the mid-point of your fore-arm on the edge of the table. If you are using a note-pad I would hold it with both hands. This will stop you waving the free hand about. It also helps you improve your eye-contact with the audience when reading back your notes (because the note-pad is higher up than if it was lying on the table. Whether or not you are holding a note-pad put your pen down. You won’t need it once you start speaking and it can only get up to mischief – like being twiddled or dropped.

            This suggestion for what to do with your hands does not mean that your hands absolutely have to remain stuck to the note-pad or the table all the time throughout the speech. It will be a good thing to occasionally make an appropriate hand gesture to underline a point made in the speech. A gesture that reinfoces what you are saying can add something valuable to your presentation.


Eye contact with the audience is an essential part of speaking in public and therefore also of consecutive interpreting. Looking at your audience tells them that you are engaging with them, that you are talking to them and not to yourself! Eye contact also gives the speaker or interpreter immediate feedback about how the audience is reacting to what is being said.     Here’s a little trick that will help – instead of looking at the audience members’ eyes, look at a space on their foreheads, between and just above the eyes. For them, you will appear to be looking directly at them, but you will avoid actually catching anyone’s eye.


Your voice should be clearly audible to those in the room with you. This will be easier if you are sitting as described above and looking at your audience – because then your mouth will project your voice at them and not downwards at the table. Learn to speak loudly without shouting so that you can speak to larger audiences if required. Learn also to vary your volume so it’s appropriate to the space your in and the size of the audience you’re speaking to.

            Enunciate and articulate. All of the words you say should be comprehensible to your audience.

            Be aware of how your voice is received by listeners. Some people speak too loud or shout. Some people may have a monotone drone. Others have a higher pitched voice. Over long periods all of these can grate with listeners. Ask your teacher if your voice is audience-friendly and if not get some help changing it.


Your intonation should be natural and fluent. This will inspire confidence in your listerners. Try not to sound nervous and uncertain which has the opposite effect. One simple way to achieve this is to try to be communicative!

            Remember to pause. Pausing in the right places is essential for both you and for your audience to understand the structure of the speech.

            Get the pace right. For many students, but not all, that means slowing down.

            Knowing what you are talking about, and knowing what you are about to say are also two very important factors in speaking fluently and naturally (and therefore not sounding nervous and uncertain).


It’s normal to be nervous when you speak in public. It’s a sign that you still think the activity is out of the ordinary and requires extra concentration. That’s a good thing. If speaking in public makes you unhappy and/or unwell then interpreting may not be the job for you.

            Usually your nerves will stop playing a role once you get going with the speech, so practice beginnings. Nerves can also be defeated by knowing what you’re talking about. Preparing and even practising your speeches will help.

            The postures described above will minimise the external manifestations of your nervousness – involuntary movements etc – and that in itself will calm you down.

This page is a summary of Chapter 2, Presentation, of Consecutive interpreting – A short course by Andrew Gillies