Is your interpreting comprehensible? Things that work to show complete beginners their interpreting mistakes

I teach both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting and it often happens that students in simultaneous – after a brief period of not being able to say a word in the booth – utter sentences that make little to no sense because they leave words out (bc of time pressure) or copy the syntactic structures of the original. They do so convinced that they are “finally really interpreting” and that their interpretation is a clear and comprehensible.


Sometimes it is rather difficult to explain to such students that what they are saying would not be understood by a non-English audience. I tried recording them and playing their recordings back right away but they knew what was being said in the original, so they got the gist – and that seemed to be enough for them.

So I went looking for ways to show them what they are doing and why we cannot leave it be. I came up with a few, tried them all and here are those that worked:

  1. Consecutive from simultaneous (back-translation)

Two people in the booth. One puts on headphones, the other does not. One interprets simultaneously, the other makes notes.

In debrief, the consecutive interpreter comes in front of the classmates and interprets the text back into English.

It is important to choose a good text for this, preferably one that gives no visual clues as to what it is about – for example somebody sitting and just talking to a camera, a speech in a parliament, etc.


  1. Transcoding from sight interpreting (back-translation)

Ideal for beginners in simultaneous. One person sits in front of the others, facing the students, with his/her back to the board.

The text to be interpreted is projected on the board (so the student sitting in the front does not see it). One of the other students does sight interpreting of the text. He stops after a larger meaningful passage (usually a sentence but may well be a paragraph) and lets the other student do an instant back-translation.

Students compare the text and what has been back-translated, make comments as to what have caused the shifts and when does the interpretation move too far away from the original.


  1. Sight interpreting with a deep analysis and reformulation

If I am lucky enough to have a transcript of a speech suitable for simultaneous interpreting, I do sight interpreting first when dealing with the “non-comprehensible issue” with beginners. But we make the sight interpreting rather detailed and very slow.

We go through each sentence and try to find the best alternative while taking into account the specific requirements of simultaneous interpreting. I often say (several times!): “OK, now shorter!” after a student tells me his/her translation of the sentence.


  1. Additional assignments in interpreting

I tell students not only to interpret but (also) to:

  • interpret so that what they say has an opposite meaning as to what the original speaker said,
  • interpret with a change of attitude (leave the facts but change the opinion and/or attitude),
  • exchange the order of information in sentence (last part comes first, etc.).

This – although not a legitimate interpreting – makes them think more about the meaning of the original and move a bit more far away from its structure.


  1. Revisiting consecutive

When all breaks down and I get the sense that students really copy the structure of the original too much, we do one consecutive session instead of the simultaneous. Consecutive interpreting happens later on and gives the interpreter time to (among other things) sound more natural. Many students just focus on simultaneous as the “goal” of the interpreting program but I tend to disagree. Consecutive is an essential part of the module and should not be neglected.


  1. Tell it to a 5-year old, explain it to your grandad

I often ask students to do a “custom-made” interpreting for a particular age group. It is a lot of fun and it also makes them think long and hard about what they say.

In the Eastern part of Slovakia, where I teach, we get many bilingual students (usually Slovak and Hungarian speaking). They often must do some form of interpreting for their grandparents or other family members when e.g. watching the Slovak TV. Their interpreting gets instantly better when asked to imagine this situation in the practice booth during our seminars.


  1. What was the speech about? (after a few weeks)

As mentioned above, playing their interpreting right back to them after they finish, may not always work. Sometimes, however, it may help if they listen to their own interpreting with hindsight, even after a few weeks. When they truly forget what the text was about, they resort to trying to make sense of their own interpreting – and this is usually a rather difficult task.


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