Court and Conference Interpreting: So close, yet so far apart!

Well, I made it! One more semester to go. As I write, the train wheels rumble underneath my seat. We are somewhere between Toronto and Montreal. When I made this journey in reverse three months ago, the leaves still adorned the trees. Now the fields are covered with snow and the ponds and streams whizzing by are frozen over with ice. I’m on my way home from my third semester at Glendon, in the Master’s in Conference Interpreting program. I was asked recently to write about the difference in training for court and conference programs, so that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

First, though, let’s talk about what’s the same. There is a huge emphasis in my master’s program on recording and feedback. This is nothing new. Any interpreter training worth its salt teaches students how to evaluate themselves and each other. We must be able to listen to ourselves, pinpoint our errors, and dig deep: Why are the mistakes happening? What patterns can we find? Is it a case of brain saturation—too much cognitive load for us to handle, meaning we simply must put in the hours? Or can we identify a gap in our knowledge or our technique? To improve your interpreting ability, you must be able to analyze your output, ask the right questions, and then find solutions. This is true for court interpreting, and it remains true for conference interpreting. I have noticed, however, that my program emphasizes certain aspects of interpreting in particular. I’ve picked three to share with you.

As interpreters, we all know that context is important. Try interpreting the word “joint.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find an equivalent in your target language without knowing whether we’re referring to an anatomical structure, a shared account, or a marijuana cigarette. We know that interpreting word-for-word is non-sensical. But in my program, we take this to another level. Conference interpreters have to be ready for speeches on any topic, from fisheries to nuclear energy, with speakers from every possible region of the world. These speeches don’t make sense if you are not familiar with the subject matter. Furthermore, cultural understanding is a must. Vague references to historical events are easy for me if they’re referring to Dr. King, or the American Civil War. But what then when the speaker makes quick mention to a beverage power struggle arising from a border dispute between Peru and Chile (hint: the beverage is a liquor called Pisco)? I will miss the reference entirely if I haven’t done my homework. So…I’m reading. A lot. About everything. My brain is exploding.

Again, court interpreters will be familiar with this concept. We all understand that we must adapt the source language’s syntax to the target one if we want to be in any way coherent. However, I’m finding that a whole lot more reformulation is required in conference interpreting. I believe this is because court interpreting is so technical, detailed, and you can’t leave anything out. This means that there isn’t a lot of wiggle room, and you may end up sacrificing style for content. In other words, there aren’t too many ways to interpret, “The assailant was carrying a loaded shotgun and a knife. He approached the victim from behind and fired at point-blank range.” On the other hand, the language of conference speakers is often (though not always) more subtle: “The ebbs and flows of investment in the 20th century led to diminishing returns in a multitude of countries as the industrial revolution transformed our understanding of economic growth.” There are still key words to catch here (20th century; industrial revolution; economic growth) but there is much more room for interpretation. I’ve had to retrain my court-interpreter brain, so that I’m not trying to capture every tiny detail, and I can focus instead on the underlying intention of the speaker. One of the consequences of this shift from interpreting in the courtroom to working in the booth is that my decalage is now much longer.

Delivery is, perhaps, the biggest difference of all. In court interpreting, we have to capture every hedge, every filler, every hesitation. In conference interpreting, we must (mercifully!) leave these out. It’s a relief not to have to duplicate them because it opens up brain space for much-needed analysis and reformulation. On the flip side, our delivery is careful. We have to sound confident, calm and coherent. Saying that the original speaker wasn’t coherent does not serve as an excuse! At times we may make more sense than the original speaker. In court interpreting, delivery is often sacrificed for accuracy. We’re told not to say “um” and “uh” all the time, but no test actually penalizes us for poor delivery. Not so in conference interpreting. “You are there at the service of your client,” our teachers tell us over and over again. “They will be listening to you for hours. Don’t make them guess what you mean, decipher your pronunciation, or throw their headphones across the room because your voice sounds so unpleasant.” So, my classmates and I are all working on our radio-presenter voices.

It’s been a long semester, and we are all ready for a break. But the progress we’ve made in three months has been formidable. My classmates and I have had ups and we’ve had downs, but we are starting to sound like the interpreters we would one day like to be. So now it’s time to give our brains a break before coming back in the new year ready to tackle even tougher stuff. We wish you all a beautiful holiday season, and if you’re studying, too, chin up! Put the hours in and you won’t regret it.

[This post also published on 12/6/19 at]

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