Training Interpreters for La Relève-Part III


Ce contenu est offert en anglais seulement.

David Roberts
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 3, 2000, page 16)

In Part III of this article, David Roberts concludes with a presentation of the problems experienced as students move on to simultaneous interpretation.

Transition to Simultaneous Interpretation

By the time the students begin simultaneous interpretation (SI), they will have done a considerable number of sight interpretation exercises in the Conference Documentation Course. They will therefore be used to working in a booth under certain pressure and to having resolved problems such as excessive self-correction and leaving sentences in midair. Through consecutive interpretation (CI), they will have learned to listen carefully and to grasp the meaning in context. They appreciate that listening for interpretation purposes is not the same as normal listening to a lecture or speech. It is far more intense with concentration focused not just on the message, with all its details, but also on the form, the choice of words used to express the message. Starting SI should not of course mean ceasing CI, and it is interesting in this respect that in the program offered by the Polytechnic of Central London, students began learning simultaneous and consecutive at the same time. (1) Furthermore, many early simultaneous interpreters "learned the joys of consecutive interpreting" (2) after acquiring considerable experience in the booth. I do not think therefore that the CI to SI path is the only way to go. Sometimes other exercises such as paraphrases, summaries, who-what-where-when-why analyses can be of great help to students in simultaneous interpretation.

Since the course was structured as described earlier, I decided to begin the SI section of the program with the same material used for CI and delivered at the same speed. The students were told to approach the SI exercise as they did for CI, i.e. not rushing in and giving a word-for-word translation, but listening carefully, grasping the message and dropping what is obviously secondary or redundant. The early exercises are essentially the same as CI, but without having to write notes. As with CI, the students would start with anecdotal/argumentative texts and combine these with segments from Question Period and interviews. Interviews are particularly useful at the beginning. The students can be placed two to a booth, with one interpreting the questions and the other the answers. This serves two purposes. It helps students develop a natural time lag since the answerer cannot begin until the questioner has finished. It also teaches the students appropriate booth behaviour and how to avoid any off-air comments while at the same time learning to help one another by discreetly passing a note, if needed, to a colleague.

RULE: When interpreting interviews, students must show discipline particularly when dealing with unfinished sentences and interruptions. They have to be patient and, in so far as possible, avoid interrupting each other. Otherwise, the result for the listener can be a cacophony.

RULE: Students should also make a point of listening to their colleague, who will focus even harder on the task at hand as a result. Some may find this stressful, but in a short program of this kind the sooner everyone realizes they are to help one another progress, the better. From the very first day in the booth they are expected to behave in a businesslike manner, and as a result inappropriate comments or expressions of frustration are totally unacceptable.

RULE: Students must always keep in mind that while they cannot give everything, they must never give anything that was not said. They cannot always be right but they must never be wrong.

At this stage I would not correct from a transcript. Emphasis has to be on understanding the message and communicating it crisply and intelligibly. If students know they are to be corrected from a transcript, the danger is that they revert to translating words, obsessed with the idea they will be criticized for missing something and as a result seeking quantity at the cost of quality. Students will ask if they should adopt the speaker’s style, tone and level of emotion. I think at the beginning they should focus on transmitting the information in an interested but dispassionate tone. The style has to fit the function, which is to communicate information clearly and concisely. Unless you have a pronunciation problem, which in any event should have been identified and dealt with long before this stage of the program, the best chance you have is to use your own voice and concentrate on understanding everything. As hard as it may be for some people to swallow, an interpreter has done a good job when nobody notices them. The interpreter’s overriding obligation is to ensure communication without getting in the way.

Selection of material and criteria for assessment

When we move on to speeches, obviously we will start with those that are moderately paced and where the student, by thinking about the subject and the policy position of the speaker, should to some degree be able to anticipate the thrust of the argument being presented.

What overall advice should be given to the students? For a number of years one of my responsibilities was to evaluate interpreters as part of their annual appraisal. (3) The quality that struck me among the best colleagues was that they said neither too much nor too little. They spoke in short, clearly constructed sentences and were not afraid to pause between units of meaning. They gave the listener time to assimilate the message. Their intelligence was obvious in the analysis of arguments and their language skills carefully honed and maintained as they were able consistently to find the most economic expression. They possessed the fluency required of good interpreters, which is not to spin out a long series of words, but rather to express themselves efficiently through a combination of precision and flexibility which allowed them to retrieve exactly the right word at the right time. If there was one feature which summarized the excellence of their work, it was their control. Like a consummate athlete, they moved calmly from one position to the next, never hurried and always giving the impression they had time to take stock of the situation before them and to react accordingly. Perhaps like Margaret Thatcher, who was described as serene and swanlike on the surface but paddling like crazy underneath, they also may have been looking frantically for a reference or a list of figures, but it was the way they responded to this challenge, which distinguished them from other interpreters who were no doubt working just as hard but did not reflect that element of control which is so important to the listener who has to rely on a disembodied voice to follow what is happening.

How can we help trainee interpreters to reach this level? It is important that the material be carefully selected even before the course begins. The instructors must determine, in cooperation with one another, the focus of each stage of the program and the material to be used to that effect. The tapes do not always have to be the latest recordings but they have to be selected for a specific purpose. Some of the tapes should be complemented by a recording of the interpreters actually working on the same text. This would give the students an opportunity to compare their performance with that of operational interpreters and to assess strengths and weaknesses. I have compiled a tape library based partly on themes and partly on particular difficulties faced by interpreters, which instructors can use to coordinate their work. In addition to general material such as interviews with international personalities, tapes of historical interest, recordings of cultural interest, there are, for example, about ten speeches in English and ten in French on specific themes: budget and financial issues, health care, unemployment, federal-provincial relations, the constitution, the social union, peacekeeping. They are all accompanied by transcripts and can be used to complement the work done in the Conference Documentation Course.

When the students have mastered the ability to interpret comfortably and convincingly tapes of medium difficulty (tapes are classified A, B and C, in descending order of difficulty), we should then start to work with transcripts. I do not favour the use of transcripts, but the fact is that, in Canada, diploma, accreditation and recruitment examinations are corrected from a transcript, and students have to get used to working with the degree of precision that transcripts entail. In this regard, I have also compiled a small collection of past accreditation examination tapes which, with accompanying transcripts, give the students some idea of their progress.

Too Canadian?

The observation has been made that the one-year program is too Canadian in content, that a more international dimension should be given to it. I am not quite sure what that means. We try to give the students a base on which they can develop their skills. The program is offered under a memorandum of understanding with the Translation Bureau, which continues for a further two years to train and supervise those who obtain the diploma. Some may decide not to work as public servants but take the freelance accreditation exam. Just as it would be absurd for a Canadian Law faculty to apologize for concentrating on the Canadian legal system or a Canadian Education faculty for seeking to train teachers for Canadian schools, clearly the same principle applies to a Canadian school of interpretation. If people can work outside Canada, as many of my former colleagues now very successfully do, so much the better. But at the initial stage, our responsibility is to prepare them for work in the Canadian context.

This view is supported by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), as stated at the AIIC Round Table on interpreter training held at NATO headquarters, Brussels, in 1969: "L’enseignement doit être aussi près que possible de la réalité professionnelle." This has to be done in fairness to the students. In my experience, students do not embark on an interpretation program as they might on a philosophy or history course, i.e., out of intellectual curiosity. They study interpretation because they want to become interpreters just as accountancy students want to become accountants, and feel justifiably disappointed if the training is not adequate for that purpose. In my view, clients are more demanding than in the past. This is to be expected and, to some degree, current interpreters are victims of their own success. Clients are used to high standards of interpretation and are not too patient with hesitant beginners. There is no point in being able to get most of it right. In Ottawa, there are very many bilingual public servants who can get most of it right. The interpreter is there to communicate the parts they cannot understand. Notwithstanding the further training offered by the Bureau, reaching that level after 26 weeks of training is a tall order. We might consider whether a two-year program would be more appropriate and what it could contain.

A two-year program?

Experience shows that the most successful candidates are those with a solid background in translation. The disparity between those with and without professional experience is marked. The differences concern rigour of expression, awareness of current events and current government policies, and the ability to use their time productively. Unfortunately, there are no textbooks you can follow in order to become an interpreter. Students have to be able to work with one another between classes, and experience in translation is invaluable in determining those areas of study which are most immediately useful because of the frequency with which they are encountered.

In view of the aforementioned, I think that in the first year of a two-year program the students should follow an intensive translation program, preparing as much as possible for the subject areas they will encounter when they begin interpreting in the second year. The approach has to be tightly coordinated to ensure that instructors cover together those areas identified as essential. The emphasis throughout the year would be on precision and speed, with shorter and shorter preparation time for translation, which would be done "on sight" rather than written and would always be done without the assistance of a dictionary. The goals of the instructors would be to develop:

(a) That combination of precision and flexibility to which we referred earlier, i.e., determining what the expression/term/utterance means in the context (rather than solely its dictionary definition) and having sufficient resources to render the sense. The instructors would discourage undue self-correction, which is a problem even among good candidates, who want to go back and offer a "better" version. In interpretation, confidence is essential, the message has to be given crisply even if you cannot find the exact term you are looking for. Finish the sentence and move on. Don’t agonize over details. When working within a tight time frame, remember the old proverb: "Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien."

(b) Familiarity with essential political, socio-economic and financial terminology of the type encountered in many assignments. At this stage students do not need technical terminology for particular assignments (e.g. , herbal medicines, CRTC regulations, endangered species, etc.), although they will encounter these subjects later and through Conference Documentation will learn to use the research tools available such as websites, background documents, terminology bulletins, for specific meetings.

(c) Intensive courses towards the second language. This would mirror what is done in (a) and (b). Despite established practice, I think it would be more profitable to separate Anglophone and Francophone students when working towards their second language, thus allowing instructors to revert to the same text a number of times if necessary, to reiterate points and advice which might become tedious for someone working towards their mother tongue. Regardless of the number of times they work on the same exercise, people never seem to become too blasé or relaxed working towards their second language. The approach in each case is different: working towards your A language, you tend to broaden your resources, expanding and enriching the variety of expression; towards the B language, I think the aim should be absolute correctness of expression, even if at times it appears a little tight and contracted.

Tools to be used

We are very fortunate to have available to us a wealth of resources unimaginable in other countries. We have the Hansard, committee briefs and transcripts, presentations and documents from conference assignments, newspapers published each day dealing with essentially the same subjects. These tools are as useful as any textbook in interpretation and should be the basis of the courses suggested earlier.

For these courses, the interpretation facilities should be used (booths, television, recording equipment). The students would feel they are part of an interpretation program, that they were on the way to qualifying even though they had not yet begun interpretation as such.

I must reiterate that it is impossible to cover every subject in a training program. The purpose of the program is to train interpreters, not economists, political scientists or sociologists, and therefore the course should focus on the language challenges to be overcome, which are substantial. Background knowledge is of course very helpful, but without adequate language skills, supplemented by intelligence and strong nerves, students are unlikely to endure the reality of simultaneous interpreting and the wear and tear of having to perform every day.


The current generation of interpreters is growing ever closer to retirement. New interpreters have to be ready to contribute from their first assignment. In interpretation there is no safety net, nobody to check your work before it goes to the client. Consequently, interpreters have to be trained carefully if they are to meet the high standards of an examining board and of the market. Experience shows that we cannot simply take the position stated in 1995 by André Kaminker, Honorary President of AIIC:

"Je suis persuadé que s’il y a une forme qui ne se codifie pas, qui ne se laisse pas enfermer dans le cadre de certaines règles, c’est bien le métier que nous exerçons, parce qu’il est tellement individuel, il dépend tellement intimement de la personnalité de celui qui l’exerce, qu’il est à peu près impossible, en dehors des disciplines de base, de dire comment on l’exerce." (4)

In the type of training program we want to offer, we have to provide the "disciplines de base," but also more than that, as I hope this article illustrates. I think the results from previous university and in-house programs have been good. The interpreters produced have proven to be very competent linguists and congenial colleagues, people with whom we would all be proud to work, and certainly light years away from the jaundiced observations on the first generation of simultaneous interpreters, accredited to Lord Birkett, one of the judges sitting at Nuremberg:

"But translators are a race apart—touchy, vain, unaccountable, full of vagaries, puffed up with self-importance of the most explosive kind, inexpressibly egotistical, and as a rule, violent opponents of soap and sunlight . . ." 5)

We cannot end on that note. We should take a far more balanced view, an observation made by one of the great Canadian diplomats and diarists of this century, Charles Ritchie, who no doubt had a far broader experience of life than the somewhat sour Lord Birkett, and who, in just a few words, was able to sum up the personal, intellectual, ethical and linguistic qualities of the best interpreters. In his diaries, Canada’s urbane former ambassador to Washington and London, whose gifts of keen observation have been compared to those of Pepys, was quick to recognize the talent of these "sophisticated, tactful, tireless artists of language" (6) and to express his gratitude to them. In a mere six words, has there ever been a more accurate and apt description of the qualities every interpreter training program should be seeking to develop? If we take those qualities as our yardstick for training the next generation, I think we won’t go far wrong.


  1. International Military Tribunal, Seventeenth Organisational Meeting (Oct. 29 1945): 17 (quoted by Francesca Gaiba, op. cit: 48)
  2. AIIC, Enseignement de l’interprétation - dix ans de colloques, AIIC, Geneva: 25.
    Pour le PCL ("crash course de six mois"), la consécutive n’est pas la seule voie d’accès à la simultanée. Dès le début des études, des exercices de répétition en cabine accompagnent la mise en condition physique et technique qui s’effectue rapidement (deux semaines). Très vite, les étudiants se sentent à l’aise en cabine et apprennent à écouter, à comprendre le message, à le rendre d’abord dans la même langue, puis dans l’autre, exercices qui initient autant à la consécutive qu’à la simultanée. Les deux démarches sont complémentaires […] Si la consécutive forme l’esprit d’analyse, la traduction immédiate, en simultané, facilite la prise des notes de consécutive dans la langue d’aboutissement.
  3. For more information on evaluating the qualities of good interpreters, see: David Roberts, "Evaluating Interpreters at Work - or Trying Not to Feel Superfluous," Terminology Update, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1990, pp. 13-17.
  4. AIIC, op. cit.: 58.
  5. Montgomery H. Hyde, Lord Justice. The Life and Times of Lord Birkett of Ulverton (Random House, New York, 1964): 521.
  6. Charles Ritchie, Diplomatic Passport 1946-1962 (Macmillan, Toronto, 1962): 162.

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