Introduction to the Consecutive Interpretation Chapter (from The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition)


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Consecutive interpretation, in which the interpreter waits until a complete statement has been spoken and then begins interpreting (so only one person is speaking at a time), is used primarily to interpret witness testimony, a situation in which everyone in the courtroom needs to hear the interpretation. Simultaneous interpretation is generally considered inappropriate for witness testimony--unless the courtroom is equipped with wireless equipment for that purpose--because hearing two voices at once is too distracting. In your work as a court interpreter, you will find that simultaneous interpretation is called for much more often than consecutive, because most cases are settled without a trial. Nevertheless, you must be prepared to perform consecutive interpretation at any time.

When you are interpreting a witness' testimony into English, your version is the only record of what that witness said. Therefore, a very high standard of accuracy prevails in consecutive interpretation. Not only must you convey the content of the source-language message, but you must also convey structural elements of that message that are not contained in the words: pauses, tone of voice, stress, etc. Many interpreters regard consecutive as the most difficult mode of interpreting because it is so hard to retain all of these aspects of the source language message, particularly when a question or answer is very lengthy or is not entirely coherent (an unfortunate fact of life in court interpreting).

Memory Exercises

Because memory is such an important component of consecutive interpretation, this chapter begins with six memory exercises (Tape 4B), which are designed to help you improve your memory skills before beginning to practice consecutive interpretation. They are placed in a logical sequence so that you can work on the individual components of consecutive interpretation and gradually put them together to form a whole. Each of the six lessons illustrates a type of exercise that aids in the development of consecutive interpreting skills; you can use these as models and make up your own exercises if you feel you need to work more on one or more aspects of memory.

The first two lessons are really listening exercises; many people overlook listening as a component of memory, but it should not be taken for granted. Often, errors in consecutive interpretation occur because the interpreter was not using good listening skills. For example, if you become bogged down in details and fail to grasp the overall meaning of a passage, you will not be able to recall it correctly. Thus, Lesson 1 emphasizes zeroing in on the main idea. If you allow yourself to be distracted by an unfamiliar word, an idea you disagree with, or an emotional reaction to vulgar language or incorrect usage, you may stop listening to the rest of the passage and you will not be able to recall it accurately. On the other hand, if you strongly agree with a statement or have a personal association with what the speaker is saying, you will be better able to recall the message.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of your own reactions to statements and to suppress negative reactions that might impede your retention. If you have a strong positive reaction to a statement, be careful not to state it more forcefully than the original or add information that was not originally stated. Lesson 2 consists of a controversial passage designed to help you become aware of how personal reactions can impede retention and recall, or conversely, how identification with the speaker can enhance these skills.

Lesson 3 illustrates the value of focusing on key words as an aid to memory. Whether you write down these words or make a mental note of them, they help you organize the ideas into a meaningful structure that is easier to recall than a mere string of disjointed words. One problem that novice interpreters frequently encounter is excessive note taking; they devote so much energy to scribbling notes that they fail to listen to the speaker, and the result is a jumble of illegible notes that may do more harm than good. It is important to regard notes as an aid to memory, not as a substitute for it. Focusing on key words gives you the discipline to write only what you need to help you retrieve ideas from your memory.

Lesson 4 is designed to show you how much you can remember without taking any notes, provided that the original message is clear and logical; it also helps if the content lends itself to visualization. The more coherent the original message, the more you can retain. Conversely, an illogical or disjointed statement is very difficult to retain (unfortunately, many witnesses' testimony falls into the latter category). Also, if you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, you have more trouble remembering the message. Therefore, the more knowledgeable you are about the subjects that are likely to come up in courtroom testimony, the greater capacity you will have to retain the information.

In Lesson 5, you will have an opportunity to try note taking again, after you have discovered how little you really need to take down. Some interpreters take very few notes, writing down only names and numbers, while other interpreters take copious notes. It is a good idea to experiment with note taking to determine what works best for you. You will find that with some speakers and some subject matters, you will take more notes than with others. Eventually, you will develop your own style of note taking, and you will be able to adapt it to different speakers and subjects.

Finally, Lesson 6 contains questions and answers that are typical of the length and detail of the testimony you will be expected to interpret in court. Once you are able to recall these passages accurately, you are ready to move on to the consecutive interpreting exercises. Even after you have completed all the tapes, you may want to return to these exercises occasionally (or make up similar exercises of your own) to hone your memory skills.

Directions for the memory exercises are given on the tape as well as in the script. To do these memory exercises, ideally you should have two tape recorders (or a single unit that contains two tape stations): one to play the tape, and one to record your own rendition. When you play the memory exercises, pause the recorder when you hear the word stop. Then record your version of the passage on the second tape. When you play back your own rendition, read along in the script as you are listening to it, to check for accuracy. If you do not have two tape recorders, you can switch cassettes in the same recorder (though even the short delay involved in switching cassettes may impede recall). Alternatively, you can give your rendition without recording it, and simply read the script immediately afterwards to check for omissions. Do not read the script while listening to the tape for the first time.

Consecutive Lessons

The consecutive lessons (Tape 4B - 5B) are typical question-and-answer testimony for practicing consecutive interpretation. Because this is the Generic Edition of The Interpreter's Edge, both the questions and the answers are in English. In practice, of course, the questions would be in English and the answers in your second language. In this book, the second-language material is set in a different type face, like this, to distinguish it from the material that really would be in English.

You can address this situation in a number of ways:

  • If a language-specific tape set for The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition exists for your language, and you have purchased that tape set, then you have additional tapes not transcribed in this book. Those tapes include consecutive lessons in English and your second language. You should use those lessons as your primary consecutive practice material.
  • If no language-specific tape set for The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition exists for your language, and you have the resources to translate (or to have translated) the second-language material in this book into your chosen language, you can create your own consecutive practice tapes by combining the English questions printed in this book with the translated answers. Any such tapes you create must be exclusively for your personal use and must not be transferred to any other person. This is the only instance in which you may copy or record any portion of the tapes or printed materials supplied with The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition1.
  • Another alternative, if you don't have a language-specific tape set, is to practice with a group of people who share your language combination, using the scripts in this book. If you do this, the person playing the role of the witness can sight translate the witness's testimony into your target language. That way, the person playing the role of the interpreter has a much more realistic interpreting experience, and the person playing the role of the witness gets extra sight-translation practice.
  • If none of the above options is available to you, use the supplied tapes to practice interpreting both the questions and the answers from English into your target language. Although the exercise is not altogether realistic, it is nevertheless very valuable in helping you improve your consecutive interpreting technique.

When you play the tapes, pause the recorder at the end of each question, give your interpretation (which, ideally, you should tape to check for accuracy and to monitor your delivery, as described above for the memory exercises); resume playing the tape, pause at the end of the answer, give your interpretation, and so on. Do not read the script while you are interpreting; consult it afterwards to check for accuracy or to look up problem terms.

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Sample Consecutive Interpretation Lesson (from The Interpreter's Edge, Generic Edition)

Lesson 4: Battered Wife (Tape 5A)

Q: State your name and county of residence for the record, please.

A: My name is Dominique de Strange Lorenzo, and I live here in town. I don't, uh, know the name of the county--I just moved here.

Q: Are you married, Ms. Lorenzo?

A: Yes, to Hilton Norway, but we're separated now, after what he... well, that's why we're here, isn't it?

Q: Please confine yourself to answering the questions, Mrs. Lorenzo, or should I call you Mrs. Norway?

A: Whatever you like. I use de Strange, for my father, because that's the custom in my country. But whatever's convenient for you, sir--it doesn't matter to me.

Q: Okay, Ms. de Strange. How long have you been married?

A: Let's see, how many years has it been? We got married in 1975, so it's... I don't know how many years it would be. Until we separated, or what?

Q: Do you have any children of this marriage?

A: Yes, sir, I have three children, two boys and a girl.

Q: Now, Ms. de Strange, directing your attention to the night of December 19 of this year, what, if anything, happened on that night?

A: Well, my husband got home very late, OK?, at 11 or 12 o'clock at night. He was pretty tight; he was very loud and offensive when he got home, and I stayed in the bedroom because I knew what was waiting for me.

Q: And what was that, Ms. de Strange?

A: Well, it wasn't the first time that he'd come home that way. He was all steamed up and was itching to hit me. I'm sure he'd been with that other bimbo.

Q: Ms. de Strange, I'd like you to just answer the questions I ask you. Please don't go into details about unrelated matters. Now, you say that your husband came home drunk and you stayed in the bedroom. What happened next?

A: He kicked the door. I kept quiet. He started threatening me and calling me names: a filthy animal, a bitch, a whore2... He said that he hated me.

Q: What, if anything, did you do in response to his statements?

A: I didn't do anything. I didn't dare say a word. I know what he's like when he gets like this, and I don't want to get myself into any more trouble.

Q: After he kicked the door and said all those things to you, what did he do next?

A: He took out a picture of the other woman and told me that he didn't love me anymore, that I disgusted him.

Q: Was he still on the other side of the door at this point? Strike that. Did he enter the room where you were at any point in time?

A: Yes, because when he kicked the door, it opened, and he came in shouting--he kept shouting and shouting.

Q: And what happened next?

A: I kept quiet; he was shaking uncontrollably. I started crying... he told me to knock it off... that it wouldn't do me any good.

Q: And then what happened?

A: He slapped me to shut me up.

Q: I know this is upsetting to you, Ms. de Strange. I'm sorry to make you go into it in such detail, but I'm sure you understand it is necessary. Would you like to take a little break?

A: No, no, no, that's all right. I'm OK.

Q: Okay, thank you. Now, you say your husband slapped you. Where was he at this point?

A: He was next to the night stand. I was crying harder because the slap hurt, so he kept on beating me and punching me. I couldn't defend myself because I was lying down, and every time I tried to stand up, he'd knock me down again with another punch.

Q: I see. And how long did this last?

A: Seconds, because I managed to slip over to the other side of the bed, but I fell on the floor because I got tangled up in the sheets as I was struggling to get away from the punches he was throwing at me.

Q: Now, in your earlier testimony, Ms. de Strange, you said that you have three children. Were any of them present during this altercation?3

A: During what? I'm sorry. I don't understand4.

Q: While your husband was beating you, did any of your children witness this incident?

A: No, thank God, they were with my mother. She'd invited them to go to the movies with her--that's why they weren't there. They didn't get back until afterwards.

Q: All right. Now, you mentioned that you fell off the bed. Did he continue hitting you while you were on the floor?

A: Oh yes. He kept on shouting at me and insulting me... he started to take off his belt. I begged him not to leave me, that I hadn't done anything, that he should leave5. He told me no, that I was the one who should leave, and my bastards with me.

Q: I'm sorry, Ms. de Strange, would you like a moment to compose yourself? Would you like a glass of water? Here's a kleenex.

A: Thank you, that's very kind of you. No, I want to go on, thanks. So then afterwards, he caught me in the corner of the bathroom, and he began to give me a thrashing with his belt.

Q: Thank you, Ms. de Strange. Now, directing your attention to what has been marked People's Exhibit 2 for identification, a belt, do you recognize this belt, Ms. de Strange?

A: Yes, I'll never forget it. He hit me with it, and he kept on hitting me and hitting me. I thought he was never going to stop.

Q: Now, Ms. de Strange, at some point did something happen to cause your husband to stop hitting you with the belt?

A: Yes. I think the neighbors must have called the police, because we heard sirens, and then they knocked on the door. They shouted, "Police, police! Open the door!" My husband was startled and tried to run away, but there was no place to hide.

Q: Now, when the police arrived, Ms. de Strange, did they question you about the incident, did they take a statement from you?

A: Yes, they asked me questions, but the officer who talked to me didn't speak my language very well, so it was hard to understand what he was asking me. And while they were handcuffing my husband, he kept shouting at me not to tell them anything.

Q: At some point did you give a full statement to the police? Did you in fact press charges against your husband?

A: Yes... yes, even though I was ashamed to do it, I did it because... that's it, we've been at it for many years now, many years of hoping that everything would take care of itself... and there's just no way, I gave up hope.

Q: In your earlier testimony, Ms. de Strange, you mentioned that this was not the first time your husband had beaten you. Can you give us an estimate of approximately how many times he had assaulted you like this during your 18 years of marriage?

A: No, no, I couldn't say. He started in on it from the beginning, and almost, almost daily he's insulted me. He didn't beat me quite that often, but I'd say about... let's see, maybe three times a month, something like that.

Q: So this had become a pattern in your relationship, in your marriage, that your husband would insult6 you regularly and that he would periodically beat you, and this was just the last straw?

A: Yes, that's for sure. After all the blows, the humiliations, the mistreatment, it wasn't just for me but for the children too... and I'm sick of being made fun of and looked down on because I'm his wife. I never did anything to deserve that.

Q: Thank you, Ms. de Strange, I have no further questions. Counsel, your witness.

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Select the footnote number to go back to the point in the text where you were when you selected the footnote.

1. If you create tapes in this manner, and you would like others working in your language to have access to them, contact ACEBO about the possibility of our duplicating and distributing your tapes at our cost.

2. Insults do not always translate directly--the choice of terms will vary with the context.

3. Make sure you don't alter the level of language, even if you think the witness might not understand the term.

4. Interpret the witness' question; do not explain the term yourself.

5. Often when witnesses are upset, their testimony becomes disjointed. Be sure to interpret everything as close to verbatim as possible.

6. The English verb form would insult is not the conditional here.