Co-ordinating Delivery in Consecutive Interpreting

By Peter Mead (Linguistic Service, NATO Defense College, Italy)


This essay examines the delivery phase of consecutive interpreting (CI), when the interpreter co-ordinates consultation of notes with mental reconstruction of the speaker’s message and its reformulation in the target language, in the broad perspective of oral presentation skills. While the untrained observer might see note-taking as the most important part of CI, various authors caution about the dangers of concentrating too much on writing to the detriment of listening and analysis. To capitalise on good listening and judicious note-taking, when the interpreter takes the floor s/he should time consultation of notes and develop the habit of reading ahead to ensure unhesitant delivery. Against this background, the paper examines how the sharing of attention between consultation of notes and oral reformulation in the second phase of CI is addressed in interpreting studies and, by analogy, how studies of public speaking skills too can afford an interesting perspective on this skill.

Keywords: interpreting studies, consecutive interpreting, oral reformulation, reading ahead, divided attention, notes, lettura “anticipata”, sdoppiamento dell’attenzione, riformulazione orale, appunti, interpretazione consecutiva

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“Egad, I think the interpreter is the hardest to be understood of the two!”
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Critic (1779) Act I, sc. ii

1. Introduction

In consecutive interpreting (CI), the assimilation of the source speech and its reproduction in the target language are two distinct phases, whereas in simultaneous interpreting (SI) they overlap to such an extent that they seem to all intents and purposes to coincide. The consecutive interpreter very often complements listening and assimilation with note-taking, the purpose of the notes being to help reconstruct the source speech while it is reformulated in the target language.

Note-taking is understandably a very prominent topic in the literature on the teaching of CI. Notes are indeed in most cases an important support to the interpreter, and some guidance on the subject is generally acknowledged as a priority by teachers and students alike. However, one consequence of this is that untrained observers actually tend to see note-taking as the most important and abstruse skill involved in CI. Christopher Thiéry (1981) debunks this myth and puts the role of notes for trainee interpreters into perspective, providing a useful reminder that note-taking for CI is not an exercise in dictation or shorthand. If limited to essentials, notes can be readily consulted as much or as little as appropriate to provide a platform or safety net for confident delivery.

Complementary to Thiéry’s view is the caution which various authors express about the dangers of concentrating too much on writing during the first phase of CI, to the detriment of listening and analysis. In this respect, Anna Giambagli (1998: 133) strongly advocates “une stratégie d’écoute qui requiert un entraînement ciblé pour conjurer le danger d’une contamination par l’activité parallèle d’écriture” (my emphasis). With a slightly different emphasis, Nancy Schweda Nicholson (1985: 150) cautions that this mistake in priorities during the listening phase will tend to have repercussions during delivery: “when the student interpreter takes copious notes, the interpretation very often becomes more of a reading and deciphering process than a speaking one”. In the same way, Wilhelm Weber (1989: 165) warns that interpreters taking the floor after excessive note-taking will be faced with “a painful attempt to decipher their notes”.

Consistent with these comments are Peter Mead’s (2002) findings in an experimental study in which interpreting students and professional interpreters were asked to listen to a recording of a brief CI they had just completed and comment on what they saw as the probable causes of hesitations and prominent pauses. Out of more than 2000 comments (more or less equally divided between the two language directions involved – English to Italian and vice-versa), practically a quarter were related to difficulties in reading notes. The frequency with which such difficulties were commented on by both professionals and students suggests that the concern expressed by various authors about the dangers of excessive concentration on note-taking is well founded.

The delivery phase of CI, when reading of notes is co-ordinated with mental reconstruction of the speaker’s message and its reformulation in the target language, thus depends to a great extent on how purposefully the interpreter has performed the listening and note-taking phase. However, to capitalise on a strong first phase the interpreter must learn to time consultation of notes and avoid the pitfall of hesitant, disjointed reading. Since this is the key stage in CI for the users who will be the ultimate judges, the ability to glance selectively and discreetly at notes during delivery is fundamental – just as the ability to combine attentive listening with thrifty note-taking is the mainstay of the vital first phase.

It is interesting to look at how the interpreter’s judicious reading from notes as a support for accurate, confident reformulation of a speech is addressed in the literature. It is also illuminating to place this ability in the broad perspective of oral presentation skills.

2. Reformulation from notes: an Interpreting Studies perspective

Christopher Thiéry (1981: 111), working on the principle that “les notes se consultent, ne se lisent pas”, makes a pertinent practical distinction between mere pedestrian reading from the notepad and a brief, focused glance at a given section of the notes just before delivering the corresponding part of the speech. Similarly, Schweda-Nicholson (1985: 150) points out that delivery of successful CI is based on “how the interpreter goes through continuous cycles of 1) looking briefly at his/her notes which evoke the meaning and 2) expressing the meaning while looking at the audience and maintaining good eye contact.” Schweda Nicholson’s emphasis on the ability to consult notes rapidly as a prerequisite for smooth, unhesitant delivery means that little time should be spent actually reading and that the interpreter should be looking at the audience, not the note-pad, while s/he speaks.

A different perspective on how to reformulate a speech from notes can be found in one of the early “classics” on conference interpreting, where Jean Herbert (1952: 55) offers a few lines of practical advice on how the interpreter should time reading of notes with delivery of CI. Herbert highlights the usefulness of reading a little ahead while speaking, so that the oral reformulation of a given passage in the speech coincides with scrutiny of the notes for the following passage. This overlapping of the two activities, which Herbert calls a “dédoublement de l’attention”, means that the interpreter will have a brief time advantage in selecting the appropriate expression for the ideas to be conveyed and (perhaps more important) in deciding how to manage such problems such as an illegible note, a difficulty of translation or a mental blank about what seems an important logical link.

Ability to divide one’s attention is readily recognised as mandatory in SI, where the interpreter listens and speaks at the same time, and in the first phase of CI, where s/he takes notes while listening. These more obvious examples of divided attention depend on the very dynamics of the interpreting process, since the rate at which the interpreter must process what is heard into a target speech (in SI) or into notes for subsequent rereading (in CI) is determined by the speed and density of a source speech produced by someone else. By contrast, during delivery of CI the interpreter may from choice or habit read ahead but is not obliged to. In other words, Herbert’s “dédoublement de l’attention” is a desirable feature which enables the accomplished professional to produce a “seamless” delivery. It actually makes no difference to the substance of the interpretation, and a “stop-start” rhythm caused by disjointed alternation of reading and speaking is a formal shortcoming of which the audience may even be benevolently tolerant if the interpreter is otherwise coping well with the intricacies of a complex CI.

Sharing attention between delivering any given part of the speech and reading what comes next in the notes is thus not an intrinsic constraint in the second phase of CI. This is reflected in Daniel Gile’s (1995) Effort Model of CI, which singles out co-ordination of the various Efforts involved as a further effort in itself during the listening phase but not during delivery. Thus, Gile points out that listening, short-term memory and note-taking in the first phase have to be co-ordinated within the setting of a time constraint (it is the speaker who sets the pace), whereas long-term memory, reading of notes and oral production in the second phase can within reasonable limits be co-ordinated at the interpreter’s preferred rhythm. Indeed, Gile (2005: 14) describes the reformulation phase of CI as “self-paced”, though there are obviously situations where the consecutive interpreter will perceive a strong time constraint during delivery (e.g, when CI is being recorded for radio or television).

Herbert’s focus on split attention in the reformulation of a speech from notes is echoed in an essay by Wilhelm Weber on the usefulness of sight translation as preparatory training for reformulation of the source speech from notes. Weber (1990: 47) comments on “the interpreter’s reading ahead of what he is actually enunciating at all times, thereby avoiding any hesitation”, an approach very close to that described by Herbert. The same concept is given fresh visual appeal in Roderick Jones’ suggestion that reformulating a speech from notes can be compared to playing an instrument from sheet music: the interpreter’s skill can thus be likened to the way a “pianist [...] continues reading ahead of the notes they are playing, their eyes on the music always being a little ahead of their fingers on the keyboard” (Jones 1998: 64).

3. Delivery from a script: a public speaking perspective

An interesting feature of Jones’ argument is that, immediately before the comment quoted above, he explicitly identifies a good public speaker’s ability to look judiciously ahead in notes as a relevant skill for the consecutive interpreter to master. This remark brings to mind Erving Goffman’s (1982) perceptive studies of public speaking, in which he comments on how a lecturer or radio announcer delivering from a script should ideally glance ahead of what s/he is reading aloud at any given time in order to ensure that the text holds no surprise pitfalls. In this way, “instead of constantly appealing to the overall thought behind the text as a guide, an aloud reader can rely on upcoming bits of the text itself” (Goffman 1982: 256). The situation described by Goffman is obviously different from that of the consecutive interpreter, in that reading aloud from a script is not exactly the same as delivering from notes, but the concept of glancing ahead so as to have a prior idea of what one is going to read or say next is relevant to both activities.

In the historical study of reading habits, a much debated issue is whether silent reading was practised in classical antiquity. Though this is the topic which provides the main thrust in A.K. Gavrilov’s 1997 essay on reading in ancient Greece and Rome, the author’s comments on reading aloud are also of interest in the present discussion: what Gavrilov (1997: 59) describes as the ability “to glance ahead and read inwardly selected portions of the following text” offers a perspective very close to Goffman’s on how to avoid a ponderous, mechanical delivery when reading from a script.

From the perspective of interpreting studies, Gavrilov’s paper is also stimulating in that he refers to the wealth of psychological research identifying – and measuring – the extent to which a reader looks ahead in a text as the so-called “eye-voice span”. This name, like “ear-voice span” in studies of SI, is conventionally abbreviated to “EVS” and will be referred to as such here. Gavrilov (1997: 59) thus explains that “a well developed EVS is essential if a reader is to be capable of reproducing the rhythmical and intonational pattern of the part of the sentence they are reading”.

In the classic work on EVS, psychologists Harry Levin and Ann Buckler-Addis (1979) indicate various systems of testing and measuring it. When the unit of measurement is the word, EVS may reach as much as 8 to 10 words. Though Levin and Buckler-Addis (1979: 2) warn that educationalists have found it counterproductive to emphasise development of a particularly long EVS as a way of improving reading proficiency, the concept of glancing ahead in a text while reading does offer a useful means of ensuring that the reader constructs the sense of the text faster and more efficiently than by limping through it one word at a time. While the relevance of this principle to CI is not widely commented on in the literature, examples of how it is given appropriate prominence by authors like Herbert have been looked at above.

Actually, EVS long before the letter is described as early as the first century A.D. in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (I.i, 34), in which reading aloud is recommended as useful training in techniques of delivery for students learning the art of good oratory. The rationale for this advice is that “it is necessary to keep the eyes on what follows while reading out what precedes, with the resulting difficulty that the attention of the mind must be divided, the eyes and voice being differently engaged” (Butler 1920: 37 – my emphasis). The striking similarity between Jean Herbert’s reference to the interpreter’s “dédoublement de l’attention” in the reformulation phase of CI and Quintilian’s precept regarding good delivery from a script (“dividenda intentio animi” in the original Latin) emphasises how relevant it can be to look outside interpreting studies for a complementary perspective on topics in interpreter training. It is also an interesting example of how apparently contemporary issues such as technique in conference interpreting might actually echo scholarly discussion in related fields from a distant age.

4. Conclusion: “forewarned is forearmed”

Of course, glancing ahead in notes does not guarantee that the interpreter’s real work is over. The same is true of a public speaker thinking ahead to what s/he is going to say (or read) next before finishing the ongoing speech segment. In both cases the idea is to pre-empt problems rather than encounter them at the last moment and have almost literally to “think aloud” in front of the audience about how to negotiate an unexpected impasse in speech production. Goffman (1982: 230) expresses this concept very neatly:

Getting things in order in time must be a constant feature of talk not noted for speech faults. One might think here of “production tolerance”. Thus, becoming a proficient platform speaker does not so much involve knowing what we are going to say as being able to manage our uncertainties discreetly, that is, within our production tolerance.

In the same way, part of the interpreter’s professional skill consists of the ability to anticipate problems (e.g. a translation difficulty not addressed during the listening phase) and ensure that they can be appropriately addressed without betraying the doubts and uncertainty which accompany this process. In other words, forewarned is forearmed.

Though the problems the interpreter may have to address will not necessarily be related to linguistic difficulties such as a problem of translation for a word or expression, some useful ideas for problem management in conference interpreting can be found in the field of language learning. The interpreter is obviously a very proficient language user, but the devices s/he may use surely overlap to a considerable extent with Elaine Tarone’s examples of strategies used by language learners with limited speaking skills: (i) omission; (ii) paraphrase; (iii) linguistic transfer (calques and loans); (iv) appeal to an interlocutor or listener; (v) mimic or gesture (Tarone 1978, quoted in Ellis 1994: 397). The last of these categories can obviously nor be considered a serious proposal for systematic use in conference interpreting, but the others might all be put to good use by the interpreter in a tight corner.

Goffman’s “getting things in order in time” can thus help the interpreter focus in advance on problem areas in the notes from which s/he is reformulating the original speech. In this way it is possible to decide beforehand how the difficulties involved are best addressed, rather than make any omission or vagueness all the more glaring by last-minute hesitation. Such betrayal of uncertainty is not only aesthetically displeasing but – even worse – may compound the interpreter’s difficulties by creating a lingering sense of self-consciousness and awkwardness.

If thinking ahead helps avoid this knock-on effect, it should ideally become an integral part of the interpreter’s approach to the reformulation phase of CI. Likening it to a traveller always packing suitable clothing for an unexpected rainstorm may not seem the most illuminating comparison, but the word “raincoat” does have the advantage in this context of doubling up as an easy-to-remember acronym: Reading Ahead In Notes Cuts Out Anxious Timewasting.

This paper began with the fairly obvious consideration that reformulation coincides with listening in SI but comes after it in CI. Anticipation, encouraged as good practice in SI, might thus seem at first sight to have no relevance to CI – after all, what sense does it make to talk about anticipating what comes next in a speech one has already heard? The above discussion of how looking ahead in notes helps the interpreter avoid the embarrassment of last-minute surprises hopefully provides an argument to the contrary: CI too can be made smoother and more efficient by anticipating problems rather than stumbling over them.


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©inTRAlinea & Peter Mead (2011).
"Co-ordinating Delivery in Consecutive Interpreting"
inTRAlinea Volumes
Edited by: {specials_editors_volumes}
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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