Note-taking in Simultaneous

When you think of writing things down in simultaneous we usually think of writing down numbers or terms for our booth partner. But that is just one of the reasons to keep a pen and pad handy while working in simultaneous. 

So what can we usefully note down when working in simultaneous? 

1. Notes for your colleague

1.1 Numbers, dates, names

1.2 Terminology

Write them on a piece of paper in between the two of you, where the colleague can see it but is not disturbed by your writing it down.

– write big and clearly

– indicate (eg. with your finger) the note

– cross out each thing you’ve written down once it has gone by


– Don’t distract the colleague to show them what you’ve written, they’re busy!

– use symbols or abbreviations (that aren’t absolutely obvious)

– write down anything that you’re not sure of (or get it wrong)

2. Notes for yourself

2.1 Numbers, dates 1 

We often do numbers consecutively in simultaneous – we stop speaking, listen, write the number down and then read it out. 

It’s a technique many use but that has its limits when there are lots of numbers.

2.2 Numbers, dates 2 

It’s useful to keep numbers and dates visible on the page for future reference (later in the same speech or later in the same debate).

2.3 Names

– having a written version can help you work out what name really is (Egg not Hague)

– it’s quicker to read a name than to either reproduce it phonetically or try to “translate” the SL pronunciation of a name into TL pronunciation of the same name

– it’s useful to keep names visible on the page for future reference (later in the same speech or later in the same debate)

– also having a note means that you will pronounce the name consistently the next time it comes up

2.4 Long words

As with names it’s quicker and easier to read a long expression than to process it and/or fetch it from memory. So write them down and keep them visible.

eg. quantitative easing

For particularly difficult words you can even make the syllables or parts of the word clear to aid pronunciation

epi  demi  ological

ethylene    propylene     diene 

2.5 Grammatical agreements

Some grammatical or lexical items require agreement later in the sentence. If so then it’s useful to note the determining item to remind you later what you need to base agreement on. This reduces cognitive load.

– if

It’s not a great idea to start a sentence with “if” but if you have to, then jot it down on the page so that when the second clause comes you can start with a clear “then”, making the structure clear to your listener (and even yourself).

– lists

Sometimes a list might start “we suggest: ”. In English each list item now has to be an (-ing) form eg. we suggest applying…. For lists it’s useful to note either the “suggest” or the “-ing” so you get all subsequent items correct. 

eg. We suggest applying for residence permit at your local government office; making sure that all your employment papers are in good order and not dated more than 3 months previous to the application; and perhaps also consulting an immigration lawyer.

This is particularly useful when the grammar is different in the other language. In French for example you might use proposer as the translation of suggest. However proposerrequires de plus the infinitive

eg. nous proposons de faire or de and a noun as object nous proposons l’implementation de.

NB there is often a short pause before a list starts in English that will signal it to you. Alternatively as soon as you hear the second item in a list you write down your DETERMINING element, eg. – ING

2.6 The structure of the speech

If the speaker announces that they will make a number of points, or enumerates longish points as they go along it’s helpful to take a short note of that to give you an overview of the speech you are interpreting. 


1. EU

2. past

3. flows

Similarly digressions can be indicated by noting the item that immediately preceded the digresssion plus an indication of the digression (eg. brackets or NB)

immigration  (      )

2.7 Context

Keeping a note of comparative information over the course of a speech, or who has said on the main issue over the course of a debate can be an extremely useful way of keeping an eye on the context in which each subsequent remark is made.


FR      112m euro

DE      300m euro

UK      75m euro


S & D   against

EPP      for but… amendment 6

ECR      for

Greens against

Notes in Simultaneous, Andy Gillies 2020

Early SIM exercises – Setton

This text first appeared in January 2008, FORUM Revue internationale d’interprétation et de traduction / International Journal of Interpretation and Translation 6(2):173-193

Progression in SI training


Motivation in SI

Prerequisites in SI

3 stages to SI

Coordination (dual-tasking)

Experimentation (lag/decalage)

Robin Setton

SISU-GIIT (Shanghai); ESIT and ISIT (Paris).

Abstract: Simultaneous interpretation (SI) is required for access to the conference interpretation market, accounting for around 90% of conference interpreters’ work, but its dynamic nature presents a teaching challenge. In leading schools, students are trained for several months in memorising, summarising, paraphrasing, sight translation and consecutive interpreting before being initiated to SI. Many exercises have been proposed, but their empirical evaluation remains difficult. The paper recalls the pre-requisites for initiation to SI (language proficiency, knowledge and analytical ability), and describes some exercises, based on experience in various combinations of European and Asian languages, for SI training in three stages (coordination, experimentation, consolidation). Four exercises in particular – on-line paraphrase, paused SI, ‘taking the plunge’ and ‘tight chunking’ – are recommended for further testing in different phases of SI training. Following the seminal work by Seleskovitch and Lederer (2002), additional focus is placed on language enhancement and techniques for dealing with fast, text-based, institutional discourse (increasingly required, notably in emerging markets) particularly for interpreters working into B. The author welcomes feedback from colleagues who may experiment with any of the recommended exercises. 

1. Introduction

SI is widely seen, rightly or wrongly, as the skill which distinguishes conference or ‘high-level’ interpreters from the rest. SI is now well established as the interpretation mode of choice in the world’s high-profile international meetings and as a routine service in multilingual international organisations and many other private or public multilingual gatherings, accounting for 90% of all conference interpreting assignments. This is understandable in view of its obvious attractions as the only form of translation capable of handling multiple languages in real time (not to mention removing interpreters from the meeting room). 

            The best interpretation requires not just linguistic ability and background knowledge, but also empathy, analysis and an understanding of the context of the communication, and the best interpreters do not all necessarily do high-profile world summits in SI – many provide superb consecutive service behind the scenes to clients ranging from world leaders and financiers to disenfranchised welfare claimants, litigants or refugees. However, in today’s world, with the premium on immediacy and on formal and technical discourse, no interpreter can access the international conference circuit, with its attractive pay, status, variety and opportunities for travel, without offering SI. 

            In a training programme, therefore, ‘graduation’ to the SI booth is a significant rite of passage from both the trainee’s and the school’s point of view, and most serious programmes insist on ‘mid-point’ exams to ensure that baseline skills and proficiencies have been thoroughly acquired before initiating the trainee into SI. Since SI involves team work, and is also highly exposed, this is the segment of the market that the profession and its schools are most keen to protect by maintaining quality and professionalism. The stringency of the final diploma or certifying exam with SI testifies to their reluctance to admit unqualified candidates to professional practice. But since interpreting is not a legally protected profession, and recruiters are not beholden to schools, candidates who fail this exam may still go out and work, especially if they can offer scarce language combinations. Some may respond better to the real world than to the training environment and soon become acceptable and even excellent interpreters; but an unreliable interpreter – especially if providing relay from a ‘scarce’ but critical language for several other booths – can disable the work of a whole team, cause the failure of an international meeting and seriously damage the image of the profession. It seems that from the trainers’ point of view, the only policy which is at once responsible, realistic and efficient is to be very careful in admitting students to initiation into SI – having the courage to prescribe more preparation, or even advise a change of career plan for those experiencing more fundamental difficulties – and to offer the most intensive, well-thought-out and realistic programme possible to those who are admitted to SI training. 

            Governments and universities, too, are keen to train students with linguistic gifts to provide language services in the modern and popular form of SI. Politicians, administrators, even academics – and any ‘lay’ observer or user – tend to see interpreting as fast language transfer, and to admire SI as the acme of high-speed linguistic pyrotechnics. In contrast to consecutive, where observers can see some of the ‘workings’ of the task, SI seems rather magical. Rapid reactions and an excellent command of the languages are obviously necessary for SI, but they are supporting rather than core competencies. Inside the black box, and invisible behind the polished performance, there is a hidden ingredient : analysis. 

            Analysis is a condition sine qua non of SI because in the real world, most speeches will soon defeat even the best and fastest human on-line dictionary. Outsiders inevitably underestimate how fuzzily speakers, however respectable, may express themselves; the differences in the way ideas are expressed in different languages; and more fundamentally, the extent to which context and situation must be understood to make sense of discourse and convey meaning in real communicative situations. Useful set phrases and expressions certainly help, but as secondary tools to complement the basic work of mental analysis. The only thing that all speeches to be interpreted have in common is that the speaker has (or at least is pretending to have) some meaning or message to communicate; little else, in terms of linguistic correctness or coherence, is guaranteed. Only intensive, invisible analysis, drawing on knowledge of the world and the situation, can support the on-line techniques – half-visible and partly-teachable – needed to capture and express meaning from the wide variety of speech-types encountered in real life. 

            We are happy for our audiences to ignore the inner workings of the black box, but we ourselves need to understand these workings a little for training purposes. The most obvious difference which strikes a beginner moving from consecutive interpreting to SI is the time pressure. (S)he understands the need for analysis from her earlier training, but must now find a way of ‘fitting it in’ alongside listening and speaking. The first thing which seems obvious is that time and effort will need to be saved wherever possible, particularly in understanding the speaker and in searching for the right phrase. It will also help to be able to start, finish, lengthen and shorten sentences as easily as possible, again, to ‘make room’ for understanding and thinking. Clearly, any exercises that hone this kind of linguistic agility will be very helpful : syntactic and pragmatic flexibility are a more permanent and fundamental requirement to SI than the knowledge of words, which can be refreshed and topped-up for each specific event.  

            SI means making room, or making time, for the priority of each instant, by exploiting knowledge and the flexibilities of language. Knowledge helps to anticipate, and linguistic agility helps us manipulate time by compressing, paraphrasing or elaborating according to need. Without sufficient knowledge and linguistic freedom, there will be little hope of developing the more advanced flexibility needed to handle increasingly fast, difficult and technical speeches. This justifies the definition of baseline general knowledge and linguistic competencies as pre-requisites for beginning SI, along with the ‘analytic reflex’ which should have been acquired through early introductory exercises like same-language paraphrase or ‘retelling’, gisting and summary, followed by three or four months of consecutive interpreting.  

2. Motivation for the training strategy  

A programme for training simultaneous interpreters can be built on the experiences and intuitions of practising professional trainers, or inferred from a model of the task based on cognitive and linguistic theory, empirical research and the analysis of SI recordings and transcripts. Research and cognitive modelling are instructive, and should be pursued; but when it comes to teaching a task as complex and dynamic a task as simultaneous interpreting, and to groups of uniquely different individuals, the present state of knowledge does not justify replacing a training scheme based on fifty years’ experience with one built on theoretical constructs. This should be clear from a brief examination of the potential contribution of two disciplines, translation studies and psycholinguistics. 

            A traditional theme in translation studies contrasts form-based (literal) and sense-based (free, ‘de-verbalised’) translation. In observing SI, one thing is immediately clear : both processes must occur and complement each other. On the one hand, we cannot help but experience the sense of speech in a language we understand, forgetting the words used (Sachs 1967); but we also have to find and produce rigid equivalents of technical terms or the names of institutions. An important challenge for SI training in the intermediate stage is to show how to juggle these two processes when argument and terminology come in mixed up together (as they do in live, structured discourse). Can psycholinguistics help? In the literature, complex tasks are often analysed componentially as ‘multitasking’, from which it is often inferred that component sub-tasks for teaching can be mastered separately in targeted exercises, then finally combined into the full task. It is not clear how SI would be analysed into sub-tasks; and no attempt to train interpreters in this way has yet been documented to our knowledge. As for our specific problem, we know of no ‘dual-tasking’ research on how to juggle or combine the two tasks described above – analysis of an unfolding argument and lexical translation. 

            For the time being, then, we will be guided chiefly by the old pedagogical strategy, well-tried in society and in nature, of nudging the fledgling out of the nest and off the lowest branch of the tree – i.e. initiating her in a simple version of the integral task, in a protected environment (ideal working conditions) which already elicits the same reflexes, excitement, risks and rewards as the full task, but without most of the more notorious difficulties and hazards of real life. These hazards can then be added incrementally: the speeches become gradually more difficult, more formal or structured (or indeed, more problematically incoherent), are delivered faster, and in the later stages, are mixed up with other input like unfamiliar proper names, complex numbers, written text and slides. 

            Simultaneity is a challenge for the instructor. Theoretical explanations, recommendations and generalisations are hard to apply to classroom practice because of the immediacy, individuality and complexity of SI. Everything is happening at once: the instructor has to listen to two streams of speech and several different students; it is hard to separate problems of language and technique; and each individual student is discovering his or her own limits and abilities, and forming individual habits accordingly, so that suggestions may or may not suit different students. Most instructors rely on their instincts and personal experience, and it is certainly hard to conceive of SI being taught by non-professionals. Much depends on the instructor’s pedagogical gifts, patience and ability to put themselves in the beginner’s place. 

3. Prerequisites for SI

The pre-requisites for successful SI training are: trained instructors, preferably[1] themselves practicing professional interpreters; an installation simulating a real conference environment; access to speakers and realistic speech materials; and students who have already reached a baseline in language, knowledge and basic (consecutive) interpreting skills. 

2.1. Linguistic comfort and general knowledge

The mid-point exam must obviously filter out students who are too weak in the baseline competencies prerequisite to developing SI technique. These can be stated quite simply:

  1. Comprehension of most types of speech in their languages must be immediate, and comfortable enough to leave time to spare for analysis, lexical choice where necessary, and for experimenting on-line with techniques like lag control. 
  2. General knowledge and education must be deep and broad enough to ensure they are not constantly unsaddled by alien concepts, names and entities. 
  3. Trainees who must do SI into a B (acquired) language should show enough flexibility and resourcefulness in using that language.  

Comprehension and general knowledge should be acquired and strictly verified well before moving to SI, either at admission or during introductory consecutive training. Active SI competence in the B language is achieved by creating and actively exploiting an enabling environment, and by targeted exercises, which are outside the scope of this paper (see e.g. Mackintosh 1989); students’ progress is irregular and hard to predict. 

2.2. Linguistic agility and flexibility 

With this language-and-knowledge baseline in place, the next level of skill to be developed is linguistic resourcefulness and agility. Linguistic ‘limbering-up’ exercises already introduced include speech-making from sparse notes, but also consecutive interpreting and sight translation, taught as professional skills in their own right. But SI will require additional task-specific, on-line agilities which can be stimulated, for example, by same-language paraphrase, with restructuring (after the usual contextual preparation) of successive chunks of text scrolled down a screen, under (very) gradually increasing time pressure. A variation on this is register-switching, which is particularly challenging in the B language, but should in any case be persevered in, and mastered, in A. 

4. SI training in three stages

While we can expect some individual variation in the rate of progress, it seems possible to define periods in SI training : 

  1. Initiation and coordination: Discovering the booth environment, how to listen while talking, and the specific ‘ear-voice’ and time constraints of ‘single-pass’ SI, in contrast to ‘double-pass’ consecutive  interpreting (Materials : everyday, spontaneous speech)
  • Experimentation: Experimenting with time, rhythm and lag variation (Materials: oral speech, but with some more structured passages, and some names and numbers)
  • Consolidation: Practising on progressively more formal, denser/technical and faster material (Materials: mostly authentic conference speeches, with incrementally added hazards and difficulties, and maximum variety. Students practice the full task independently, monitoring each other.).  

These stages are similar to those described in Seleskovitch and Lederer’s Pédagogie raisonnée de l’interprétation (2002), the most complete blueprint for conference interpreter training so far published[2], and our proposals retain their strong emphasis on analysis. They differ in proposing some new exercises to smooth the passage from consecutive to SI, making more allowance for individual experimentation and variable styles, and finally, attempting to explore and expand on techniques to handle the (increasing) amount of fast, technical, and text-based or multimedia material, and the new context of contacts between the ‘traditional’ international community and emerging economies and political cultures.

            Teaching involves fostering the development of similar techniques, based on general principles, to a group of uniquely different individuals. In the first phase, the student has to find her own way of coordinating listening, thinking and speaking so that she doesn’t miss any part of the message. In the second phase, experimentation, she discovers how to make time, or ‘room’, to improve her rendition without losing touch with the speaker – which will involve falling behind, catching up, elaborating, accelerating, searching for words, provisionally simplifying, compensating, etc., at different times. The actual pattern of input to output, as observed in a transcript, will depend on many different subjective and objective factors, and will therefore vary widely from one interpreter, speech and occasion to another.  

            The third and last phase of training brings the trainee up to professional readiness through increasing and widening exposure and practice, incrementally adding the difficulties and hazards of real-life, with speeches varying in spontaneity/writtenness, formality, coherence, accent and diction, originality, speed and so on. Once the basic challenges are recognised, in Stage 1, and the interpreter has found her own style, in Stage 2, the key to reliable and versatile professional expertise is ultimately in her sensitivity to widely varying forms of discourse and her ability to adjust her technique to the speaker’s rhythm, and her product to the occasion. However, specific techniques, including tighter chunking closer to the original text structure, may be needed to process dense, unprepared input in more ‘cramped’ conditions. 

            Dozens of imaginative exercises have been proposed manipulating various parameters of live or semi-simultaneous translation: same-language or change of language; verbatim, gisting or paraphrase; varying the delay between input and output; input speed; register, formality and input delivery, and so on; and later, in preparation for simultaneous-with-text, similar variations on the time and extent of preparation allowed, or encouraged, and the use of an accompanying text before or during SI (for a selection, see e.g. Kalina 1998, 2000 and Gillies 2001, 2004).

            The effectiveness of different interpreter training methods is very hard to test empirically; and we do not know enough about the mind to rule out absolutely the possible benefit of any of these exercises for particular individuals. However, we see no good reason to choose tasks that seem alien to interpreting and more reminiscent of the psycholinguistics lab, i.e. designed for research rather than teaching, and which might be counterproductive – for example, repeating  the linguistic forms of the original (i.e. verbatim shadowing); combining listening or speaking with a task on entirely unrelated content; or being obliged to use certain words in production. We do not feel we know enough about the mind and SI to make such large inferences about the transposability or relevance of these tasks to SI. 

            The exercises we favour here are those which (i) seem related, albeit in simplified form, to real-life interpreting; (ii) elicit progressively sophisticated techniques; and, last but not least, (iii) have been used by us with some apparent success, including recognition by students, in one or more training programmes. 

            In class, every exercise should naturally be preceded by the usual contextualisation, and where necessary, brainstorming and/or (in the later stages) advance preparation of the subject-matter

4.1. Coordination : discovering the SI condition

4.1.1. Settling in and ear-voice coordination

On the principle that new skills and reflexes are best imprinted in a realistic environment, trainees should ideally be introduced at the same time to the SI booth and equipment, and to the conventions and manners of working there as a team. On the same principle, this will clearly be more effective if this is their first visit to the booth. 

            The first thing students will want (and need) to learn when settled in front of the console, with a view of a speaker in the conference room, is how to listen and talk at the same time.  The two exercises most commonly used and recommended in the literature for developing basic ‘ear-voice’ coordination are 

  • Counting aloud while listening to a speech – forwards, then backwards to make it harder – with someone checking that the numbers are produced regularly and accurately, and then, after the exercise, that they have heard and understood the speech. Counting and listening can be done in the same language to begin with (the trainee’s A), moving on to listening to speech in the B or C language and counting in A, to simulate the first combinations she will attempt in real SI.
  • (Verbatim) Shadowing.  In this task, often used in the psycholinguistics laboratory, the subject attempts to repeat, word for word, exactly what she hears coming in though the headphones, and is monitored for accuracy. 

Neither of these exercises simulates SI except in the very superficial sense of simultaneous speaking and listening. Counting while listening seems to be used in some schools for want of something better, on the assumption that ear-voice coordination is a distinct mechanical skill which can or should be developed before attempting the real task of reproducing content from one language to another. However, experience over the years with beginners in different schools and language combinations shows that the purely mechanical aspect of coordination is a relatively trivial skill that can be mastered almost immediately. 

            An exercise which involves both listening and producing language, rather than just numbers, might seem more relevant, but there is good reason to believe that verbatim shadowing is counter-productive. Professional interpreter trainers have generally advised against this exercise as an introduction to SI on the grounds that it is liable to cultivate exactly the wrong habits in the beginner, who should get into the habit from the outset of looking past the forms of the incoming language to the meaning, and forget or suppress these incoming forms as thoroughly as possible in order better to think and formulate idiomatically in the target language. This caveat seems more than justified. Because it is likely to imprint the forms and rhythm of the incoming language, verbatim shadowing would seem beneficial only for an entirely different purpose, and in the later stages of training: interpreters who must do SI into a B language may benefit from verbatim, imitative shadowing of the rhythm and intonation, in particular, of eloquent educated native speakers (live or on film), just before entering the booth to work into B. 

            In contrast, an adaptation of shadowing designed to break the attention to form and shift it to meaning, the first basis for SI technique,  is described below ( 

            For the very first steps, we see no reason not to begin with short sessions (2 or 3 minutes) of ordinary, slow and very simple speech in B for interpretation into A, followed each time by playback in the classroom and commentary to reveal major coordination problems – where the student simply did not hear something, leaving her either high and dry (abandoned sentences), or with incoherent fragments from which to guess or reconstruct a meaning. 

            There will also be instances where certain words were not heard or even remembered, but with no negative effects on the rendition. This can lead to an interesting discussion on selective listening, the process of ‘attunement’ to the most informative peaks in the input (‘new information’), which are different in each new speech and speaker, and the important point that forgetting the words of the original is a normal, indeed necessary part of the process of understanding . 

4.1.2. From consecutive to SI

A second class of exercises which can be introduced, for variety, build on and use the consecutive skills already acquired. It is also good for morale to switch back occasionally to something the students can do well and confidently. SI after consecutive

Students can do two or three segments in consecutive, then move to the booth to do a very similar speech on the same topic in SI, if possible containing one or two complex sentence structures; or begin a speech in consecutive and continue in SI (Seleskovich & Lederer 2002: 172) ‘Smart shadowing’ (also called on-line paraphrasing, or same-language SI).

Smart shadowing is the on-line version of the free paraphrase exercise used in the early, pre-consecutive stages of training (or at any time, for limbering-up or language enhancement), where the student paraphrases speech or text in the same language using as few of the original words and structures as possible while conveying the same meaning. 

            In this version, to prepare for SI, students listen and produce speech in the same language which as nearly as possible conveys the same message as the original, but using different words and structures: i.e. sense-preserving reformulation without translation. That this is not an artificial ‘component task’ of SI, but a natural sibling, is attested to by the fact that interpreters sometimes do this absent-mindedly during conferences (and may go on for several seconds before being alerted by a colleague). Paused simultaneous: from mini-consecutives to SI

In this exercise, a simple, informal speech in the trainees’ B language, with which the instructor must be thoroughly familiar, is recorded, preferably on video – although this can be difficult to operate precisely – and played to the students for interpretation into A, at first with pauses controlled by the instructor. Instructors are advised to practice among themselves first, since the procedure is tricky. It should also be carefully explained to students in advance, so that they know what to expect. 

            The speech is played or spoken one sentence or medium-sized sense unit at a time. At first, the speaker waits (or the instructor pauses the tape) until the student has finished her interpretation of the segment. After a few segments, the pauses are shortened so that the next sentence begins before the student has finished speaking. Pauses may then be progressively shortened until the process begins to resemble simultaneous. Breaks can be taken for discussion when felt appropriate, but with decreasing frequency. 

            Several students can practice on the same recording, although the instructor will obviously only be able to monitor one at a time. Other students can monitor the output to check that it makes sense and later, draw attention to verbal ticks, unfinished sentences, etc. 

            The instructor will find opportunities to draw attention to and discuss various tricks and techniques for students to experiment with: stalling, or learning how to stay in a ‘holding pattern’; padding (ideas can be given for useful fillers); ‘open’ grammar and how to finish a sentence; experimenting with lag and developing an instinct for when to listen and when to speak, when to fall behind and when to catch up, etc. These suggestions prepare the ground for the next stage: individual experimentation.  

            We have had success with these exercises, but consider them to be still experimental. They are probably not manageable with more than two students in the booths at a time; one at a time is too boring for the others, since the exercise has to go on for a little while to produce any benefit.  One is experimenting on human beings during a very narrow window in their training; but research ethics dictate that if the treatment is successful, the medicine should be distributed to all patients immediately ! Anticipation exercise 

Anticipation is key to successful SI, but it is something the comprehending mind does automatically rather than deliberately. Chernov (2004), for example, ties it in with the basic drive to make sense and seek to impose coherence on input which has given humans their cognitive advantage; it is related to the drives of curiosity and the desire to control an uncertain environment, and its success depends on maximising knowledge of and familiarity with this environment. Trainees are first filled in on as much as they would be expected to know about the event, situation, players, occasion, etc. Then a speech is read out (or a recording – preferably video – can be used, and paused appropriately), stopping in the middle of sentences and leaving the student to continue. This also seems to be a good consciousness-raising exercise: when we experimented with it at ETI (Geneva) for research purposes (comparing anticipatory abilities of subjects listening to their A, B, or C language), students asked for it to be introduced as an exercise in SI training. 

4.2. Experimentation

Trainees can now be shown how language, knowledge, and anticipation are exploited jointly to overcome the apparent difficulties of SI, and then given the opportunity to experiment with the many possibilities to find their own rhythm and style. The first of these exercises, in particular, should be used when students complain about the contrasting structures of the input and output languages. 

4.2.1. ‘Taking the plunge’ (or ‘starting differently’)

This exercise can be time-consuming for the trainer as it requires a careful choice of speech or text. The speech used (in English, for example), should contain sentences beginning with prepositional phrases or  subordinate clauses, e.g. 

‘With the economy picking up again after a long period of stagnation….’

‘Although only a minority of countries ratified the convention in the first five years…’ 

‘While drivers in their twenties are usually assumed to be reckless…’ 

‘Notwithstanding the continued prevalence of dengue fever in parts of Western Malaysia…

Students are instructed to ignore the subordination (opening preposition, subordinate conjunction, etc.) start their own sentence with a subject noun, and find out how they can still produce language conveying the same meaning, where necessary by making later, downstream adjustments. For example, a student may say (in her target language) something like 

            ‘The economy has picked up …, SO…’  

            ‘Only a minority [ratified etc.…], BUT…’; 

            ‘Drivers in their twenties […], BUT…’ etc. 

Other students may choose to delay longer, or restructure more boldly :

            ‘We have seen a long period of economic stagnation, but now the economy […] and…’; 

            ‘In the first five years after the convention was signed…’ ; 

            ‘Dengue fever remains prevalent […]. Nevertheless, …’ 

In practice, even wider variations will be found; all may be acceptable and show that the strategy is assimilated. The instructor monitoring performance should check that the meaning is restored in the restructured product.  

            What is more or less familiar, what should be spat out and what can be put off, is largely individual. But the exercise aims to instil a basic SI reflex: ‘If you feel the sentence is awkward, just say something, anything, and see where it gets you’. Numerous examples can be found in the literature, even if authors’ theoretical explanations may vary (e.g. Wilss 1978 after Mattern 1974; Lederer 1981; Setton 1999). Instructors will instinctively grasp the purpose of this exercise and will find appropriate texts, with constructions which prompting or requiring a similar approach, in their various language combinations.  

            Finally, reformulation should not be forced on students who succeed in producing an intelligent, quality rendition which happens to be structurally and ‘linearly’ quite close to the original (see below, section 4.3.). The aim is to uncover possibilities for when they are needed; imposed restructuring in this case would be perverse.  

4.2.2  Experimenting with time and rhythm and discovering lag variation 

Trainees have now reached the core of SI technique, and should have begun to understand implicitly the constraints and possibilities. The time, freedom and comfort we have in SI certainly depends on the type of speech we have to deal with, and on our preparation and linguistic resources – but there are ways of gaining – or losing – control. If you are too far behind, or looking for a word, when the speaker is saying something difficult or unfamiliar, you will lose content, or come unstuck. If you are too close, or lock yourself into certain sentence constructions, you may have to clumsily backtrack or restart. Students should now be encouraged to experiment with a longer or shorter lag, first on speeches of one type then another – not too suddenly, perhaps in successive weeks – until they find their own rhythm. Practice materials should be real-life or prepared substantive speeches, orally presented though perhaps with short written passages occasionally inserted. We have not yet reached the stage of addressing hazards like recitation, high speed, or awkward accents and delivery. ‘Complex’ or ‘awkward’ sentence structure per se is not a hazard in SI, but a routine part of all speech. 

            The instructor’s job at this stage is not to point out linguistic weaknesses or poor choice of words, but to draw attention relentlessly to missed or distorted content. The goal at this stage is still completeness of the message, even if clumsily or inelegantly expressed. Production quality should improve as students become more comfortable and gain control, making ‘room’ to polish their product; if not, the problem is usually best addressed separately by recommending language enhancement measures (active reading, same-language shadowing of selected quality speeches, etc., which are beyond the scope of the present paper).   

            Students still need special individual attention at this stage. Those who stick too close to the speaker can be shown where they failed to capture the sense for lack of perspective, or where the instant equivalents they produced turn out to be meaningless when strung together. Those who fall too far behind may need to be introduced earlier to the chunking exercise described below (4.3.3.).  

4.3 Consolidation through increasing difficulty, practice and variety 

4.3.1 From basic to professional SI

A student can be considered to have mastered basic SI technique when, if given appropriate contextual information, she can produce usable interpretation, in terms of content fidelity and acceptable language and delivery, of a variety of ‘standard’ speeches on general or semi-technical topics – i.e., speeches presented orally in more or less standard educated language, with structured argument and supporting details (names, examples, numbers), and at normal (i.e. irregular) speed, with local variations in information density, hesitations, parenthetical remarks, digression, and so on.

            Nowadays this definition of ‘standard’ speech probably only covers half, or less, of what we encounter on the market, so trainees have some distance to go to ‘market-readiness’. The last stage in SI training is therefore practice-intensive, and is probably the longest (several weeks or months). 

            Language and knowledge, as we have said, are ‘supporting’ competencies in SI, which trainees can and should continue to work on in their own time to improve their performance, as well as practising on a wide variety of speeches and speakers. But can the training programme offer any more in terms of techniques to deal with the many additional hazards and challenges of modern, professional SI  –  abnormally fast delivery from written text, formal and legalistic registers (often combined), mixed-media presentations, relay for other booths, and incoherent or non-standard speakers ?

4.3.2. Formal and institutional discourse

Schools which have traditionally placed strong emphasis on analysis and the need to ‘deconstruct’ the incoming speech have sometimes been reluctant to train students to deal with discourse which is more formalised and predictable in content, but presents other challenges like speed and formal register, and in some cases, audience expectations for a more literal rendition using recognisable standard (or even approved) terminology. 

            Some countries and delegations have a historical tradition of close, even intrusive, supervision of interpreters’ work, again usually by people who are not necessarily aware of the hidden and cognitive work operations. In many other settings, such as scientific conferences, interpreters have to deal with very fast and/or recited speeches, often with little or no preparation. To handle these, different skills must be acquired, which though possibly ‘dumber’, are nevertheless essential to survival. Trainees who have come this far can master these with intensive practice, for which time must be made, and materials provided, if the school is to turn out market-ready professionals.

            Trainees preparing to work for international (and some national) institutions, in particular, will need special practice in a certain kind of formal, recited discourse. In these settings, speeches may be read out, often fast or monotonously, while audiences may expect certain phrases to be rendered by established equivalents smoothly and with little or no hesitation. Similarly, confident use of formal, ceremonial styles is required for certain events. In this mode, structural agility remains vital, but language, style and terminology may be more important than the spontaneity and imagination needed for other, more impromptu speaking styles. 

4.3.3. Linear segmentation (‘tight chunking’) exercise

Working ‘conceptually’ with a longish lag, catching up only when necessary to catch frozen items like  names or numbers, may become risky with informationally-dense material – read from a slide, for example, that the interpreter is seeing for the first time. This kind of reformulation works (and produces better results) when the material is familiar enough to store large chunks conceptually, and to summarise easily and accurately if one falls too far behind, but not when each chunk, while representing a logical step in the argument, also contains lots of dense, unfamiliar technical and numerical material. The same may be true for diplomatic or official texts, often read out but provided only at the last minute, when set terminological equivalents are required even in preference (alas) to intelligent and idiomatic reformulation.  

            Trainees may also go further than necessary in restructuring, either in a bid to be more idiomatic or because they lack (especially in B) some handy phrases than would do the trick more simply, and fall too far behind, which if interpreting a television interview, or providing relay (especially with slides), can be disastrous. 

            In the linear (parallel) segmentation or ‘tight chunking’ exercise, text is scrolled chunk by chunk on a screen, with students taking turns to produce a self-contained rendition of each visible chunk, with an appropriate link to the previous discourse and with due regard for fidelity and acceptable language. The instructor – and here the need for a professional, practising interpreter becomes obvious – provides clues and (every now and then) practical tips for handy phrases and linking devices, which may show how (smaller) successive chunks could have been handled as units and elegantly joined up, with the necessary small adjustments, without meaning loss or distortion.          Such specific suggestions may indeed often be linguistic, covering useful links, alternative phrasing and so on. These will be especially precious to students working into B. All-round SI competence includes both the ability to reformulate radically, and the ability to stay as ‘linear’ as possible without compromising quality.

            For institutional discourse, exercises involving rehearsal (‘cheating’, as Gillies puts it), terminological research and reference to standard translations (available in all official languages for UN General Assembly sessions, for example) will be helpful. A. Dawrant (GIIT/SISU, Shanghai; p.c.) recommends the following exercises using such materials at an ‘early intermediate’ stage in SI training:

(i) read through a (source) speech transcript, identifying specialized terms and looking them up in the sample translation; then do the speech in SI without looking at the text; then listen to the recording of your performance while checking against the transcript, and finally, do the speech again.  

(ii)) listen to a recording of your own interpretation while checking against the SL transcript, and consult the sample translation for “good ready versions.” 

(iii) interpret the same speech a second time a few days later and listen critically to the playback; 

(iv) just occasionally, choose a very good quality speech and interpret it over and over until satisfied.

5. Pedagogical coordination and preparation for the real world

Finally, these differences in speech genre and in the appropriate strategies for dealing with them must be explained to students, to avoid the impression that instructors are giving conflicting instructions – for example, an instructor working mainly with UN materials may recommend a short lag and insist on certain terminology, while another will be stressing analysis, reformulation and a flexible lag. The diversity of speech types and situations which graduates will encounter when they enter the market – especially in freelance practice – can never be simulated in a training programme, and may come as a shock to the young beginner. Schools are strongly advised to prepare future graduates for the real world by inviting external speakers to give lectures; organising mock conferences with an agenda, a programme, a strict schedule and other realistic details; and last but certainly not least, arranging for internships in international organisations where students can work in ‘dumb’ booths – preferably through at least one entire meeting – followed by debriefings with their instructors. Experience has confirmed time and again that such visits are often nothing short of an epiphany, in which a latent understanding of the task cristallizes for the first time into a strategic individual style, audible in the booth as of the student’s return home and instilling the necessary confidence for the final exam and first steps on the market. 

6. Conclusion 

Simultaneous interpreting is a cognitively challenging and complex task, but it remains a social act of communication performed live for real people in specific situations speaking often technically, unpredictably, incoherently or incorrectly, and with more or less confidence, but with specific goals and expectations. Not everyone is cut out for SI, and no-one should embark on this training without the requisite language ability, general knowledge and aptitudes; and barring temporary and emergency  needs, trainers should themselves be practicing professionals with access to the proper equipment, installations, realistic materials, and a facilitating institutional environment. With these pre-requisites in place and a theoretical understanding of the successive challenges, it is possible to guide trainees from a solid basic competency in interpreting (consecutive) through an incremental progression of exercises which are never artificial, but from the outset contain elements of the realism, challenge and excitement of the full task, while gradually building the cognitive and linguistic agilities needed to deal with the reality – solemn, stimulating or hair-raising – of a modern multilingual conference. 


Chernov, Ghelly V. 2004. Inference and anticipation in simultaneous interpreting. Edited with critical foreword and notes by Robin Setton and Adelina Hild. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 

Gillies, Andrew. 2001. Conference Interpreting – A Students’ Companion. Krakow: Tertium. 

Gillies, Andrew. 2004. Conference Interpreting – A New Students’ Companion. Krakow: Tertium.

Jones, Roderick. 1998. Conference Interpreting Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Kalina, Sylvia. 1998. Strategische Prozesse beim Dolmetschen: theoretische Grundlagen, empirische Fallstudien, didaktische Konsequenzen. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Kalina, Sylvia. 2000. Zu den Grundlagen einer Didaktik des Dolmetschens. In Kalina, S., Buhl, S., Arbogast, G. (eds.), Dolmetschen : Theorie – Praxis – Didaktik, 161-189. St. Ingbert: Roehriger UniVerlag.

Lederer, Marianne. 1981.La traduction simultanée. Paris: Minard Lettres Modernes.

Mackintosh, Jennifer. 1989. English up-date: An experiment in in-service training for practising conference interpreters. In L. Gran & J. Dodds (Eds.), The theoretical and practical aspects of teaching interpretation, 219-228. Udine: Campanotto.

Mattern, Nanza. 1974. Anticipation in German-English Simultaneous Interpreting. M.A. Thesis. (unpubl.), University of Saarbrücken. 

Sachs, J. 1967. Recognition Memory for Syntactic and Semantic Aspects of Connected Discourse. Perception and Psychophysics, 2, 437-442.

Seleskovitch, Danica and Lederer, Marianne. 2002. Pédagogie raisonnée de l’interprétation. Paris: Didier Erudition.

Seleskovitch, Danica and Lederer, Marianne. 1995. A Systematic approach to teaching interpretation. (Tr. J. Harmer). Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Wilss, Wolfram. 1978. Syntactic anticipation in German-English simultaneous interpretation. In David Gerver and Wallace H. Sinaiko (eds.), Language Interpretation and Communication. Proceedings of the NATO Symposium on Language Interpretation and Communication, Venice, 1977, 335-43. New York: Plenum Press.

Robin Setton has been training conference interpreters since 1990 in various schools including ESIT and ISIT (Paris), ETI (Geneva), GITIS (Taipei, Fujen University), and currently Shanghai (GIIT/SISU) where he is in charge of the doctoral programme in interpreting studies. He holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and postgraduate degrees in Conference Interpretation, Translation, Chinese Studies and Linguistics, and has written on cognitive, linguistic and cultural aspects of interpreting.

[1] Given the scarcity of seasoned professionals available to teach in the early years of interpreter training in new language combinations, or on emerging markets, we are reluctant to rule out valuable contributions by conscientious non-interpreters with special skills and competencies who prepare themselves with a serious study of the needs of this specific type of training. But the reader will easily infer from the content of this paper that even if some team-teaching is inevitable, the core of the programme – including exams and key skills training – must be designed, (co-)taught and monitored by practising professionals in touch with market realities.. 

[2] An English translation of an earlier edition (Seleskovitch and Lederer 1989) is available: see bibliography. 

Shut up & listen

Teaching Beginners To Shut Up and Listen. A Conference Interpreter Espouses Silence.

Viaggio, Sergio

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the First Language International Conference (Elsinore, Denmark, May 31-June 2, 1991


All beginners at simultaneous interpreting falter at the flow of oral language, unaware that their short-term semantic flow of oral language, unaware that his short-term semantic memory can be managed more efficiently if used to store units of meaning rather than discrete words. Beginners must learn to listen for sense from the start and focus1 on the exact words used. At first, interpreters will spend too much time listening, most of the remainder processing, and then have to make do with speaking only a few words. Rather than process and speak all of the discourse, part of it incorrectly, they need to learn to say nothing. The only exception to this is when they have begun a phrase they don’t understand; at that point they should finish the phrase well, soon, and non-committally. No interpreter can translate what he or she cannot understand, but a good interpreter will manage to convey the sense without repeating each phrase. (MSE)

Teaching beginners to shut up and listen.

A conference interpreter espouses silence

by Sergio Viaggio, U.N.

The crucial insight to have come from translatoloqists is the distinction between linguistic meaning and extra-linguistic sense. The Paris school defines sense as the vouloir dire, and –French denying them a proper way of lexically distinguishing both concepts– they talk about sens and effets de sens for meaning and sense respectively. Peter Newmark has brilliantly, if –to my mind– unconvincingly, opposed this distinction. Still, if the question can be argued with respect to translation, it is definitely moot when it comes to interpretation. That I know of, with the rarest exception of two outstanding colleagues of mine who came to be interpreters down the slope of parliamentary stenography, no consecutive interpreter takes down ‘words’; an occasional key lexeme (normally only the root) yes, but that is all. What they write down is sense, and do they do it extra- linguistically! All manner of doodling miles away from any script known to anybody but themselves. By the time it is their turn to speak up, the ‘words’ they heard and understood a few seconds earlier have all but vanished. What they have in their hands is a conceptual –not semantic– framework to flesh out.

In simultaneous interpretation, the time lapse between hearing and uttering is much shorter, of course, short enough for the magic seven last words to be still stored in the short-term semantic memory.1 / It is possible, then, for the simultaneous interpreter to remember, translate and utter ‘words’. Too bad! Because it normally conspires against understanding, processing and conveying sense. The first problem the would-be interpreter faces when trying his teeth is that of managing the three competing efforts of understanding, processing and delivering2 I therefore advocate tackling them in stages from first to third. There are, in my experience, two kind & of beginners: those who have a good comprehension of oral speech and those who find it somewhat difficult to work with oral as opposed to written texts. Many beginners who have started off as translators fall within this latter category. I advise them to take the time to get used to speech and its specific variables: diction, accent, perspicuity or incompetence, etc. It shouldn’t normally take too long, provided the material is there to work with. The basic point is not to begin one’s training until one has ma e certain that oral comprehension is no problem.

But even when oral comprehension poses no difficulty, every beginner stumbles upon trying to say it all without having bothered to understand any of it. It sounds stupid, but it is actually not. What really happens is that the beginner intuitively feels that those words are well nigh instantly vanishing from his memory: if he doesn’t dispatch them right away, they’ll be lost forever! What he is not aware of is that short-term semantic memory can be managed more efficiently if instead of using it to store ‘words’, the interpreter employs it to organize chunks of sense, the unités de sens so (justifiably) dear to the Parisians.

If I ask you to remember at first hearing 49 unconnected digits, say 1-3-6-8-9-9-1-2-8-5-6-4-3-8-9-5-6-9 etc. there is absolutely no way you can do it. Now, if I mention the names of seven friends of yours, you will almost certainly be able to recall them, and if you do, you won’t have any problem in coming up with the forty-nine (seventy, if we throw the area code into the bargain) digits of their respective telephone numbers. What happens is that each series of seven (or ten) figures becomes one number, and therefore a single unit of information (interchangeable with, say, the nickname of the person) to be stored up in the short-term memory. Now let us attempt a related experiment: try and memorize on first reading the following numbers:

1774-1776- 1861-1865-1914-1918-1939-1945.

If you managed to store American Revolution-civil War-First World War-second world War you didn’t have any problem, right? What you did was reduce the 32 digits to eight numbers to four units of sense. It should have been more difficult than going from the friends’ names to their telephones.

Why? Because it took more processing. You had to make sense out of those numbers. If for whatever reason you failed to do exactly that, chances are you could not remember all of them. Notice that this kind of association is anything but linguistic: it has to do, not with our familiarity with the language (the numbers are in no specific language!), but with our knowledge of the world; not with the dictionary, but with the encyclopaedia3 We are relating and processing conceptual information which at either end of the decoding-recoding channel can and normally does acquire linguistic form.
Comprehension works very much the same way. The easier it is to reduce the myriad sounds or graphic imprints to linguistic signs (the ability to understand oral or written speech), the easier it becomes to make out the linguistic meaning of the utterance (the ability to understand the language); and the sooner the words and constructions can be reduced to units of sense (the ability to understand texts), the sooner and more accurately can the hearer/reader make out the message, i.e. the sense being conveyed, at which point he won’t need the words anymore (and too bad if he does, because he simply shall not be able to remember them)• Another way of stating the same thing is to speak not in terms of sentences (linguistic) but of propositions (logical); linguistic decoding becomes therefore discourse analysis. Understanding the message rather than the words –or, if you are adamant– together with the words (but more importantly than them). Now, as we saw with our numbers above, inferring sense requires establishing a conceptual relationship between the linguistic and the extra- linguistic. The beginner must be taught to do precisely this; he must, from the very start and always ever after, be listening for sense. It is not that easy, though, in view of the many other things he thinks he’s got to do at the same time: Understanding all the words, remembering all the words; translating all the words, and saying all the words, while understanding, remembering and translating all the words that have meanwhile come in. with so many tasks in hand, who’s got spare time to understand sense! The beginner ought to be weaned from words right away. There’s no alternative.

The beginner (and would that only the beginner!) tends to cling to words, not even semantic meaning: as soon as he believes he has grasped a word he spits out the first dictionary equivalent that cores to his fretted mind. Syntax gets appallingly shortchanged and sense more often than not altogether lost or, worse, distorted. There’s only one way for him to make out sense: shut up and listen for it. There is no way to convey sense if one has not grasped it to begin True, occasionally, word substitution can do the trick, but only at times and then awkwardly. Toboot,wordsubstitutionistoolongandcumbersome a process. There are always many short-cuts to sense; the interpreter must train himself to find them quickly and taka them without fear. since understanding gets top priority, h must do more listening than talking, and never –and I mean NEVER– allow himself to open his mouth without being reasonably sure of what he is going to say, i.e. without a plan, a strategy, which, by definition, will of necessity be conscious, the product of thought. His plan may very well consist in NOT ‘saying’ anything, just fill in what would otherwise be too long a silence with phatic language, or, better still, with information that can be safely disposed of without burning any bridges, while waiting for more ‘circumstantial evidence’ of the speaker’s communicative intentions.

The bane of the beginner is that he starts talking too soon and that he talks too much. Both go hand in hand, since if he waits longer, he won’t be able to talk that long. He must be taught –nay, forced– to listen, and to listen the right way. His constant concern should be: what is the speaker saying? why? what does he expect to achieve by it? I know it sounds like asking too much; but I am certain it is not. Unless the discourse analyst is constantly at work, the interpreter cannot hear sense. I remember my stint in Havana shortly after the 1987 earthquake in Mexico City. I had brought with me dozens of speeches taped during that session of the General Assembly; needless to say, every single one of them began with the ritual dithyrambs to the President and the secretary General, immediately followed by the condolences about the tragedy. Nine beginners –and a couple of veterans– out of tenendedupcongratulatingtheMexicansontheirearthquake. Many of them did not even realise it until they actually heard themselves over the loudspeakers. Two things had happened simultaneously: first, the interpreter had taken the speaker for granted (“Let me congratulate you, Mr. President… I should also like to express my thanks and appreciation to our secretary- General… I must as well add my condolences to the Government and people of Mexico…”) Unable to remember all the words, they retained ‘Government and people of Mexico’ and missed ‘condolences’ altogether. That should not be any problem. Back then, a few weeks after the horrible event, Mexico was synonymous with earthquake. The moment one heard ‘Mexico’, one knew –or should have known– that the earthquake was looming in the next clause. But since most of my students were not ‘thinking’, i.e. having ‘sense’ in mind; since they were not asking themselves ‘what is this man talking about and why?’ hey never paused to ponder what the Government and people of Mexico were doing in the illustrious company of the President of the General Assembly and the secretary- General. The sheer mention of Mexico should have played the trick we used to retrieve numbers: it acts with respect to the expression of condolences in a way analogous to 1939-1945 in connection to the Second World war. It activates the relevant chunk of our knowledge of the world, which, in turn, does the same thing for the interpreter’s audience: it activates their knowledge, and that is precisely the reason why the interpreter is normally able to get away with practically any ‘activating ‘ formula – exactly the same way any other speaker can4.

Some of my students tried to excuse themselves by complaining that ‘at that speed’ they did not have the time to think. They failed to realise that they did indeed: once one has understood the one word ‘Mexico’, ‘to the Government and people of‘, ‘condolences’, and ‘I would be remiss to my humanitarian duty if I failed to express my deep’ are of no avail, regardless of whether the interpreter has understood and/or remembered them; any expression of sympathy will do, the shorter the better. Naturally, this is a very special case. It happens at the very beginning of the speech, it does not require –in that situation, i.e. back then– a profound analysis, and it does not really matter how it is linguistically solved. Things become much harder when we are dealing, not with the niceties of polite society, but with the meat of an argument. Granted. But the method to approach and solve both types of instances is the same, and, as with everything else, one should learn by first applying it when it is easier.

It should be pointed out that I am not suggesting that words actually used by the speaker or the interpreter (or, indeed, the translator) never matter. Far from it. What I am saying, though, is that their relevance is secondary to the sense they are meant to make, and that, when confronted with the impossibility of rendering both words and sense, the interpreter must invariably choose the latter over the for:K· In this respect, I am as adamant as the most recalcitrant Parisians. It follows,therefore, that the beginner is to be taught to opt systematically for sense, both as a listener and as a speaker. It further follows that sense and linguistic meaning (i.e. the semantic meaning of the words as organized by the syntax of the original) seldom if ever do match one to one. There will always be more words than actually needed to convey sense, be it because the language structurally necessitates them, or because the speaker is being repetitive or expansive, either out of a legitimate rhetorical choice or through shear incompetence. It is the job of the interpreter to pursue that sense, grasp it, and then convey it. These three tasks are the non-linguistic counterparts of analysing acoustical perceptions in order to detect linguistic forms, processing the latter, and producing new linguistic material. The perception and analysis of speech should be as automatic as possible the seasoned interpreter will stop to become a are of words only when unable to ‘gloss’ over them and proceed directly from sound to sense5. Next comes the elaboration of the interpreter’s own elocution plan; he has linguistically to inform this sense (if possible and necessary- -it may be immaterial– with the closest form, semantically and stylistically). Lastly comes utterance, with proper attention to intonation, etc.

I mentioned the three competing efforts. Astonishingly enough, I have come across at least one colleague who believes it to be nonsense. A simple introspection will suffice, I hope, to prove they are there all right, and very much vying with each other, to boot. When we have trouble with the quality of the acoustic input, b e it because the speaker is looking away from the microphone, or because his accent is thick, in short, when there is ‘noise’ in the channel, we press the earphones (both of them, for once) to our temples, seal our eyelids, sit on the edge of our seats and… shut up. As soon as we decipher enough linguistic information, we send a teleqramme with it, something like: “… I … agree … with … France.” How many times this is what the audience is left with out of a speech that went “Witu regards to dah commantsu ofu pleviuspekah’s ploposu we bereave to be positivu.” How the deuce can we decode that as “With regards to the comments of the previous speaker’s proposal, we believe to be positive”, which in turn has to b e understood to mean “With regard to the proposal made by the previous speaker during his comments, we believe it is positive,” without shutting up and listening tight? What time will there be left to say “En cuanto a la propuests que el orador anterior formulara en el curao de sus comentarios, creem os que es positive?”6.  Listening has used up almost all of our time and effort; processing, about seventy percent of whatever is left; elocution has to make do with three or four words. It has happened to all of us. I submit the beginner finds himself in such an extreme situation at every turn. For him, most phrases sound like the above one; he has no alternative, than, but to do as we do in those circumstances: shut up and listen, think hard and say little. And if he is left with no time to say anything at all, let him not say anything at all then: in interpreter training the alternative to the right interpretation is not a wrong one, but none whatsoever. Death by silence is better and more dignified than death by inanity. Besides, the beginner ought to know that the teacher is aware of his predicament and sympathises with him. Silence, on its part, should never mean idleness, but quiet and hard work: trying to understand, seeking to make out sense. If no sense could be made out, there is simply nothing to say.

In the case of the mention of ‘Mexico’ –as in the example of the unintelligible speaker– though faced with different problems altogether, the interpreter puts to work the same method: he looks for sense. In the first instance, ‘Mexico’ alone, regardless of its linguistic embedding, is enough to infer the preposition behind the utterance (‘the earthquake in Mexico is a very sad thing’); he does not need the rest of the words, unless he is out to come up with a formally closer translation (totally unnecessary in this specific situation, even with the Mexican delegation themselves among the audience). In the second one, no single word is enough; indeed, no single word is easily identi- fied; careful and concentrated listening allows to decipher one word here and another there, but not on the basis of phonic resemblance alone, rather, the interpreter co-relates what he hears to what he knows; phonic resemblance, as a matter of fact, enters into play ex post facto: ‘bereave’ sounds much more like ‘bereave’ than like ‘believe,’ but, since it does not make sense, the interpreter doesn’t even consider ‘bereave’ and goes on with his search7. To begin with he knows the most important thing: the speaker is not crazy; he is definitely trying to make some sense8. Grice has called this the maxim of relevance. In this, he is counting –as every normal speaker in any normal situation– on his audience being willing to understand. It is what Grice has called the maxim of ‘co-operation’. As a keenly interested listener, the interpreter is more than eager to understand; unlike any other interlocutor, he cannot simply dismiss the speaker as incompetent; he gives him the utmost benefit of the doubt. He knows that the speaker is trying to ‘say’ something, that ‘something’can be reduced to a proposition or to a hierarchical series of propositions. The semantic clues are ‘previous speaker,’ ‘proposal’ and ‘positive’. Part of the interpreter’s knowledge of the situation is that the previous speaker has been the delegate of France; therefore, what the speaker is trying to say is that he agrees with the proposal by France. That is the proposition, that –and, in the circumstances, just that– is all the interpreter needs to know and is able to say. The communication has, therefore, been assured and the interpreter has succeeded at his job. It is precisely what he is being paid for! Notice that this achievement has been possible despite the language. It would have been much easier if the speaker had merely nodded in assent: his gesture would have been much clearer than his English.

Am I advocating that interpreters never open their mouths unless they are absolutely certain that they have thoroughly understood the speaker’s sense and have completely thought out their own speech? Come on! We know better. We know when we can get away with things and when we cannot; when it is unethical to lie and when it is equally unethical not to come up with an educated guess. And we should let our students in on that. But  they cannot normally allow themselves such liberty, they have to discipline themselves into listening for and making sense. Picasso did not draw square faces simply because he could not manage to draw them round. One acquires the right to bend the rules only when one has finally mastered them. There is, to my mind, only one kind of situation in which the beginner can be allowed –and even encouraged– to ‘lie’, and that is when he has started talking and hasn’t gotten the foggiest idea of where he’s going. In that case yes, the phrase must be finished, well and soon, and, most important,non-committally. Inotherwords,thebeginnerrealises that he has lied already: he has spoken as if he knew what to say and now discovers he does not; his three choices are a) to go on lying and say any monstrosity, b) to cut himself short in mid- sentence and die, or c) to stop lying but finish the sentence. It is the only time I advise my students against shutting up; when it is already too late. The only antidote is not to speak out too soon.

Mentioned has been made of Grice’s maxims of conversation (i.e. speech acts); that analysis and its development by, among others, Austin, Searle, Katz, Fodor and, more recently and relevantly to our profession, van Dijk, proves invaluable9. It reorients our search away from words and towards sense. Needless to say, good interpreters are perfectly able to do exactly that without any theoretical scaffolding, although a solid scientific base would go a long way to make them even better. The didactician, on the other hand, simply cannot do without it: in order to explain the need to listen for sense, he needs to be able himself to establish the distinction and use it. Never mind, of course, whether he has actually read Grice (I, for one, have not), or any of the others – let alone ask the students to do it; but he must be able to operate with the concepts, otherwise he won’t be in a position to instill them. There is always a reason to do or not to do things; its explanation –any explanation– is, by definition, theoretical; the didactician can, if he chooses, come up with his own insights and terminology; but what’s the point of re-inventing the wheel? Most of these things have been studied, systematized and baptized already and the literature is out there up for grabs.

At times –and much more infrequently than most interpreters believe– it is indeed necessary to ‘say it all’; what with all those Presidents and Prime Ministers and media pundits, who would dare reduce Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech to its macropropositions, right? Absolutely right! Every listener is clinging to his earphones, trying not to miss any single word or turn of phrase . But I submit that, unless the interpreter or any other listener is very much mindful precisely of the sequence and hierarchization of macropropositions and propositions, he’s bound to get lost and miss or betray sense. And I’ve got proof: At one point, Gorbachev said ‘Eto sosud bes sodershanija’, the English interpreter properly rendered it as ‘this is an empty vessel’, and I gave some vent to my poetic imagination and came up with ‘este es un continente sin contenido’. The Spanish verbatim reporters, who did not know Russian, later compared their Spanish version with the English one and noticed the discrepancy; I was duly corrected on the spot, whereupon Gorbachev ended up saying ‘esta es una embarcacion vacia’ (‘this is an empty boat’)! If you do not care about sense, words will lead you astray, ‘saying it all’ means conveying the whole of the same sense with as many of the stylistic and semantic nuances as can be possibly reproduced on the spot without abusing one’s target language. ‘Saying it a11’ presupposes, first and foremost, ‘understanding it all’, and who can ‘understand it all’ unless he has understood the gist and general drift of the speaker’s speech? Noone–andmostcertcinlynobeginner–will be ableto ‘say it all’ who cannot make out the basic propositions; whereas any good interpreter will at times find it impossible to

‘say it all’, but always manage to convey all of the sense.

‘Saying it all’ is the beginners last task, not the first one, and one should not try and teach them the other way around. Yes, I know, that is precisely how most of us were taught, but that’s no excuse for taking revenge on our students.


1/ For the dynamics of short- and long-term memory, see Seleskovitch and Lederer (1981) and (1984).

2/ See Daniel Gile’s insightful articles.

3/ By the same token, reducing several word& to one unit of sense multiplies four- or fivefold the amount of information our short- term memory can hold for us. sense being non-linguistic, those unite can, as our friends’ numbers, be labeled ad libitum, the shorter the label the better.

4/ It is, after all, one of the basic rules of speech, and since interpretation is just a specific way of speaking, the same rules apply. I cannot refrain from quoting Mariano Garcia Landa’s gem of a definition: ‘To translate is to speak in order to say what has already been said – in another language, of course. The concept is very aptly discussed by Seleskovitch and Lederer throughout their writings.

5/ Mariano Garcia Landa has a fantastic example which I cannot resist quoting in full: “If one isolates comprehension from perception,themodeloflinguisticperceptionbecomesreducedto a sheer model of sensorial perception of linguistico-acoustic waves. To avoid such an error, we propose the theory of the perception of symbolic forms, whose essence is as follows: let the read r suppose he is driving along a highway at 80 miles an hour and, suddenly, he sees & red circle on a white background with a black number 50 in the middle. The reader slows down. A few miles down the road, a psychologist stops him and asks: what substance was that circle made of, metal, plastic or wood? what was the outer red circle’s diameter? The reader will answer that he had no time to notice those details, which, besides, are absolutely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the symbol’s meaning [‘sense’ in Spanish!, S.V.] And yet, in order to understand the meaning of that sign –the meaning it has when standing on the right hand side of the highway, not the semantics it would have if it were lying in a municipal storehouse for traffic signs or the one it might have if it appeared in a dream– it is absolutely necessary sensorially to ‘perceive’ the physical support. The same happens with speech. ((1985a), p.181)

6/ A most ‘unfaithful’ rendering, by the way, since abhorrent Japglish has been turned into elaborate Spanish… I wonder how people who, like Peter Newmark, refuse to distinguish meaning from sense would go about translating such a speaker. I dare, moreover, my colleagues of the ‘literalist’ persuasion to reproduce that style in public!

7/ A thick foreign a cent is, precisely, the example Gile (1989) mentions as one of his triggerers of ‘deficitary’ concatenations.

8/ Peter Newmark puts it brilliantly: “…Be assured of one thing: the writer [and in our case the speaker], S.V.] must have known what he wanted to say: he would never have written a drop of nonsense in the middle of a sea of sense.” ((1988), p. 34)

9/ And also the omnipresent Garcia Landa. He cautions, however, that for him, speech acts are not limited just to •meaning meant’, but also encompass ‘meaning perceived’ ((1985a) p. 174 and (1990), chapter 2, p. 8); a crucial addition. Watch out for this latter book. I read but an incomplete, at times telegraphic torso, and believe tile, there’s a masterpiece in the making!


BERTONE, L.: (1989) En torno de Babel. Estrategias de la interpretacion simultanea, Hachette, Buenos Aires.

DELMAS, c.: (1988) “Acces au metalinquistique natural de la lange 2 par la traduction metalinquistique”, Meta, XXXIII-3.

GARCIALANDA,M.: {1984)”Practicayteorladelainterpretacion, cuadernos de Traduccion e InterpretaciOn, 4, Barcelona.

-1984a) “Analisis del Concepto de Traduccion”, Traducao e Comunicacao, 4, Sao Paulo.

-(,985) “L’oralite de la traduction orale”, Meta, XXX-1.

DARO, v.: (1989) “The Role of Memory and Attention in Simultaneous Interpretation: An Experimental Study”, Intergreters’ Newsletter 2, Trieste.

GILE, D.: (1984) “Des difficultes de la transmission

informationelle en interpretation simultanee”, Babel, xxx-

-(1985) “L’interpretation de conference et la connaissance des langues: Quelquesreflexions”,Meta,XXX-4.
-(1985a) “Le modele d’efforts et 1’equilibre d’interpretation en interpretation simultanee”, Meta, XXX-1.
-(1988) “Le partaqe de l’attention et le ‘modele d’effort’ en interpretation simultanee”, in \Interpreters’ Newsletter, 1, Trieste.

-(1985a) La teori de la traduccion y la psicoloqia experimental de los procesos de percepcion del lenguaje, Estydios de Psicoloa1a, 19-20, Madrid.

-(1990) Teorla del bable traductoro,readfrommanuscript.

-(1988a) “An overview of Conference Interpretation Research and Theory”, proceedinga of the 29th ATA Annual conference, Learned Information, Inc., Medford, N.J.

KATZ, J. J.: (1980)PropositionalstructureandIllocutionary Force, Cambridge University Press.

LAMBERT,S.: (1988)”AHumanInformationProcessingandCognitive Approach to the Training o! Simultaneous Interpreters”, Proceedings of the 29th ATA Annual Conference, Learned Information, Inc.,Medford, N.J.

LEDERER, M.: (1976) Synecdoque et traduction, Etudes de Linguistique Appliquee, 24.

-(1985) “L’interpretation, manifestation elementaire de la traduction”, Meta, XXX-1.

MACKINTOSH, J.: ( 1985) “The Kintsch and Van Dijk Model of Discourse Comprehension and Production Applied to the Interpretation Process”, Meta, XXX-1.

NEWMARK, P.: (1988)ATextbookofTranslation,PrenticeHall, London.

RUSSO, Ch,.: (1989)”TextProcessingstrategies: AHypothesisto Assess Student’s Aptitude for Simultaneous Interpretation, Interpretation: A Neurolinguistic Approach”, Interpreters’ Newsletter, 2, Trieste.

SEARLE,J.: (1987)ExpressionandMeaning,CambridgeUniversity P ress.

–(1987) Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, ibid.

SELESKOVITCH,D.: (1989)”TeachingConferenceInterpreting”,ATA Series, vol. III, SUNY, Binghampton.

SELESKOVITCH,D.andLEDERER,M.: (1981)Latraductionsimultante. Experience et theorie, Paris.

-(1984) Interpreter pour traduire, Paris, Didier Erudition. VAN DAM, I. M.: (1986) “Strategies of Simultaneous

Interpretation”, Proceedings of the 27th Annual Conference of

the ATA, Medford, NJ.
VAN DIJK T. A.: (1980) Estructuras y funciones del discurso,

Siglo XXI, Mexico, 1980.
-(1988) La ciencia del texto. un enfoque interdisciplinario,

Paidos, Barcelona, 1973.

VIAGGIO, S.: (1988) “Teaching Translation to Beginners, A preach continued”, Proceedings of the 29th ATA Annual Conference, Learned Information Inc., Medford, N.J.

-(1988a) “Teaching Interpretation to Beginners, or How Not to Scare then to Death”, Proceedings of the 29th ATA Annual Conference, Learned Information, Inc., Medford, N.J.

-(1989) “Teaching beginners the Blessing of Compressing and Abstracting (And Saving a Few Lives in the Process)”, Proceedings of the 30th ATA Annual Conference, Learned Information, Inc., Medford, N.J.

VIEZZI, M.: (1989) “Information Retention as Parameter for the Comparison of Sight Translation and Simultaneous Interpretation: An Experimental Study”, Interpreters’ Newsletter, 2, Trieste.

Reading about simultaneous

Conference Interpreting Explained.

Jones, Roderick. 1998 Routledge.

THE book!
Almost all you’ll ever need to know about how to do this job.

You will find a number of extracts, or links to extracts from this book on the site, for example, on when to start speaking in simultaneous.

For a review click here!

To read an interview with R.J. click here!

Conference Interpreting – A Complete Course

Robin Setton and Andrew Dawrant

“This comprehensive coursebook sets out an updated step-by-step programme of training, designed to meet the increasingly challenging conditions of the 21st century, and adaptable by instructors with the appropriate specializations to cover all these different applications in contemporary practice “

Pédagogie raisonnée de l'interprétation

Pedagogie Raisonnee de l’Interpretation, by Lederer and Seleskovitch. Didier Erudition 2002

Download the full work as a pdf

Aimed at teachers this book is still worth reading for students. It encapsulates the methodology that defined much of conference interpreter training for 30+years

Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator training

Gile, Daniel, 1995, Benjamins.

Quite technical and aimed at teachers. Students will still find the book very useful – particulary the chapters on Fidelity and Language Acquisition

Read a review of this book in The International Journal of Interpreter Education

L’interprete dans les conferences internationales 

Danica Seleskovitch. 1968, Cahiers Champollion

Available in English as Interpreting for International Conferences: Problems of Language and Communication

This epoch-making book defined the profession at a time when there was almost nothing else in print and Danica Seleskovitch did more than anyone to raise the profile of interpreting. 

This book remained the benchmark for 20 years and although the language, the attitude and the style have dated a little, it is still a very worthwhile read.

Conference Interpreting – Principles and Practice

Taylor-Bouladon, Valerie, Booksurge.

A very interesting, thorough and practical guide. Although aimed at an Australian audience much applies to Europe.

An extract is on this site at Tips for beginners. And another here on What to note in consecutive

You can also find a review at AIIC’s Communicate site.

Author’s home page

From Russian into English: An Introduction to Simultaneous Interpretation

Lynn Visson

Former UN staffer Visson helps navigate through the maze of simultaneous interpreting from Russian into English.

Read a review here!

Interview with Lynn Visson @ ATA Chronicle

Nolan, James, 2005, Multilingual Matters.

Put together by senior UN intepreter James Nolan, offers some good strategies for simultaneous interpreting and interesting exercises to practise the same strategies. You will need Fr, En and Es in your combination to use all the examples though. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are most useful. Don’t bother with all the language stuff.

Le manuel de l’interprete. 

Herbert, J., 1952 Geneve. Georg

Pre-history… but still one of few general books about interpreting. Out of print but available in most University libraries.

Simultaneous papers

Intonation in the production of and perception of simultaneous interpretation

In Lambert and Moser-Mercer (Eds.). Miriam Schlesinger.

Does intonation matter? You don’t believe that natural intonation is such a priority? An empirical study to show that it actual effects what the listener understands.


About simultaneous

Delivery in simultaneous

Simultaneous demos

EU Commission SCIC – SIMULTANEOUS interpreting demos

Early simultaneous training

Tips and tricks


Practising simultaneous interpreting

Booth manners

Exam & test tips