Progression in SI training
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.
Résumé : Si l’accès à la profession d’interprète de conférence passe obligatoirement par la maîtrise de la
simultanée, les conditions de son exercice sont de plus en plus exigeantes : rapidité, technicité, mélange des
genres (lecture de textes, Powerpoint etc.), retour vers le B quasiment obligatoire dans certaines combinaisons.
Les écoles doivent donc à la fois veiller à la rigueur de la préparation et de la sélection des étudiants les plus
aptes et proposer une formation progressive et intensive préparant aux réalités du marché actuel. Il est décrit une
suite d’exercices supervisés pour une formation à la simultanée en trois temps : coordination, (ii)
expérimentation et recherche d’un style individuel (ensemble cohérent de stratégies), enfin (iii) consolidation par
la pratique sur des discours diversifiés en simulant des conditions de plus en plus réalistes. La validation
empirique des pédagogies de l’interprétation étant difficile, les formateurs sont invités à expérimenter ces
exercices qui ont trouvé un écho favorable notamment sur certains marchés émergents où ces nouveaux défis se
posent de façon particulièrement aigüe.
Keywords: SI, interpreter training, expertise, progression, recited text, fast delivery, formal register, SI into B
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
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, preferably1 themselves practicing
professional interpreters; an installation simulating a real conference environment; access to speakers
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..
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:
i. 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.
ii. General knowledge and education must be deep and broad enough to ensure they are not
constantly unsaddled by alien concepts, names and entities.
iii. 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)
2. Experimentation: Experimenting with time, rhythm and lag variation (Materials: oral
speech, but with some more structured passages, and some names and numbers)
3. 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
published2, 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
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
2 An English translation of an earlier edition (Seleskovitch and Lederer 1989) is available: see bibliography.
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
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
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’
(i) 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.
(ii) (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
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 (126.96.36.199.).
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.
188.8.131.52. 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)
184.108.40.206. ‘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
220.127.116.11 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
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
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
18.104.22.168 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.
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
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
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
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
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
(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.
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.
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foreword and notes by Robin Setton and Adelina Hild. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
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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
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.
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Sachs, J. 1967. Recognition Memory for Syntactic and Semantic Aspects of Connected Discourse.
Perception and Psychophysics, 2, 437-442.
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Wilss, Wolfram. 1978. Syntactic anticipation in German-English simultaneous interpretation. In David
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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.