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Introducing Translators to Conference Interpreting

Sylvie Lambert-Tierrafría, PhD

How do you make sure that students possess the competencies necessary to be great interpreters? What qualities do they need to develop? The University of Ottawa recently made changes to their Master in Conference Interpreting and to their courses in order to guarantee their students receive the best training.

Deconstructing students’ skills

In an effort to attract the best candidates for the Master in Conference Interpreting, one approach that was introduced approximately ten years ago was a course open to third- and fourth-year translation students designed to deconstruct the cognitive skills required of conference interpreters for both simultaneous and consecutive interpretation1. The course breaks down all of the components involved in interpretation and introduces one skill at a time to prepare the candidates for the selection examination held yearly in May for the MCI program. The skills involved include, among others:

  • "The Voice"
  • listening and memory exercises
  • oral presentations and public speaking
  • sight translation
  • cloze exercises
  • consecutive note-taking
  • shadowing
  • divided attention
  • sight interpretation
  • how to cope with stress

“The Voice”

In the very first class, students are encouraged to rid themselves of any voice mannerisms they may have acquired and developed over the years, including vocal fry, run-ons, breathiness and up-talk. Speech patterns such as the overuse and inappropriate use of like, and beginning sentences with basically or so also need to be taken care of. Otherwise, students sound less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, and undermine their assertiveness and authority.

Listening and Memory Exercises

Listening and memory exercises, including recalling without distortion of meaning, are conducted in the candidate's two working languages. Since listening represents the basic and common denominator to all tasks demanded of interpreters, particular attention is paid to developing this skill from the onset. At the same time, candidates learn to develop their memory, both recognition and recall, as well as short- and long-term memory. Short-term memory entails the capacity to hold a small amount of information in an active and readily available state for a short period of time, usually mere seconds. The most commonly cited capacity is one’s ability to remember seven digits, plus or minus two. Summarizing focuses on the ability to listen attentively to a given message and recall the main points of the argument by tapping into long-term memory.

Oral Presentations and Public Speaking

Candidates are asked to give short, impromptu speeches on current events. They are coached to focus on style, content, clarity and public-speaking skills, as well as on their ability to sound convinced and convincing. Candidates are also asked to prepare brief presentations on selected topics, usually in domains where they may feel weak or uncomfortable (finance; religion; science; politics; legal issues, etc.). They have access to notes during oral presentations at the beginning, but gradually they move toward having no access to notes. Candidates are assessed by other students on their strengths and shortcomings as public speakers. During these presentations, the other students take notes and are introduced to consecutive interpretation skills, which involve acquiring note-taking skills, followed by a smooth and professional delivery of the speech into another language, based on these notes.

Sight Translation

Sight translation incorporates cognitive skills involving translation and public speaking under time-constraints that translators do not usually experience. Candidates begin with rehearsed and prepared texts (which have already been paraphrased, for example) but eventually work with unprepared material. They learn to read ahead, anticipate and paraphrase if they are unable to provide an immediate equivalent. Performances may be videotaped, with the candidates' permission, and evaluated in class. Candidates practice in both directions, French into English and English into French. Students in the tri-lingual Spanish program work with Spanish-language texts

Cloze Exercises

Candidates are handed doctored texts where every tenth word, for example, has been deleted and replaced by a blank. They are asked to read the text out loud to the rest of the class and to fill in the blanks with either the exact missing word or an appropriate and semantically acceptable synonym. The cloze exercise is done in both working languages and the exercise is also used as a sight-translation exercise.

Consecutive Note-Taking

The students are also introduced to note-taking for consecutive interpretation. During consecutive interpretation, the interpreter speaks after the source-langue speaker has paused or finished speaking, Usually, the speech is divided into segments, and the interpreter listens and takes notes as the speaker delivers his or her message.


Shadowing is repeating exactly what is heard through a set of headphones and in the same language, from A language to A language and then from B language to B language. This exercise is used to acclimatize candidates to the mechanical aspect of simultaneous interpretation, namely the ability to speak and listen simultaneously and effortlessly.

Divided Attention

Dividing attention between various tasks, such as listening and counting digits out loud, for example, or backwards, or every second digit; or shadowing material and then being asked to recall the material just shadowed. These exercises enable candidates to gradually learn to ignore (i.e. trust) the sound of their own voice and to devote all their attention to the incoming message.

Sight Interpretation

Candidates are given five to ten minutes to prepare a text. Then, the instructor reads the text into the microphone to the candidates who interpret the text in the simultaneous mode, being careful to follow what the instructor is actually saying in case of any deviation from the original text. This intermediary step approximates the simultaneous-interpretation condition and prepares the candidate for simultaneous interpretation per se. Sight interpretation is also part of the selection examination test at the Translation Bureau and at the University of Ottawa.


All of the above activities normally expose candidates to varying amounts of stress in the classroom situation but they are never as intimidating as real-life conditions, such as the admission tests to the MCI program, or the first interpreting experience.

1. Simultaneous interpretation is translation performed orally, in real time, and in a parallel manner, with the use of headphones; during consecutive interpretation, the interpreter takes notes while someone is speaking and then translates into the other language during a pause in the speech.

Sylvie Lambert-Tierrafría is an Associate Professor at the School of Translation and Interpretation at the University of Ottawa.

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