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How to be a better simultaneous interpreter

Sunday 23 October 2005, by Jean Bisping


My name is Jean Bisping. I am a conference interpreter from Montréal, Québec. I’m new to Babels, and I would like to offer some ideas to occasional interpreters on how to improve their skills and inspire their performance. I will use the example of an English-Portuguese interpreter, where Portuguese, as the target language, is her mother tongue, or best active language, and English is the source language. The speaker in my example will be an American activist, um… with a Southern drawl! I conclude with some personal thoughts. You may have heard some of this before, so just take what you find useful. Then go play outside!

Tools of the trade

Your best friend is a recording device. Mine uses microcassettes, and wasn’t very expensive. Oh yes, and a clock or a watch will come in handy.

Step 1 : Warming up

Take a short text in English, say, a newspaper article, read it once in silence, then dictate a “sight” translation into Portuguese, which you record. Listen to yourself. It’s good mental gymnastics and it keeps your vocabulary closer to the surface, which is where you want it. If you don’t do it regularly, then perhaps practice for a week or two before any Social Forum where you will work. Vary American and British English, to practice your ear.

Simultaneous interpreting is not a natural activity. Just like playing the piano is not natural. Both have to be learned and practiced. Or it may feel natural to you, like making love, but you can still improve as a lover, with practice!

In simultaneous work, you listen to the speaker AND to yourself, to monitor what you say. The sound of your own voice may distract you. So start with some “shadowing”. Listen to TV or radio on a local station, with headphones if you can, and repeat exactly what you hear, out loud. Do it nonstop for five minutes.

When you feel comfortable doing that, move to a half a second, or more, AFTER the speaker, talking at the same time as they do, out loud, but with a delay between the original content and your repetition. Don’t catch up! Stay behind. Be sure you can hear the speaker and yourself clearly – you can move one side of the headphones a bit off the ear to hear your own voice – but don’t start boosting the volume of the headphones, it will only force you to speak more and more loudly. Later, in the booth, neither colleagues nor audiences appreciate that. You will strain your voice. As much as possible, keep a calm, conversational tone.

Go for another five minutes, but now record it. Stop, listen. Practice until you are happy with the result. Next, instead of delayed repeating, start reformulating the ideas, using synonyms when you can, expressing the same ideas in a different way, always in Portuguese. Try to sound natural. Oh yes, avoid news bulletins, which are highly condensed. Go for interviews, dialogue, and the like. Speeches, if you can find some.

This kind of shadowing exercise may help you to break a habit of some occasional interpreters, who wait for the speaker to pause before they begin to interpret. They shoot out rapid bursts of content, then stop to listen, followed by more quick talking, etc. Unpleasant for the audience. You want to be smmoooth!

Step 2 : The nitty-gritty

Never forget you are COMMUNICATING. This requires ACTIVE listening. You want to understand what the speaker MEANS (his ideas) more than WHAT he says (the words). The quicker, the better you understand the meaning, at each moment of the speech, the freer you are to create your own speech, to reformulate his ideas with the full richness of the Portuguese language, while respecting the content of the English original. Remember, you are a public speaker too, and your audience wants to hear a Portuguese speech, not a Portuguese translation of an English speech.

Ok, stop everything! Breathe in as completely, as deeply as you can, then expire slowly. Reach inside to the most tranquil place you know. Release your shoulders. Close your eyes for a moment, savour the moment, the soft contours of your body at peace. You are a blade of grass in a cool breeze. Remember how it feels. This is important! Ready? Now take my hand, and follow me to a another, mysterious dimension, where time will be your constant, bitter foe, yet where a fraction of a second is your best friend. You may panic, want to flee. Don’t be afraid - you will lose track of time, you will forget you exist, you will disappear completely for long moments until you finally come back to earth, exhausted.

Where did we go? To that state of complete and total focus, the highest possible form of human concentration you can imagine, where simultaneous interpreters disappear to when they are working. That’s were YOU want to be! You will be alone, but you won’t have time to notice!

Why insist on the calm? Because everything conspires against it. Because you cannot work well if you do not master your nerves. There will be a sharp conflict in your mind, where two galaxies collide – the world of the speaker, and the parallel universe you create for your audience. Both rushing through space-time. Your emotions will run high. To whom should you be more loyal? To the speaker? Of course, says the speaker! But no, to us! to us! exclaims the audience with one voice, as they all turn around to stare at you! Remember, the speaker can’t hear you, but they can! Take good care of them. Speak, as far as is possible, in short, simple sentences, that are grammatical, that make sense. Finish EVERY sentence you start. You want to keep their trust.

Take full advantage of your mastery of Portuguese, your mother tongue. In your choice of words, be as efficient as possible, giving the most meaning with the least words, because you are under constant time pressure, and every second counts. You are allowed to simplify. You are allowed to avoid repetitions in the original. Seek economy of expression everywhere. Your first duty is not so much to be faithful to the speaker’s words, but to convey his message, to maximize communication. Remain as calm as you can throughout.

The speaker’s message is not only in his words. What is the general context of the speech? Absorb all the sources of meaning from the speaker. During the speech, watch his body language, feel his intonation, anticipate as much as you can what his message is going to be, what direction the speech is taking. You want to minimize surprises! With each word the speaker pronounces, the number of possibilities for the rest of that sentence diminishes, so if you stay too close to the speaker, out of fear of losing something, you are making it MORE difficult for yourself, you will become a prisoner of the English syntax of the original. You will not be able to let the genius of the Portuguese language take flight and soar in all its beauty over the skies of Porto Alegre!

Of course you will run into lexical, conceptual and translation problems. You won’t always know when to start speaking, how close to stay to the speaker, who may have a strange and difficult accent, or go too fast! You may get stuck on a word, mishear a number… That’s when you will need extra time to find a solution. Just don’t lose your thread. Don’t obsess about a single word. Work around it. You may miss the whole next sentence. There may be some silence. It’s OK. These things happen to the best interpreters. It will happen to you. Interpreting can then be quite stressful. But when you are at the microphone, the audience is on your side, they are just waiting for your linguistic decisions, and you alone will make them. You will find a way. You are the captain of the ship. You have to trust your love of language, the thousands of words you know, the hundreds of expressions that have given you pleasure. And your hours of practice too! The answer is in your mind, and your total concentration will help you find it. If you panic, you perish. Remain focused.

And record yourself, of course. As soon as you have a chance, listen to yourself. It takes courage, but you will improve much faster that way!

Step 3: Odds and ends

The better you prepare yourself, the better you will be. Gather as much background material as possible before each conference. If you can meet the speaker before, don’t be shy! Go introduce yourself, shake his hand, tell him who you are, what you will be doing. Listen to his accent! If you don’t yet have a copy of the speech, try to get one from him. Ask him what his general thrust is, his general line of reasoning, you are a human sponge.

On a more general level, you read a lot in Portuguese: newspapers, magazines and novels. You broaden your vocabulary and improve your style. As soon as you learn a new expression, try to use it in real life. To be able to convey nuances and use the language like a master, to be a verbal contortionist! You also deepen your understanding of English, its quirks and foibles. Never let an unknown English word go by without looking it up! Ravenously curious, you are an active collector – of ideas, notions, words and expressions – the universe of human experience is your playground.

Everyone has their own tools, but may I share some of my preferences? For taking notes in a booth I use a top-spiral steno pad with lined pages and a line down the middle (15x28 cm). It’s a nice size, and it makes it easy to make word lists. I also like to have index cards (12x20 or smaller) at hand where I can jot down frequently re-occurring acronyms or useful abbreviations, always under my eyes. When you know the IMF, WTO, WB, and WHO are going to be mentioned, you’d be crazy not to make a list in advance! Two color pens, and a yellow highlighter help me too. I’ve found it useful to have a small clock on the table so that we can synchronize tours in the booth more easily.

We have been asked to practice compassion towards inexperienced interpreters. I would like to express the idea of reciprocity! Professionals experience normal human apprehension when faced with a new situation, a new speaker, a new context. Like a professional stage actor. Conference work remains a difficult task, and 10 years of experience makes you feel more comfortable in the booth, but it gives you no privilege, the speaker will speak just as fast and create the same difficulties for you. It’s very democratic in that way! So if you sense the speech is difficult, you would be welcome to stay in the booth to help your experienced colleague, to write down numbers, to get more water if your well runs dry, to get documents that are being distributed, etc. I am saying all this to invite compassion for the experienced colleagues!

Well, that’s all from me for today! Good luck! If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, feel free to write me. Hope to have the pleasure of meeting you in Porto Alegre, of working with you one day, and sharing a chuckle over the human condition!


P.S. By the way, have you heard of the “Mozart Effect”? Certain research subjects performed better at cognitive tasks after listening to complex classical music…Who knows, maybe this could be your secret weapon – a walkman!

Forum posts

  • Hello, Jean

    I love this enlightening piece of writing you have done. I’ve never seen a simultaneous interpreter in my life, and the news says they are extremely rare (I’m Chinese and I live in China). Generally speaking, they give the public a cool and mysterious impression. As a result, I read your article in a daze.

    I’m going to school to learn simultaneous interpretation next month. It will take two years.

    It would be a big surprise for me if you ever email me, because I really cannot imagine how it would feel like when a simultaneous interpreter talks to me...

    Nathan Cheng

    • Hello Nathan!

      Thank-you for your kind words, and happy to learn you shall soon partake of our wily and mysterious ways, floating in the rarefied air of arcane cross-cultural minutiae and split-second surprise endings galore! Do not fear to tread when wet or sweat the lead and you may just be ready in time to work at the 2008 Olympics! That would indeed be a wondrous way to start your resumé, don’t you think?

      You seem to have a peculiar name for a Chinese national, don’t you think? How does one get to be named Nathan in China in this day and age, praytell? Are Western names becoming popular, for instance? Hmm, does that bode well?

      Anyhow, be well, and good luck in your studies!

      J. B.

      View online : Interpreting skills

  • Hi Jean,

    I don’t know if you still come around to check replies to your article, but its quality deserves a try.

    Thanks for it. Unusually enlightening.

    I too am writing you from China, but do not anticipate to also change my life simply by replying to my message, hehe. Sorry about the joke.

    I am an interpreter from Galicia, Spain. I am fluent in 7 languages, interpret in 5 and now I’m learning Chinese in Beijing.

    I have worked at the UN, US Senate, etc., and with my humble experience I can only confirm that all of your advice is right on target. It should be published (I guess it already is).

    Keep up your great work.

    Anyone, please write me at UnitedNationsOrganization@hotmail.com

    • Hello, Anyone!

      Did chance a meander back to myself here and lo and behold, Galicia beckons from China, no less! Thanks for your kind words, all jokes eschewing dark legerdemain I shall inscribe with feigned gravitas on your eschatological ledger, and you shall be justly rewarded for any and all chuckles provoked in the name of mirth and bliss. Why is it human only to err? It is likewise human to laugh and cry and sing and sweep through life like the wind over the waves or our days, n’est-ce pas? So here and now, how goes the Mandarin? I work in solely two languages, and am still seeking perfection. I simply cannot imagine working with as many languages as you - it is both wondrous and miraculous, from the outside - I simply hope it is not folly from the inside! Good luck, anyhow!


  • How far away can one be? I’ve just read your article. I’m working in Nouakchott Mauritania as a simultaneous interpreter in French and English but can also do Portuguese when called upon ( although I must say that I am slower in this language)
    I was faced with an unusual situation last week where participants in a conference were reading their texts at breakneck speed. The text was in Word and showed up on the screen and I was looking at the text and listening to the speaker at the same time. He was going so fast that I almost had no time to breathe. Completely crazy since I was the only interpreter at the conference. In fact I missed one or two entire sentences because of the speed and mentioned this to the people listening to the translation.
    In Nouakchott simultaneous is tough because the equipment doesn’t always work so you find yourself walking out of the booth, taking the headphones off, listening with your ears and talking into the mike!
    Please feel free to contact me one of these days if you want to exchange thoughts on the subject of interpretation.
    Best regards
    Patrick Dumont