Language Skills-Building for Interpreters

Interpreters face somewhat of a conundrum upon entering the profession. That is, we are expected to have “native-level” discourse and comprehension skills in all of our languages. Advertisements boast “perfect fluency,” and respectable interpreting courses necessarily steer their content away from language acquisition. Yet, of course, secretly we realize that none of us is perfectly fluent in any language; not even close. So, I think it’s time for us all to admit that we have some work to do in the area of language and that there is nothing shameful about this.

That brings me to today’s topic.

In January, Andrew Gillies visited our Master’s in Conference Interpreting program here at Glendon College, in Toronto. Perhaps you have heard of him; he literally wrote the book on consecutive interpretation. He brought Jean-François Rozan’s wealth of note-taking knowledge to the English-speaking world. What you may not know is that Andrew Gillies has also written a book, much of which is devoted to improving interpreters’ language skills: (Conference Interpreting – A student’s practice book I would like to present a couple of my favorite exercises here. They are applicable to any of your languages.

  1. Transcript Exercise: An in-depth analysis of your language mistakes.

Step 1: Record yourself interpreting into your language of choice. Interpretation should be about three minutes long.

Step 2: Type up an exact transcript of everything you hear. Put this in the first column of a table.

Step 3: In a second column of the same table, correct the transcript. Any errors that you see should be fixed. This will give you a chance to use your own knowledge of grammar and put it to the test, without the pressure of interpretation tripping you up.

Step 4: In a third column of the same table, ask a native speaker of this language to correct your correction. Here, you will notice any errors that escaped you the first time.

Step 5: Now, with these corrections in mind, perform the interpretation again!

  1. Memorization Exercise: Integration of elegant, native-level phrases into your every-day speech.

Day 1: Select a couple of lines of good, native speech from a news article or another reputable source. Write the content down. Memorize it. (If you are a court interpreter, feel free to target pieces relevant to the law.)

Day 2: Review Day 1’s excerpt, making sure you still remember it. Then, memorize another one for day 2!

Day 3: Repeat the process: Review the lines from Day 1 and Day 2, and then add another to your arsenal.

I’m currently on Day 10 of this process with good Spanish selected from news articles. I don’t do it every single day, but I have calendar reminders to make sure I don’t lose the habit. My vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds, and Andrew Gillies promises that after a couple of months of this, you will be armed with useful words and collocations to help you get by as you interpret.

This is only the beginning

And that is that. If you’re curious to watch Andrew Gillies talk about these and other exercises, check out his YouTube video here:

Happy Studying!

[This article also published at on 3/6/20]

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