Videos on Interpreting: The Masters Series

I’d love to write a post introducing the interpreting profession to newcomers, another looking at the basics of consecutive note-taking, and a third giving tips to students starting out in the booth – but why bother, when there are three excellent videos already out there covering precisely those topics?

I’m referring of course to the videos done by Dick Fleming, conference interpreter and trainer, for Lourdes de Rioja, producer of the Lourdesaib channel on Youtube.  I don’t believe either of these individuals requires an introduction, but just in case there is somebody out there who hasn’t heard of them yet, allow me to do the honours.

Dick Fleming is a former staff interpreter with the European Commission’s DG Interpretation (DG SCIC) and was the organiser of the Commission’s in-house interpreter training course (“stage”) that produced so many excellent interpreters in the years that it was running. He has been involved for many years now in training for trainers as well.

Lourdes de Rioja is a freelance conference interpreter for the European Insitutions and a Key Trainer at interpreting schools in Denmark and Spain. In her spare time (!) she also produces videos on the interpreting profession, which she shares on her Youtube channel and which have proven a big hit amongst the interpreting community (by the way, this channel just got a facelift, so if you haven’t visited it recently, I recommend you check out its new look).

What I want to share with you today is a series of videos that Lourdes and Dick produced together. Many of you will have already seen them, or at least one or two, but I thought it would be useful to bring the three videos together in a single place, for anyone who might have missed out.

The first video in the series, “The eloquent detective”, looks at the interpreting profession in general terms, and draws some interesting parallels between the work of the interpreter and detective work.

The second video, “Consecutive note-taking”, looks at how best to avoid the potential pit-falls of poor note-taking.

By the way, that video has been selected as the basis for discussion at the upcoming Interpreting Journal Club chat on consecutive interpreting. The title for the chat is “Consecutive is dead! Long live consecutive?” and if you have any views about the future (or lack thereof) of the consecutive mode of interpretation, you’re welcome to join the chat tomorrow (more details here).

The third and final video, “Starting simultaneous interpreting”, offers some basic tips to students just starting out in the booth. This was the topic of the training session Dick held with my students in La Laguna this week, and is also related to the Training for Trainers seminar he ran for the ULL’s trainers on Tuesday, which looked at techniques for teaching simultaneous (very useful seminar, it was – I’m still digesting all the information!).

So there you have it, my “Masters Series” of videos on interpreting. Enjoy!

There’s a long weekend starting now in Spain, so I’ll be tuning out for a few days, but I’ll be back soon enough with more interpreter training fun…

Of Notepads and Writing Utensils

Conference interpreters are great conversationalists. If you don’t believe me, invite some to your next dinner party and watch them captivate fellow diners with tales of agricultural missions to slaughterhouses and clever solutions to terminological dilemmas (or read this post on In my words, which illustrates my point very effectively).

Interpreting students, being the quick learners that they are, tend to adopt this gripping conversation style quite early on in their studies. Today, I am going to share with readers one of the favourite topics among students around this time of year: the best notepads and writing utensils for consecutive note-taking.

Before I start, let me say that views amongst practitioners are very divided on this highly important matter, and I have no intention to start World War III by coming down on one side or the other of the debate. I will just briefly explain some of the various options out there, and then tell you (without any desire to convince or convert) what sort of notepads and writing utensils I use myself.

The Notepad

When choosing the type of notepad you will use for taking consecutive notes, the first thing you have to select is the size. Most interpreters will go for either an A4 (letter-size) or A5 (half-size) pad. This makes sense: any bigger than A4 and it won’t fit in your bag, and any smaller than A5 and chances are you won’t see your own scribblings (for an explanation of A4 and A5 paper sizes, click here).

But the decisions don’t stop there: you then have to decide if you prefer coil or bound, lined or unlined or graph paper, with a printed side margin or without, hard-backed or floppy, top-flipping or side-flipping, and any other number of other options that are out there (did I miss any?). Online outlets of major office supplies chains such as Office Depot and Staples offer  several models of notepad categorized by different criteria (page size, binding, lines, paper colour…), so the choices, really, are endless.

However, one key factor, the importance of which is not to be underestimated, is the assortment of notepads you are likely to find available at your local store or airport press shop. One doesn’t wish to develop very exotic tastes, only to discover that one is unable to satisfy them, does one? For instance, I don’t know how many top-bound, unlined, coil A4 notepads there are on the market, but if you decide that is what you need (and many students appear to), you had better have a reliable source for obtaining them.

Personally, I try to have an unlined, top-bound, hard-backed A5 notepad in my bag at all times. They’re easy to find in shops, plus they come in handy for writing grocery lists, jotting down ideas for future blog posts, entertaining the kids during restaurant waits … oh, and they are pretty good for taking consec notes, too.

I would actually prefer to have a coil-bound pad, but for some strange reason, the ones I like are hard to come by. The only A5 coil pads I can find in Spain have graph paper, and when forced to choose, I will take unlined pages over coil bindings every time.

But before I start boring even myself with this recount of my notepad preferences, I will move on to the next topic …

The Writing Utensil

Did you notice that so far I have carefully avoided the use of the word “pen”? This is because I don’t wish to alienate those readers who subscribe to one particular school of thought – which boasts a long lineage that probably goes all the way back to Nuremberg – that says that pencils are to be the note-taking instrument of choice for interpreters (I’m surprised that this particular school doesn’t just go straight for the feathered quill + ink pot option). The argument here, apparently, is that pencils flow better across the page than pens. My counterargument is that these pencil-pushing interpreters should probably try a Bic sometime.

As far as pens go, you have your old standby, the ballpoint, which offers the advantage of being available in pretty much any newsstand, so no exoticism issues there. You also have a broad range of felt-tips that tend to find favour among interpreters.

On this note, let me just say that my colleague Mary caused considerable consternation among viewers recently when she filmed her note-taking videos brandishing a broad-tipped black felt pen (“Is that what I’m supposed to be using? Why didn’t anybody say so?”), until she admitted that she had only done this to make her notes more visible on the screen (“phew!”).

My own pens are a ragtag collection of whatever ballpoints I happen to pick up in my travels, most sporting logos of hotels and meeting venues. I don’t think I have actually gone out and purchased a pen in several years. If I were to invest, however, I would be sure to buy one of those click pens with four different-coloured inks, since it is always handy to have several different colours of ink when evaluating students’ note-taking performance (one colour for the original notes, and a different colour for each student’s work). Since most of the pens collecting in the bottom of my bag are blue-ink only, often I find myself having to borrow other-coloured pens from fellow trainers (and yes, the students as well, as I’m sure they’re thinking right now!) in order to make sense of my own notes in class.


As students go about exploring the various note-taking options and determining which pads and pens (there, I’ve said it!) work best for them, I would urge them to keep one thing in mind: flexibility is the key. There will inevitably come the day when you are called upon to do consecutive and there is nothing available for you to take notes with except some sheets of loose leaf and a dull pencil (which has happened to me), or worse, a dinner napkin and some eyeliner (which has not, fortunately). So do take the time to choose carefully which note-taking instruments are the best for you, but then be prepared to work with whatever is available.

Interpreting Myths: The Video

Yes, I’m still on holidays. By the time this post is published, I will have celebrated two family birthdays and engaged in some serious R&R, Canadian-style. Soon, I will be back at home and ready to get blogging again for real (just when everybody else turns off their computers for the summer and heads off to the beach – what’s wrong with this picture?).

Anyway, this week’s post looks at a video I did for Lourdes of AIB many moons ago (I’m guessing by the fleece sweater I’m wearing that it must have been filmed sometime around Christmas). In the video, I look at a number of common myths surrounding interpreter training. If you haven’t seen the video yet, then you might want to take 7:41 minutes of your time to do so.

Below, I am also including the original script that I wrote for the video. Anyone who is too busy to watch the video can skim the script for the main ideas. Readers interested in seeing how far an interpreter trainer can go off track when trying to improvise on a theme on the basis of written notes can compare the written and recorded versions of the speech. Also, students wanting to test their consecutive note-taking technique can try to take notes from the video, as it is pretty much in line with the kind of speech I would give in a consecutive class, in terms of length, structure and difficulty of the subject matter (although it might be lacking in figures).


Top misconceptions about training to become an interpreter


Many believe you don’t need any training at all, you just have to speak a couple of languages to become an interpreter. This misconception possibly arises from the fact that when you watch a good interpreter in action, it all appears so effortless. This may lead the uninitiated to think that anyone can do it that easily.

This is absolutely FALSE. It’s like saying anyone who can use a thermometer can be a doctor, or owning a pair of skis will make you a ski jumper. While the thorough knowledge of languages is absolutely essential to becoming an interpreter, it is not enough in itself. The reason why it all looks so easy is because the interpreter has spent years training and practicing the skills required to do his or her job.


Here, the idea seems to be that some people are born with a “knack” for interpreting and others don’t. It is true that a certain number of “in-born” traits will make it easier for one to learn the skills required to become an interpreter. For instance, it helps to:

– be a good communicator
– have a quick and well-organised mind
– have the ability to concentrate and focus, especially in stressful situations
– have strong nerves
– have intellectual curiosity
– be adaptable to new situations
– be a people person (although not all interpreters are extroverts)
– be a team player
– show personal integrity

However, even having all of these things won’t automatically make you a “born interpreter”. In the ten years that I have been training interpreters, I have seen many a promising student show up on the first day with all of these traits, and still not make it as interpreters in the end. The fact is, if you don’t apply yourself and work hard to learn the specific skills related to interpreting, you will never make it.

Which brings me to myth number 3…


This one is actually a bit mystifying for me, since most people seem to agree that pretty much every other profession requires training. You want to build a skyscraper? Go and study architecture. You want to run a multinational? Sign up for an MBA. You want to become an interpreter? Apply to a postgraduate interpreting course.

The idea here behind the myth that interpreting can’t be taught would appear to be that since the whole interpreting process all happens so quickly inside one’s head, there is no way to actually figure out what’s going on in there and then teach the techniques required. This is particularly the case for simultaneous translation, where observers see the interpreter listening, mentally analysing and translating the message, and speaking all at the same time.

I’m pleased to say that this belief is also FALSE:

Decades of theoretical research into interpreting have led to well-developed theories of interpretation which show that interpreting is not just an instinctive activity that can only be “learned by doing”. Hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books have been published on the subject. All this has led to a theoretical and practical understanding of just how the interpreting feat is accomplished – and this is what is taught to aspiring interpreters.

During an interpreter training course, the interpreting process is broken down into different phases and skill sets. Each is tackled separately first, and then brought together to create the final product. I liken the process to learning how to juggle. It’s a matter of first learning to throw the balls separately, and then gradually managing to keep them all up in the air. Inevitably, a lot of balls will end up on the floor as the learning takes place, but the end result will be students who are able to do all of these skills apparently “at once” and perform the act of interpreting.

The whole process of becoming an interpreter, far from being impossible to learn, is actually very long and painstaking, and students themselves often complain that one year is not enough (this is the usual length of a postgraduate degree in conference interpreting). This stands in stark contrast to the views of laypeople, who seem to think that no training at all is required, or indeed, even possible.

If you are going undertake training as an interpreter, you had better make sure that you are at the right place, where the job is going to be done right.

Which brings me to my fourth and final myth about interpreter training:


This is simply not true. Just as I’m sure you would do a lot of research before applying to an executive MBA, I highly recommend prospective students research various interpreting schools before making their choice. They shouldn’t necessarily just pick the course closest to home, or the one at the university their friends plan to attend.

What to look out for? According to the AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), which has drafted a list of best practice for conference interpreting training programmes, a course should be at the postgraduate level, be at least one year long, be taught by conference interpreters, include an aptitude test, and teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques.

The AIIC’s recommendations, as well as a number of other tips for prospective students of interpreting, can be found on the website of AIB, along with a lot of other useful information about the profession. AIB offers objective, useful information and debunks a lot of myths, including the four I have talked about today.

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