Training Interpreters for La Relève-Part II

David Roberts
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 2, 2000, page 24)

In Part II of this article, David Roberts discusses the Conference Documentation course.

2. Conference Documentation

This course serves two purposes: (a) to give students some of the background knowledge and terminology required to complement CI and SI courses; (b) to develop students’ language skills through regular sight-interpretation exercises.

The shortcomings of beginners can be summarized first by an inability to understand clearly and quickly, and second by an inability to transmit the meaning concisely and confidently. I have found that there is little point in simply telling students that they must improve their language skills and advising them, for example, to read the newspapers for that purpose. More precise instructions and a clearer objective are required. The instructor has to establish a framework for learning with specific tasks: for instance, read and prepare all the editorials and the business pages from La Presse and The Globe and Mail over the next six days, and you will be required to do a sight-interpretation from the assigned material at the next class. In class the students are given the text and have five minutes to prepare it. The translation/interpretation is recorded and graded. I have found that the students’ preparation may at first be somewhat cursory, but after receiving a corrected assignment they realize that preparation means careful study and checking of everything. Some are surprised by the difficulty of the task and complain that they did not have enough time for preparation or that the text was read too quickly. Eventually those who are really committed will get organized, with Anglophones and Francophones sharing their strengths with one another.

For the preparation of specific subjects and terminology encountered in conferences, the following approach is used: we choose a number of themes and a presentation is made each week on one of them. The presentation would cover a factual description of the area and the main vocabulary associated with it. One or two students are assigned or choose subjects to present. The students take notes and are expected to assimilate the material presented and also deepen their knowledge by further reading. After the class the instructor prepares two texts, one in English and one in French, covering many of the points examined.

At the next Conference Documentation class the students sight-interpret the text under the same conditions as for the newspaper articles. Obviously, with only five minutes’ preparation time, the students must have the terms at their fingertips and also develop sufficient linguistic flexibility to adapt when the term is not exactly the one they saw earlier. Some of the areas we looked at are: rules of procedure, sports terminology, budget issues, social programs, the stock exchange and youth unemployment. We might also look at very specific contemporary issues such as the Y2K bug, Hepatitis C compensation and peacekeeping, but emphasis is placed on areas of current interest so as to enable the student to feel at ease with most frequently encountered subjects.

As there are four tests each week (two from newspaper articles and two from the subject area under consideration), the students receive continuous feedback. Problems such as inadequate preparation resulting either from laziness or passivity must be identified as soon as possible since the sooner the students realize they must take the initiative, develop curiosity, compile and share glossaries, the better. The same applies to excessive self-correction, particularly with those who find it difficult to leave their translation work habits, and freeze until they find the mot juste. Others may tend to leave sentences in midair, particularly when working towards the second language. The instructor has to be frank in indicating these problems but also supportive in helping students to overcome these and other frustrations that will inevitably arise. As with CI, it is very important that students know as early as possible what is acceptable and unacceptable. After at most one or two assignments there should be no surprises in the grades students obtain. They must know what is expected and whether they have achieved that level.

In conducting this type of exercise with students, I have observed that they never become blasé about working towards their second language. An Anglophone, for example, may be able to improvise a translation of "la séance est levée," but he had better learn thoroughly how to say "I call the meeting to order" in the second language or he might end up babbling gibberish.

The culture of the student interpreter must be journalistic. The instructor is there to guide the students on the principal areas to be covered, to give advice on the sources to be consulted and, most of all, to assess the thoroughness with which the students approach the task at hand. It would be illusory to think that a student is going to become an expert on a subject such as free trade. The time required for such detail would simply not be merited in a 26-week program. The purpose of the course is to lay the groundwork in grasping the major concepts involved, and to enable the students to place the concepts in context and to translate the terminology used. For instance, they do not have to know the precise conditions and criteria applied in implementing the NAFTA dispute settlement mechanism, but they would need to have some idea of what it seeks to do and be able to produce without hesitation "mécanisme de règlement des différends."

This exercise has proven to be very useful in developing skills in the second language. I have seen that students can become transfixed by a word when working from their first language. They have to be able to distance themselves from the term, rephrase it in more precise language and then render it in the target language. In dealing with rules of procedure, for example, instead of saying "We hope to adjourn the meeting at 5:00 p.m.," one might say "We are shooting for 5:00 p.m." This would cause no problem for Francophone students, but for an Anglophone working towards French, the two steps described above have to be taken. This approach is necessary, particularly at the beginning, when the student working towards the second language should always seek to ensure that the interpretation is as grammatically correct and safe as possible rather than risking a colloquial expression which just does not ring true coming from the mouth of a non-native speaker. The golden rule for grasping how something should be understood is of course to see it in context, as illustrated in the following text on the subject of rules of procedure.

Examples of texts used in the Conference Documentation Course. Subject: Rules of Procedure

Before I call the meeting to order, there are one or two little housekeeping items I would like to get out of the way. As you know, John Smith will be leaving us today because he has finished his term as a member of our committee, and I thought it would be in order to present him with a token of our appreciation during the coffee break. Agreed? Carried unanimously.

Having cleared that little matter, I should now officially call the meeting to order. I think the agenda has gone out to everyone and the first item I want to focus on is adoption of the agenda. Anything anyone wants to add or delete. Speak now or forever hold your peace. If we take it that silence gives consent, we can conclude that the agenda stands approved as distributed. So, without further ado, I’ll move on to the next item: minutes of the last meeting. But before I do, one little word of warning. I’m determined to stick to our agenda and that’s why the agenda is not overloaded. We are shooting for 5:00 p.m. and I think we should be out of here by then if we can keep our comments to the minimum. I trust I am not out of order in saying that, but forewarned is forearmed.

Where were we? Ah yes, adoption of the minutes. I have received one or two requests for editorial changes, but nothing to do with the content itself.

Next item: matters arising from the minutes. As you assigned me to, I’ve been in touch with the relevant chairmen of the other committees, and by and large they agree with the procedure we have come up with regarding the funding of fact-finding trips. We have a motion to include the procedure in our draft report to the minister. We have a mover and seconder. No objections from the floor? No amendments or sub-amendments? Fine. I’d better not push my luck here for too long, so I’ll move on quickly to the next item. Excuse me, Mr. Smith, you look a bit dubious about that. Do I see a few raised eyebrows? Look, if you think I’ve been remiss in my duties and you want to challenge the Chair, then be my guest. No takers? Right, let’s move on to the next item: reports from subcommittees on action taken since the last meeting. Mary, I think you asked to have your name put on the list of speakers, and now you want Tom to pinch hit for you. There was an objection about pinch hitters at the last meeting but I overruled the objection because I thought that in so doing I was going along with the opinion of the majority. Personally, I’m against pinch hitters and I don’t mind going on the record in that regard. But I think I should put the record straight on a particular point, namely that if there is a vote and a tie on the issue, I will use my tie-breaking vote to go against pinch hitters. In taking that position, I think I’m in line with the position of previous chairs of this committee. I think it is better to go along with precedent than just to "ad hoc" things.

I think we are running out of agenda and there’s just one item to tie up: the place and date of the next meeting. There are two proposals on the table: (a) Moose Jaw in January 2000 or (b) Honolulu in February 2000. I move that the proposal concerning Moose Jaw be struck from the record. Agreed? Carried unanimously. So it’s Honolulu in February. Thank you for your public-spiritedness in forgoing the charms of Moose Jaw in January. The meeting stands adjourned.

À l’ordre, s’il vous plaît, à l’ordre! Mesdames et Messieurs, je déclare la séance ouverte. J’espère que vous avez tous reçu le compte rendu de la dernière réunion ainsi que l’ordre du jour de la présente séance. Vous n’ignorez pas que notre programme est très chargé, et donc sans plus tarder je vais donner lecture de l’ordre du jour de la réunion d’aujourd’hui.

  1. Ouverture de la séance
  2. Lecture du procès-verbal
  3. Questions à l’étude
  4. Nominations, élections et installations
  5. Affaires en instance
  6. Questions diverses
  7. Ajournement

S’il n’y a pas d’inconvénient, je vais passer immédiatement au troisième point. Pardon, je vois que le représentant du Manitoba vient de faire un geste qui laisse entendre qu’il refuse d’entériner cette décision du président. écoutez, Monsieur, en tant que président, je suis relativement indulgent, je ne cherche à baîllonner personne mais vous n’êtes pas sans savoir que si vous voulez intervenir vous êtes prié de vous adresser à la présidence. Je vais demander au secrétaire de prendre note de ce rappel au règlement qui est aussi un rappel à l’ordre, et je veux que cet avertissement soit consigné au procès-verbal. Je sais qu’il y en a qui estiment que ce genre d’intervention de la part du président est en quelque sorte un abus de privilège. Je dois vous signaler que j’ai déjà présidé beaucoup de réunions dans le secteur privé. Les règles de procédure ne me déroutent pas; je sais ce qui est admissible et ce qui est irrecevable; je sais ce qui est à propos et ce qui est hors de propos. Je suis toujours prêt à recevoir une objection qui est motivée mais je refuse de tolérer des propos désobligeants.

Excusez-moi. J’avais oublié que nous avons des témoins ici aujourd’hui qui ont demandé à soumettre un mémoire à notre comité. Je me dois de vous signaler que ce groupe est très différent des coulissiers, pour employer un canadianisme de bon aloi, que nous rencontrons habituellement ici. Pour le moment, nous sommes saisis de l’avant-projet du mémoire rédigé par un groupe de travail spécial. Le comité doit se pencher sur une motion visant l’adoption des recommandations du mémoire, mais malheureusement je ne vois pas le nom d’un comotionnaire. Pardon, Madame Lavigne, c’est vous qui appuyez la motion? Merci. Puisqu’il s’agit d’une motion sur le fond et non pas sur la forme du mémoire, je pense qu’il serait indiqué de surseoir à notre décision afin de permettre à tous nos collègues d’analyser minutieusement la teneur du mémoire.

Au chapitre des nominations etc., je n’ai rien de neuf à signaler. Vous savez que j’ai prescrit une enquête sur la nomination du dernier attaché de recherche de notre sous-comité. En ma qualité de membre du sous-comité, j’ai même présenté une motion, mais pour une raison qui me dépasse, le président a considéré ma proposition comme nulle et non-avenue.

Un dernier point, Mesdames et Messieurs, avant de lever la séance. Nous devons fixer la date et l’horaire de la prochaine réunion. S’il n’y a pas de proposition officielle, je vais simplement appliquer le règlement et décider qu’elle aura lieu à la même heure dans deux semaines. D’accord? Qui ne dit mot consent. La séance est levée.


The purpose of this exercise is to assess how accurately students have grasped the essential information on the subject presented, in this case basic rules of procedure. The second objective is to develop both precision of language skills and flexibility of understanding and expression. To achieve this second objective, a deliberate effort is made to avoid cognates. This is particularly helpful in developing skill and confidence in working towards the second language. Let us look at the English text to see the kinds of problems students encounter. Be patient and remember this is intended for absolute beginners in interpretation.

"Housekeeping items" in the first paragraph of the English text is a vague term favoured by chairmen.

"Get out of the way" presents no problem for Francophones working towards French, but Anglophone students have to work hard on verb-noun combinations, i.e. deciding which verb goes with which noun. The same applies to Francophones working towards English.

The word "term" is deliberately inserted in place of "mandate." Avoid cognates in original text.

"In order" is not the same as the ’in order’ the students would have looked at earlier, i.e. "admissible," "recevable," etc. What does the term mean in context?

The above observation about "get out of the way" applies to "deal with."

"Speak now or forever hold your peace" is an expression I may have deliberately used on two or three occasions in previous classes. Students will smile at the use of such an antiquated turn of phrase by an instructor who should obviously have been put out to pasture years ago. It is always interesting to see how many are curious enough to check how this expression is interpreted in the other language. When students realize that grades are on the line, they quicky become more sensitive to language, curious about usage and energetic about checking information.

The same comment applies to "silence gives consent" and "without any further ado."

In the case of "agenda approved . . . as distributed," is this how you would express the idea in French or would you say "sans modification"?

The example "stick to" provides students with the opportunity to avoid cognates and makes them think about which verb goes with which noun.

The same comment applies to "we are shooting for."

Is "out of order" the same "order" we saw previously, or is something quite different needed?

The same comment for "speak now" applies to "forewarned is forearmed."

As regards "Where were we?", how many Anglophones remember to insert "en" in "Où en sommes-nous?"

Editorial changes—a favourite among chairmen. If students do not know the term in French, can they deduce it from the contrast with the following words "but nothing to do with the content itself"?


As we can see, the exercise serves to provide essential terminology and, depending on the subject (free trade, unemployment, social programs, the Y2K bug, etc.), background information. The texts may appear artificial, but the purpose is to use the course time available as efficiently as possible, and to demand both precision and flexibility by the students. This method of teaching requires considerable preparation time by the instructor, who has to compile the material examined each week and prepare texts based on it. I think the effort is worthwhile, as little by little those students who invest the necessary effort greatly improve their language skills and their ability to grasp the meaning of words in context—qualities which are essential to successful performance in interpretation. They see that interpreting is not a question of learning tricks, but of laying a solid foundation that gives them confidence. Once they have that foundation they can then venture to live by their wits!

I shall not examine the French text here. I think it will not pose too many problems for Anglophones, but if you are Francophone with little or no experience in interpretation, give yourself five minutes maximum to prepare it and then translate it as you hear it. I think you will enjoy it. Please excuse all the mistakes in my laboured French. They are inserted solely for your amusement and are of course all deliberate!

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