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Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation: Consecutive Interpretation

An interpreter typically works in one of the two primary modes of interpretation — simultaneous and consecutive. Simultaneous interpretation involves an interpreter listening to a speech and reproducing it in the target language in real time as the target audience follows along with the aid of headphones. This type of interpretation takes place during large conferences and within the majority of international organizations. Consecutive interpretation, on the other hand, requires the speaker to take pauses for the interpreter to convey the speech in the target language. This form is usually employed in business meetings, court proceedings, and medical appointments, among others.

Starting to learn the basics of consecutive interpretation has been quite the rude awakening for me. Two minutes doesn't sound like a long time, but I have since realized that to fully remember and faithfully interpret a mere two minute's worth of speech is not easy and takes all the concentration that one can muster. There are certain techniques, however, that facilitate recollection and reproduction. Whether through the use of interpreter's shorthand, mnemonic devices, or mental tricks, the art of consecutive interpretation has no dearth of aids. Practice always makes perfect, but the techniques I describe below can guide beginning interpreters in the right direction.

The consecutive interpreter's attention is divided between two activities — listening and processing information. Those two tasks combined must equal less than 100 percent of the interpreter's mental energy in order for him or her to retain and reproduce all of the information that a speaker provides, without getting caught up in lexical quandaries or meaning gaps. The tricks of the trade have their place in reducing the interpreter's cognitive load, ensuring that he or she can allot the correct amount of attention to each component of the interpretation. A critical tool of the consecutive interpreter is visualization. If, for example, a visiting dignitary makes a speech in which he lists half a dozen countries that were affected by a certain event, the interpreter conjures a world map and envisions the trajectory. Is it logical that five out of the six countries hit by an earthquake are in the Western hemisphere and the sixth is not? These sorts of feasibility checks are only possible when the interpreter is not merely listening to a speech, but employing logic and prior knowledge to understand what is being said.

Interpreters' shorthand is an indispensable tool when a speech is particularly information-dense or the speaker does not take many pauses (some consecutive interpreters must work with chunks of speech lasting upwards of 15 or 20 minutes!). An expansive system has been worked out over decades of consecutive interpretation, and many symbols — such as abbreviations for frequently-used terms and representations of verb tenses — are universal. Still, most interpreters gradually develop a set of symbols that is concise, convenient, and unambiguous for them. While every consecutive interpreter needs knowledge of the broad category of techniques and tools already developed, each person tailors those concepts based on what he or she learns after putting them to use. Stay tuned for more as theory intersects with practice in Lessons of a Graduate Student in Translation and Interpretation.

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  1. Personally, I think that professional interpreters must be super human! I completed an interpretation module when I was at university and found it extremely difficult. The hardest part of the exam was trying to concentrate instead of panicking about the speed at which people were talking!

    A reliable note taking system has surely got to be the key to successful interpreting. If you have a system which allows you to get the key information down quickly, then you will have more time to think about how to translate it instead of ending up with gaps because you haven’t been quick enough in noting all the information down. Ah, what a nightmare!

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