Training Interpreters for La Relève-Part I

David Roberts
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 1, 2000, page 17)

Terminology Update provided its readers with an overview of interpreter training, a subject that had not been very well documented. The article, which is presented in three parts, can be viewed as a legacy to the profession from David Roberts, the coordinator of the interpreter training program at the University of Ottawa in 1998. In Part I of this article, David Roberts focuses on consecutive interpretation and gives practical advice to those required to train the next generation of interpreters.


Views on current or future program content are solely my own and in no way purport to represent Translation Bureau or University of Ottawa policy. I would like to thank three Translation Bureau interpreters, Céline Berlanga, Carole Lévesque and Jacques Audet, for their invaluable contribution to the program, for giving up much of their free time to help in the preparation of material and for their unstinting encouragement. Many thanks are also extended to Gilles Martel, Director of Parliamentary Translation and Interpretation, for his support throughout the program.


Together with Céline Berlanga, and subsequently Carole Lévesque and Jacques Audet, I was asked in June 1998 to coordinate an interpreter training program offered under a memorandum of understanding between the Translation Bureau and the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation. This graduate diploma program was to start in September 1998 and last one academic year, and would also contain a ten-day practical training period where selected students would work at an assignment as the fourth member of a team.

At the time I assumed my responsibilities, the structure of the program was already established. In the first semester it comprised the following: consecutive interpretation (CI), French-to-English, one course of three hours and one lab of four hours a week. The same number of hours was assigned to CI English-to-French. There was one three-hour course of Conference Documentation. The second semester followed the same format, but with CI being replaced by Simultaneous Interpretation (SI). This approach, beginning with CI and moving on to SI, is the norm in interpreting schools. CI is often compared to practising scales in music before embarking on set pieces. CI develops the ability to analyse and synthesize arguments, and to work on one’s delivery, before beginning SI.


Eight students were admitted to the program following tests and interviews held the previous May. It soon became evident that there was a clear disparity between those students with supervised professional translation experience and those without, and also between those familiar with the Canadian reality and those less so. The main areas where work was required were as follows:

(1) Language skills. The skills of some students were quite adequate for conversation purposes and also for translation exercises where considerable time was given to consult and check, but not sufficiently quick, precise or flexible for interpretation. We will look at these points later when we consider improving language skills.

(2) Background knowledge. In some cases this was clearly lacking. The instructor can spend only so long explaining that a néo-démocrate is not the same entity as a neo-liberal, that UI and EI are not political movements, that Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest were once colleagues in the same Cabinet, that power sharing and federal encroachment are important themes in the BQ approach to issues, or that the Triple-E Senate is not "l’accord de Tripoli."

(3) Personal qualities. Some students find an interpreting program quite uncomfortable. Students are sometimes disconcerted to be told that what they have said is simply wrong and therefore not usable. In interpreting you don’t get a prize for trying. Discomfort can be particularly evident in CI where the student’s performance is there for all to see. Some students seemed perplexed by the amount of knowledge expected of them. I think this is one of the major differences between an Interpretation program and, for example, a Law program. In first-year Law, students might work on Contract, Constitutional, Tort and Criminal law, and they would all begin at the same starting point. This is not the case with a university interpreter-training program, although it probably would be more so in a government in-house training program, where all participants would have considerable experience as translators.

It is one thing to spot weaknesses. It is quite a different matter to help remedy them.

For La Relève and for the students themselves the clock is ticking, and we cannot rely on osmosis to bring the students to the required level. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency

An apt comment on the dangers of simply hoping that things will work out. Here, I must thank senior management responsible for interpretation services in the Translation Bureau who, when informed of the amount of work required to bring trainees to an operational level, were sympathetic and supportive. It was decided that those students who obtained the diploma would be offered the opportunity to continue interpreter training within the Translation Bureau, where they would be carefully monitored and supervised. This clarified things considerably for Céline Berlanga and myself, and thus we were able to devise an approach which we hoped would prepare students for the second stage of their training.

We followed the program established which, as stated, comprised three major components: Consecutive Interpretation, Conference Documentation and Simultaneous Interpretation. Contained below are some suggestions on how each component can be undertaken. The inspiration for these is not quite on a par with that of the family who discovered radium but they may at least provide part of the equation. I look forward to the input of others, both future students and instructors, who may identify some of the parts we do not yet have.

1. Consecutive Interpretation

(a) General approach

Obviously the instructor should start by explaining that in CI the interpreter transmits his interpretation after the speaker has finished speaking. The interpreter takes notes during the original statement so as to help him with his interpretation. The interpretation is given not in reported speech (he said, indicated, pointed out, etc.) as would be the case with minute writing, but as the original was given, i.e., in the first person. The interpretation should reproduce all major units of meaning and be consistent in the sequence of arguments and in terminology. Even as early as the first class I found that theoretical explanations are of very limited use, and the most effective approach is quite simply to have the students do a CI exercise. I made a presentation of about three or four minutes at a moderate rate of speed, deliberately including pauses, hesitation and repetition as I searched for my words.

RULE: The subject should be sufficiently general to require no specialized knowledge to follow the arguments. If the subject is too specialized or technical, there is a tendency simply to hang onto words, which is not the way to learn the processes involved in interpreting. But equally it should not deal with an area with which the students are already very familiar. In other words, it should make the students think rather than rely on what they already know. I would also deliberately include a few idiomatic expressions, the meaning of which must be understood in the context, and also perhaps a little humour to tie up the points made and end with a flourish.

I would then ask a student to give his interpretation in the target language.

RULE: While the student is interpreting, no comments should be made or assistance given. The students must know that once they have started they continue until they say they want to stop, whereupon another student starts from the beginning, not from where the previous student stopped. From the first class the students work with a certain formality. Some will find this atmosphere tense, but I have found that stopping to help a student in the middle of a three-minute CI is doing them a disservice. There is a certain tension associated with interpreting, and it is advisable to develop good habits early on. Once you start a passage, you are expected to see it through to the end.

After the first exercise, the instructor might ask the other class members what they thought of the performance. Experience shows that they will generally respond along the following lines: "Oh, it was really good, much better than I could have done." A spirit of solidarity or perhaps a tendency towards self-effacement early in the school year will usually preclude any criticism of another student’s performance.

RULE: Make the three-minute statement again and have the students take notes. However, this time do not ask one of the students present to interpret. Instead, play a recording of a trainee interpreter from a previous year, who is obviously not there in the class that day, and then ask the students what they think of the interpretation. The students now tend to be far more forthright and critical in their comments. "I thought he sounded very hesitant when . . . that she misunderstood the point regarding . . . that he tended to backtrack a lot when . . . that the figures were wrong regarding . . . that the humour was missed, etc."

The purpose of repeating the exercise and encouraging this type of comment is to have the students think about the quality and impact of their work and to understand as early as possible what distinguishes adequate from inadequate work. As with literary criticism, it is often easy to explain why a book is bad. It is far more difficult to explain why it is good. It would of course be unrealistic to think that students would be able to do a very good CI at this early point in the program, but at least they know the standards they should seek to attain. Thus, they will be able to work effectively with one another between regular classes, when the instructor is not there to advise and correct. With this in mind, I have found it helpful to distribute the following checklist they can consult when working together. It is adapted in part from Sir Ernest Gowers’ advice on writing clearly in The Complete Plain Words.Footnote 1


Was it accurate (dates, figures, names, etc.)?

Was it complete (including all details and references)?

Was anything added?

Was the sequence of arguments and/or events respected?

Were all the necessary links included to ensure the arguments could be clearly followed or did one point just drift into another?

Were there examples of humour, sarcasm, irony, etc., and were they conveyed?


(1) Language

Was the level of language and/or terminology appropriate?

Were there verbless sentences or examples of words being inserted although making little sense in the context?

Did the student hesitate, backtrack needlessly or self-correct so often that the interpretation was difficult to follow?

(2) General presentation

Was it presented crisply and convincingly, or was it faltering?

Did the students seem to know what they wanted to convey or were they just deciphering words in the hope that some sense would emerge?

Did the students communicate with the listeners by establishing eye contact or did they keep their heads buried in their notes?

Did the students use pauses intelligently so as to give the listener a chance to assimilate the information, or was the interpretation delivered too quickly?

RULE: Students wishing to work together between regular classes must prepare their texts carefully. The texts should not be read but delivered from notes or cue cards. The speaker must know what he or she is talking about and exactly what he or she has said. It is very frustrating for the trainee interpreter requiring feedback to hear "Oh, did I say that? Let me check what I read," or "I’m sorry I wasn’t very clear about that. I think what I was trying to say was . . ." For the exercise to be useful, the people making the speeches must do a lot more than just turn up with a newspaper article. The instructor should occasionally serve as a guinea pig in these exercises with a student acting as the instructor and assessing the quality of the interpretation. The same standards of formality and seriousness should be maintained for every exercise.

(b) Notetaking

To this point in the class I have not dealt with notetaking. I believe that at first only the most general advice should be given. Students have to understand that the key in CI (and of course later in SI) is to listen and understand. Regardless of one’s notetaking skills, if you don’t understand you cannot render the message. I have found that some students become confused if you start talking early on about principles of "verticalisation," "décalage," "flèche de référence," etc. Notetaking technique is not the major concern here. Therefore, I would offer only the most general advice: give yourself plenty of space so that you can see what you’ve written; force yourself to go down the page rather than across (this reduces the number of words used and avoids lengthy sentences); give yourself a good margin so that you can indicate any part you are not sure of and want to ask about before beginning your interpretation (a figure, a date, etc.). For the same reason, I would not talk about the use of symbols early in the course. Some students fall into the trap of thinking that if they had a greater number of or more complicated symbols and abbreviations, they would understand and retain the original more accurately. This is putting the cart before the horse.

Jean-François Rozan tells us that in CI "le texte doit être complètement compris dans son sens et dans ses enchaînements."Footnote 2 Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be that good. Even after over 20 years working in the field, it happens not infrequently that I am not sure what someone means. If this seems fatuous, just consider how often we hear two people speaking the same language say to each other: "I’m sorry but I didn’t understand the question" or "if I understand correctly, I think you’re saying . . ." or on open-line programs how often the presenter asks: "Yes, but what exactly is your question?" These are not simply rhetorical devices for avoiding the question but often genuine problems of communication. This observation leads me to suggest to students that in CI they should note what they understand. Such advice may seem a statement of the obvious but we so often see students desperately note something, perhaps in the hope of looking busy or trusting desperately that it will make sense later. It rarely does. It is generally accepted that we should focus on "la transposition de l’idée plutôt que du mot" so as to avoid "les contresens et les lourdeurs de style."Footnote 3 This is of course excellent advice, but students might also be told not to neglect "le mot" completely. I have found that some students feel they should never render anything literally, as if interpretation is akin to a cryptic crossword where the obvious cannot possibly be correct.

RULE: Much depends on the type of text you are dealing with. If you are working from something like Question Period, where an answer may hinge on the use of a certain word by the questioner and the term may be referred to again, you would be well advised to stay very close to the original despite a certain "lourdeur de style." The interpreter must give the listeners what they want or need for accurate communication rather than what he or she considers elegant or stylish. This would apply to classroom exercises from Question Period, and real-life experiences with court interpreting, meetings dealing with subjects such as collective agreements, or press conferences, where every word has its weight. I think that something far more important than studied elegance is concision of expression. Among the good habits to be encouraged earlier on are brevity and efficiency of presentation. Students must come to the point and not be allowed to ramble. Fluency is not a virtue when it borders on long-windedness; it is commendable when it allows you to choose the most concise and appropriate expression.

A question regularly asked by students is whether they should take notes in the source or target language. I think this depends on one’s comfort level with the languages in question. In my case, French is very much a second language learned in adolescence. It will never feel like a mother tongue. As a result, the notes register far more clearly on my brain if I take them in English. That does not mean I never note in French. If the English expression does not come easily, I might well write "bilan peu reluisant," for example, since I do not have time to search for "lacklustre performance" or "dismal record" but trust it will come later.

RULE: Instructors will not always have all the answers to students’ questions. Sometimes you have to say "I don’t know exactly but in the light of my experience, I would probably . . ." Instructors should not be afraid to share their less comfortable experiences with students. I have some horror stories from CI assignments and from my time as a student when I spent months fumbling with my pencil and gazing at my shoelaces in the hope of avoiding the instructor’s eye. There is no doubt that we can all feel very alone and vulnerable when trying to muddle through a confused jumble of notes. If it is any consolation, keep in mind that like some camping vacations, often in retrospect the most disastrous holidays make the funniest stories.

Progression in exercises

I do not think it is wise to work too long with carefully structured speeches adapted to CI. After a few weeks when the students can appreciate what is involved in CI, I would start to use Hansard as our source material. I would start by looking at a speech from the House, either in the written Hansard or as a video recording. I would not use the speech itself for CI purposes because often the speeches are read, despite the House rules in this regard. However, the speech serves as a very good starting point offering the necessary background before working on the ten- or fifteen-minute question and answer period following the speech. This provides excellent material for CI exercises, as the interpreter has some idea of the subject but has to be thinking constantly because the questioner may approach the subject from a new and unexpected viewpoint and the answerer may focus on one aspect of the question in his answer.

Following a series of exercises of this type, we can move on to something more unpredictable. I believe that students, once they have acquired the basic principles of what constitutes good CI, should be brought as quickly as possible face to face with current political discourse, with the various levels of language, unfinished sentences and use of clichés. The type of language interpreters working in Canada deal with is poles apart from the carefully reasoned world of classical CI. Let me give an example from The National Post, May 27, 1999: "Mr. Speaker, only the Liberals can call stiffing the taxpayer a win-win. The minister has failed again and Canadians are stuck with the bill. I would like to ask the minister, just like Bubbles Galore, if this is going to cost the taxpayer dollars galore." The following statement, as reported in the same article, reads as follows: "Mr. Speaker, Margaret Atwood once said, in the wake of the signing of the free trade agreement, that it is fitting that Canada has as a national symbol the humble beaver, the animal which when cornered, bites off its own testicles and then hands them to his adversaries." I am sure you will agree that these statements do not quite have the resonant echo of Pascal’s Pensées but they do reflect the hard-hitting tone of Parliamentary debate. I think the essence of interpreting in Canada is the need to adapt to this adversarial climate and sense of immediacy, as I shall explain.

Interpretation was introduced in 1959 by Prime Minister Diefenbaker to meet the needs of the House of Commons. Most of the day’s proceedings are taken up by set speeches and debate on those speeches, but the highlight of the day, in terms of attendance and public interest, is Question Period, and the essence of Question Period is urgency. This is not a place for long reasoned arguments; it is brisk and characterized by quick ripostes and verbal duelling, with members often picking out a word or expression and using it in their answer or supplementary question.Footnote 4 The fact is that interpreters cannot always predict the pattern of questions and do not always have the latest background news to place the question in context. They are working within tight time restrictions and decisions must be immediate. They do not have time to let something go for a moment and come back to it later as they might with set speeches. The questioner wants an answer and wants it right away as he or she seeks to pressure the opponent. So perhaps at the cost of elegance, interpreters have to move quickly, staying close to the original, adding absolutely nothing and ensuring that every word is given its weight. In that sense, interpreting Question Period seems closer to court interpreting in its emphasis on completeness and closeness to the original than it is to the more discursive style of traditional CI.

The atmosphere of Question Period is reproduced to some degree in committee proceedings, where witnesses are called and questioned by MPs. In both situations, it is often difficult for interpreters to foresee the type of question to be asked; it is equally difficult to anticipate the answer, whether from government representatives or from expert witnesses working in a very specialized area. Even though interpreters will not be assigned to Question Period in the early stages of their career, experience of speaking styles, current jargon and essential contemporary issues is indispensable for training purposes. Interpreters learn to appreciate that often they have little preparation time and that therefore they have to rely on their intelligence and highly developed language skills. The problem we face in training people for La Relève is that, as is to be expected, very few beginners possess such skills. This is not a problem particular to Canada or to the current generation of trainees. Francesca Gaiba in The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation describes the difficulties the head of the Translation Division in the Nuremberg trial encountered in finding good candidates for training. "Basically the division discovered that few, very few people could do simultaneous interpreting. Alfred Steer, who in a year tested more than 400 people, calculated that only five percent of the people tested, including experienced consecutive interpreters [my italics], could do simultaneous interpreting."Footnote 5 From the earliest days of simultaneous interpreting it was recognized that the highest language standards were required of anyone who was considered suitable for training in this field. The following observation from October 1945 is even more valid today, as clients have become used to a high standard of service from interpreters: "The vital thing everyone agrees upon is that simultaneous translation requires translators of a degree and skill far beyond that of the average translator or interpreter."Footnote 6 Consecutive interpreting can be a good base for SI, but in my view it will not compensate for inadequate experience in translation. To retain composure and to concentrate in stressful situations, the interpreter must have broad resources and the ability to retrieve those resources quickly. Unlike the people recruiting for the Nuremberg trial, we do not have the luxury or inclination to take only the top five percent of candidates, so some way has to be found to equip students with the "skill far beyond that of the average translator." One attempt to develop those skills is offered through the next course we shall consider in Part II: Conference Documentation.

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