Consecutive interpreting without note taking: blasphemy?

I know, the title sounds ridiculous. Consecutive interpreting without note taking is like a sunny day without the sun, like solid air and liquid earth. Or is it not?

I actually believe that this idea is not as far fetched as it may initially appear, for one simple reason: that we now have the technological means of digitally recording a speech, playing it back with top notch audio quality and slowing it down without degrading the audio output.

Most modern digital recorders have all of these features, plus others such as sophisticated voice activated systems that stop the recorder automatically when the speaker pauses.

Are there any advantages in interpreting a speech consecutively by using a digital recorder instead of a traditional note taking system?

I believe there are many.

For one thing, while you are recording you can focus your full attention on listening, while perhaps jotting down a few numbers, names or words you anticipate you will have problems with afterwards.

There is very little tension in this phase, you don’t have to scramble to understand everything immediately nor do you have to write down every important detail, as you would with traditional note taking.

Then, once the speaker is over, you play the speech back in your earphones (possibily noise cancelling ones) and  interpret it “simultaneously”, but with the considerable advantage of having heard the speech already once before and of being able to pause it or slow it down if needed.

Consecutive interpreting without note taking: blasphemy?

4 thoughts on “Consecutive interpreting without note taking: blasphemy?

  1. ultrapiotr says:

    well, the idea itself is not bad. I have just had my final exams for conference interpreters and in order to prepare for it I was using the same recorder you can see in the article.
    I will try to see whether/how it works with a consecutive speech of 5 minutes.

  2. Thanks for this article, and the blog, which I’ve only just discovered.

    The technique you talk about here was tried a couple of years ago by a staff interpreter at the EU Commission and described in their interpreting bulletin, SCIC News. Sadly this bulletin is now behind a password login page. I can’t remember much of the detail but he described the experience as having some of the advantages you mention. But he cites the major problem as being the impossibility of recreating the one thing that is considered the essence of consecutive. Namely that the interpreting take around only 3/4 as long as the original. You can’t cut out redundancy or render things more concisely in this “consecutive simultaneous” mode of interpreting – if you do you will have to wait for the tape to catch you up.

    You can pause the tape, yes, or even slow it down but this makes the interpreting even longer than the original. And you can’t fast forward, because you don’t know what you might miss!

    Unfortunately there are also some major practical problems. You are by no means always near enough the speaker to get a decent sound recording from the original on a device with a built-in microphone like this. Also you can’t wear anything but button headphones at a public function without looking impossibly out of place. And even then…

    Just a quick word about Voice activated recording. A bit of a digression, but since you mention it…again I speak from my own painful experience with dictaphones. Voice activation recordings are a nightmare if intended for simultaneous interpreting use. Why? Because the recording you end up with has no pauses – the machine switches off and doesn’t record them! No time for the interpreter to take a breather or recover. It is just a constant stream of language. Voice activation also, by definition missing the first half syllable of everything it records – not great for us interpreters!

    Also on the down side… this consec-sim would probably not be allowed at the International Institutions accreditation tests, where old fashioned consec is seen as essential. (And the 3/4 length interpretation a pass or fail criterion.)

    Lastly, the consec-sim idea has singularly failed to catch on so far amongst interpreters. And it has been talked about for a couple of years. Interpreters are notoriously slow with new technology though, so this may not be quite as significant as the other points.

    All of these things could be sorted out though, so maybe, maybe, one day!


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