A story about consecutive interpretation:
In the early days of conference consecutive interpretation there was a genius interpreter, who could listen to a 2 hour speech and then deliver his interpretation flawlessly. Instead of taking notes, he would take a sheet of paper and start drawing the speaker’s portrait. Then, when it was his time to interpret, he would “read” from the portrait, because every line and notch associated with him mind with a speaker’s idea. At the end of his interpretation, he would gift the portrait to the speaker!
What is consecutive interpretation?
In consecutive interpretation the interpreter repeats in the target language the passage that the speaker has just said in the source language. Strictly speaking, consecutive interpretation exists in two configurations:
• long consecutive – the speaker can say not just one of two sentences, but a passage or several passages. Students of professional consecutive interpretation should be easily able to listen to the original passage of up to 5 minutes and to deliver their interpretation after that.
In some cases interpreters have been known to deliver 30 minute passages. This mode of interpretation is better suited for official or diplomatic occasions, when the speaker must have an opportunity to deliver an entire speech and cannot be interrupted.
• short consecutive – usually only one or two sentences are said and sometimes even a part of a sentence. This mode is more interactive and requires faster turn-taking between the speaker and the interpreter.
This mode is used more often and is better when the speaker wants to establish rapport with the audience or when there is active interaction between the speaker and the audience as in Q&A sessions, for example, or lectures in front of live audience.
What situations are the most suitable for consecutive interpretation?
Any situation you can imagine. Keep in mind, however, that consecutive interpretation may take twice more time and plan your speech accordingly. Consecutive interpretation is suitable for large conferences, bilateral meetings, interviews, panel discussions and business talks.
Nowadays, however, international organizations such as the UN or the World Bank mostly use simultaneous interpretation and leave consecutive for smaller or bilingual meetings. It is understandable, because if there are more than 2 languages, consecutive interpretation may significantly delay proceedings.
How consecutive interpretation evolved? What is its history?
Consecutive interpreter is a very old profession. Although we do not have any records, a need for language interpretation probably first arose when one prehistoric tribe wanted to communicate with another.
Interpretation becomes a profession already in the ancient world: first professional interpreters are said to be present at the court of Egyptian pharaohs, and the division between civilian and military interpreters was already there in ancient Persia.
In Korea during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) the jungin (or the “middle people”) was a highly specialized group of technical experts who helped aristocracy to run the government. There was a special Office of Interpreters. The jungin taught civil servants foreign languages and provided government interpreters for the court.
A Mayan vase depicts several people being received by a ruler. Once of the shields says in classic Mayan language: CHIJLAM or “interpreter.”
Throughout history many interpreters were also translators i.e. they interpreted orally and worked as scribes who translated written texts as required by their employers.
In Europe, Latin, French and English succeeded each other as the language of diplomacy. Educated diplomats and statesmen were usually multilingual and until the early XX century there was no particular need for diplomatic interpreters as a separate category.
There was, however, a great need to communicate with inhabitants of newly discovered lands, including the Americas. A few names of interpreters survived, for example, Doña Marina or Malintzin helped Cortés in at least three languages: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya.
In the early XX century came the era of large international conferences. Speeches could last for 2 hours and then the interpreter for each language would take the floor and deliver the interpretation for 2 hours too – a very time consuming exercise.
With the invention of simultaneous interpretation the share of consecutive gradually diminishes after WWII.
How is consecutive interpretation done?
It is obviously not possible to remember and recall 5 minutes of text: human memory has very limited capacity and no special exercises may lift certain biological limits and restrictions our memory has.
The interpreter analyzes the source text and uses special note taking techniques to jot down the contents of the speech. Beginners need to be warned, however, that the interpreter note-taking is not stenography i.e. it does not put down on paper the text verbatim.
Writing down the entire text would mean that the interpreter would be limited by the structure of the original text rather than conveying its meaning. Each written sign or word, however, should be the tip of an iceberg and activate in the interpreter an entire chain of words or thoughts to be said.
Another common mistake beginners have is that they rely on their notes too much. Your notes are only a reminder and the blueprint of the entire passage should be kept safely in your head.
When the source text is listened to and analyzed, the interpreter is taking notes and jots down the most important words, numbers, names and connections between sentences and passages.
What is extremely important is to prioritize information and remember about the message not just the words!
How are consecutive interpretation students trained?
Consecutive interpretation students are run through a series of more and more difficult exercises to analyze the source text, prioritize information and to deliver interpretation.
It is much more than simply retelling in your own words: you should be able to create in your target language the image of the speaker as if he were speaking that language, but do it subtly, without mocking the speaker and without attracting too much attention.
What qualities should I have to become a professional consecutive interpreter?
Flawless command of your working languages, analytical skills, quick thinking, ability to prioritize information quickly, and very importantly – acting skills!
Consecutive interpreters are like actors on the live stage: your presence, eye contact with the audience, voice skills are as important as what you say.
What is more accurate: consecutive or simultaneous interpretation?
This question was debated quite a bit when simultaneous interpretation was being introduced in the United Nations and other international organizations after WWII.
General consensus nowadays seems to be that professional language interpreters who are well trained and are experienced can deliver very high quality interpretation in both consecutive and simultaneous modes. Simultaneous interpretation, however, seems to follow the structure of the original more closely, while consecutive interpretation gives more of a gist of the original speech.
How can I – as a speaker – best help my consecutive interpreter to perform better?
Brief your interpreter on the topic of your presentation and any important terminology. If you plan to tell jokes, let your interpreter know: some jokes do not translate well. Preparation is everything.
Agree in advance what length of passages you prefer in consecutive. Usually one or several sentences will suffice. While professional consecutive interpreters are able to translate rather long passages, you do not want to tire your audience and it is best to make your presentation more interactive, especially if it is educational in nature.
After the beginning of your presentation you and the interpreter will establish a certain turn-taking routine and you will know in advance how much time you have to think about the next passage while the interpreter is speaking, and the interpreter will know the length of passages you will give him or her. The rhythm will create the atmosphere of predictability and will allow you to concentrate more on the meaning of what you want to say and pay less attention to the fact that you are being interpreted.
How to evaluate quality of consecutive interpretation?
Of course, without being a professional interpreter yourself (even if you speak the languages) it is impossible to fully evaluate an interpreter’s performance. There are way too many things a professional interpreter has to keep in mind that a delegate may not even think about.
However, there are several clues that may help you see if your interpreter does, indeed, deliver.
One of them is how much time the interpretation takes compared to the original. Interpretation must never be more than 70%-80% of the original in length: there is nothing worse than a substandard interpreter droning on and on.
The reaction of the audience is also very important: do people nod their heads, for example? A surefire way to see if you are understood is to observe if the people in the audience blink – humans usually blink once every several seconds and if delegates stare blankly into space when the interpretation is being said then something may be wrong.
Make sure you get the reaction from the audience that you need: if necessary, repeat but not in the same words: rephrasing helps both the audience and the interpreter.
If the interpreter asks you a question or needs a clarification it is not at all a sign of the interpreter’s weakness: professional interpreters must be confident they understand the original fully and it is their duty to clarify ambiguous passages.
If you briefed your interpreter well and if he is a professional able to deliver, your speech or presentation should be smooth and deliver in translation the same or very similar effect you intended.