Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book

Today’s post looks at what I consider to be one of the most important interpreter training resources to come out in recent years. It was my intention to write this review of Andrew Gillies’ new book, entitled Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book (Routledge, 2013) when it was first published last spring, but life had other plans for me, and so it is only now that I am finally able to sit down and tell readers what I like so much about it.

book review Gillies

For those students and trainers who haven’t yet had a chance to get their hands on a copy, let me just give you a brief idea of what you’ll find inside. As the title implies, Gillies’ new book is meant to help guide students as they practice their budding interpreting skills. It offers a compilation of over 300 different exercises targeting various aspects of the interpreting process. The exercises, which have been taken from a wide range of sources (all duly cited), are grouped into four main parts (A: Practice, B: Language, C: Consecutive Interpreting and D: Simultaneous Interpreting), and each of these parts is further divided into several sections (active and passive language enhancement, delivery, reformulation, split attention, etc.).

So far, so good*. But what makes Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book so indispensable that I have taken to packing it in my suitcase and pulling it out on every possible occasion to wave it under fellow trainers’ noses? For me, the appeal of this new book lies in the fact that it is based on a number of training principles that I hold near and dear to my heart, and it shows me new ways to apply them in my teaching. These principles may seem obvious to many readers, but I’ll briefly list them here anyway:

1 Interpreting is a complex process that can be broken down into a number of component parts or sub-skills;

2 To improve overall interpreting performance, you should work first on improving these component parts separately;

3 Effective learning is best achieved by setting clear, measurable, and above all obtainable objectives;

4 Learning can (and should) be fun!

Let me illustrate how Gillies’ new book promotes learning along these principles. Let’s say that we’ve got a couple of students having a hard time with their delivery in simultaneous: they’re speaking in a very monotonous voice, hunching over, and mumbling into the microphone. We’ve told them to liven it up a bit, asked them to record themselves and listen to their own performance, even suggested they place a little sticky note on the booth’s glass saying “DELIVERY!” or “KEEP IT LIVELY!”, but nothing seems to be getting the message across.

So we turn to Gillies’ book for some new ideas on how to encourage these students to communicate better in the booth. We flip to Part D: Simultaneous Interpreting, find the section on Delivery, and lo and behold, there’s not one but six new exercises to try. We decide to go for exercise D.2 Inverted conference, where Gillies suggests running a mock conference where the speakers sit in the booths and the interpreters sit at the main table. The idea is to demonstrate the simultaneous interpreting is also a communicative act, and that behaviour that would not be appropriate for someone speaking before a group – speaking in a monotonous voice, hunching over, mumbling – is also not appropriate in the booth. It’s the perfect exercise: it’s targeted (on communication skills), the impact is immediate and measurable (in the form of audience feedback), the students are bound to take the lessons learned back with them into the booth, and, last but not least, it’s probably quite fun.

The book is replete with ideas such as these that offer trainers new ways to address some of the most recurrent problems students face. Are your students wondering how they can improve their general knowledge, apart from reading the paper every day? Have them check out exercises B.1 to B.17, there’s sure to be something there that interests them. Do they need guidance on how to cultivate split attention? You’ll find exercises for that in C.131 to C.140. And the list goes on…

At this point, you may be wondering why it’s called “A Student’s Practice Book”, when all I have been doing is explaining how trainers can use it. I guess that just reflects my own personal bias – I see it first as a resource for trainers like me. But of course, students will also be able to make use of the ideas covered in the book. In particular, advanced students of interpreting will find plenty of ways to structure their group practice sessions and lots of new ideas to keep themselves and their classmates motivated. Beginning students, for their part, will want to read the sections on practice and feedback as early on in their training as possible.

It should be made clear, however, that the book is not a manual, to be read from start to finish, that will teach the absolute beginner how to become an interpreter (for that, you’ve got Gillies’ other main title, Note-Taking for Consecutive Interpreting: A Short Course (St. Jerome, 2005), which offers a step-by-step guide for beginners on how to develop a workable note-taking technique). Rather, Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book is a wide-ranging, diverse compilation of resources that students and trainers of all levels will want to have on their bookshelf and consult as the need arises.

As I see it, Gillies has spared us all the trouble of having to sort all those loose papers we’ve gathered over the years, all the photocopies we’ve received from training seminars, all the ideas we’ve scribbled on sticky notes after conversations with fellow trainers over coffee, because he’s just gone and done it for us. For this reason alone, I consider the book to be a major contribution to interpreter training. The added bonus in my case is that it has also allowed me to add some variety to my own training approach. After many years in front of a classroom, one runs the risk of falling into a rut and, worse, losing enthusiasm for the training experience. Thanks to Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book, it doesn’t look like that will happen to this trainer any time soon.

*For an excellent take on Gillies’ book, check out Barry Slaughter Olsen’s review “One Interpreting Practice Book to Train Them All”, published on the InterpretAmerica website.

Live Webcast of Day 2 of InterpretAmerica 4

As many readers will know, the fourth edition of the InterpretAmerica summit is just around the corner. It’s taking place next weekend, June 14th and 15th, in Reston VA and is shaping up to be a doozy of an event. Months ago, when the news of the event came out, I checked my planner and saw that it would be impossible to attend due to professional and family obligations.  I’ve been watching the preparations from afar and following the buzz with envy ever since.

You can just imagine my excitement when I heard the other day that Day 2 of InterpretAmerica is now going to be streamed live. This is a fantastic opportunity for those of us who can’t make it to the event itself and yet still want to follow the goings-on at what is undoubtedly one of the most important events in our industry. Highlights of Day 2 include the new Interpret-ED talks (fashioned after the famous TED talks), one of which (Do Interpreters Practice?) will be given by my friend and fellow blogger Elisabet Tiselius. I’ll also be following with interest the debate on digital disruption (The Coming Wave).

To follow the webcast, you have to register in advance and pay a fee of US$25 via PayPal (don’t worry if you don’t have a PayPal account, the payment site will let you use your credit card). The webcast will run from 9:00 to 17:15 EDT (that’s 14:00 to 22:15 Brussels time/CET).

I’ll leave you with the webcast details:

Many interpreters, language service companies and educators around the world have told us they would love to attend an InterpretAmerica Summit but often can’t make it because of the time and cost associated with travel. This year we have partnered with Voices for Health to bring you a live webcast of day 2 of this year’s Summit. 

Can’t make it to InterpretAmerica 4 in person? Join us on line on Saturday, June 15!

You’ll be able to comment and ask questions using Twitter (Hashtag #IASummit4). And you can do all of this from the comfort of your computer or mobile device. Space is limited, so register now! Cost of registration is $25.00 USD.

Where can I listen to real interpreters at work?

Before I give you my answer to the question in today’s title, I have to say that I am a bit surprised I don’t get asked this more often. I guess it’s because 1) my students already know the answer, and 2) other people who ask me about conference interpreting aren’t aware that portals of interpreted events exist, so they don’t think to inquire after the links. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share with readers my top three websites for listening to real, live conference interpreters in action.

The first is EP Live, the European Parliament’s portal to webcasts of its plenary sessions, committee meetings and press briefings. These events can either be followed live (as the portal’s name implies) or viewed after the fact as podcasts. Here’s the fun part: you can switch between listening to the original language feed or tuning into any of the interpreting booths working at that particular meeting. Ever wondered what Joseph Daul sounds like in Polish? Wonder no more

A second resource is the United Nations Web TV portal. It’s like the Parliament’s, in that it offers a range of webcasts of events in real time, either in the original or the interpreted version. The main difference is in the language coverage; while EP Live offers the opportunity to listen to upward of 20 different booths for some meetings, English, Spanish and French are the main languages you’ll find represented on the UN’s site.

One feature that the UN site offers which the Parliament’s doesn’t is that it allows you to filter your search not only by category – meetings, news, features, issues, etc. –  but also by language. The UN site’s search engine lists the six official languages plus Portuguese, Japanese and Kiswahili. Neat!

Image courtesy of jannoon28 /

Image courtesy of jannoon28 /

Most interpreting students have already explored the EP and UN portals, so at this point I’m haven’t yet told them anything new. However, there is another, possibly less known place to catch conference interpreters at work: the European Commission’s Conferences WebTV portal, the one-stop shop for viewing all of the Commission’s webstreamed conferences and other events. If you’re lucky enough or time your visit correctly, you can follow the events live. You can also browse the archive of events and individual presentations by keyword or date.

Just like the other portals, once you’ve found what you’re looking for on the Commission’s WebTV, you can switch between the original language feed and the various interpreted versions.

Personally, I find the European Commission’s portal much more useful for practicing than the Parliament’s, since it provides complete, webstreamed coverage of events from start to finish. Picture a web page with links to every single thing said at a two-day fisheries meeting, from the opening session and keynote speech to the Q&A sessions, with – added bonus! – all the Powerpoint presentations thrown into the bargain. What more could one ask for?

The Commission’s webstreamed events are also a lot closer to what new interpreters will actually be doing when they first hit the market – after all, how many beginners cut their teeth on plenary sessions in Strasbourg or the UN General Assembly?

Before I conclude, let me just say that the one drawback of all of these portals (for interpreting students at least) is that it is not possible to listen to both the original and the interpretation as the same time. The only way to do that, as far as I can tell, is to open up two browser tabs and try to time the feed from the floor with the one from the booth so that they coincide. However, due to the delays caused by buffering, this is nigh on impossible. So if you want to compare a speech with its interpretation, you have to listen to the two versions separately, which is nowhere near as useful for learning purposes as listening to an interpreter working simultaneously from the original.

Still, these websites are perfect for students eager to hear how professional conference interpreters sound when they work, as well as for the merely curious who are wondering what real, live interpreters get up to all day.