Why consecutive learning is important?

“Although I’m retired from the Commission now I still do a bit of training now and again and I sometimes get asked why students of conference interpreting on university interpretation courses spend so much of their time learning how to do consecutive interpreting when practically all the work they’ll do later as a conference interpreter- assuming they get that far- will consist of simultaneous interpreting..the difference as I’m sure most of you know being that consecutive (as the name suggests) is done after the speech, using among other things your memory and the notes you have taken during the speech to be interpreted whereas simultaneous is done in a soundproofed booth wearing head-phones while the speaker is talking..which is probably how most laymen see interpreters and also how most professional interpreters might see themselves.
It’s certainly how I spent most of my working days at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels..sitting in a booth wearing headphones which is why I never use headphones or earphones now..I thought 35 years was enough..so I’m now very happy to go jogging without music.
Yet, as I said, I spent most of my interpreting days in the booth which means that I spent some not in the booth but doing consecutive interpreting in the same room as the experts, diplomats or politicians meeting usually in small groups. And not only in the same room, sometimes in the same field, farm or factory, even down the same mine..all in consecutive..my own personal list of the times I’ve had to do consecutive is pretty long but I don’t wish to bore youthe point I’m making is that from my own experience consecutive interpretation is an essential part of a conference interpreter’s tool box- he or she has to know how to do it, since it is a conference interpreting mode that is still used, even if much less so than simultaneous interpreting.
And it can happen when you least expect it..let’s say the simultaneous equipment breaks down or the nuclear fuel committee decides to split into two smaller working groups..or the mayor of the town you’re visiting decides to make a welcome speech..or you’re having a great time enjoying a free meal with your delegates somewhere (oh do come along there won’t be any interpreting required..they said) and then someone feels moved to address the assembled company and duly taps his glass with his fork.. the dreaded sound of cutlery on cristal, signifying consecutive. And you have to do it. You can’t say you’re not on duty or plead incompetence on the grounds that you’ve had a glass of wine or two..and you’d  better do it well because everyone will notice it if you don’t as they will if you do it brilliantly..much more so than if you’re hidden in the booth, because consecutive is very high profile with your own and the profession’s reputation under the public gaze. If you like, it’s our visiting card.
So there are plenty of practical and professional reasons why conference interpreters should be able to do a decent consecutive interpretation which means that you have to learn how to do it.
You might well say what about the first consecutive conference interpreters who worked at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War and later at the League of Nations..they didn’t study consecutive at an interpreting school because there weren’t any then… the first one, Geneva, wasn’t founded until 1941. Well, these were exceptionally gifted men who taught themselves to do decent consecutive on the job over a period of several years..even the famous Jean Herbert admitted to feeling ashamed about one of his early assignments as a consecutive interpreter.
Nowadays it’s much easier to learn to do it properly at an interpreting school. Having said that, I still haven’t answered the question of why so much time is spent on it on most interpreting courses (usually at least half of the hours spent interpreting) and why most schools insist on starting with consecutive before moving on to simultaneous.
The answer that most- but not all- teachers of interpreting would give is that by learning consecutive you learn how to interpret and that consecutive is a useful stepping stone to learning how to do simultaneous interpreting. This argument is based on the premise that the interpreting process is similar in both cases, consecutive and simultaneous..so what is that process. Well, it involves LISTENING, UNDERSTANDING, ANALYSIS of what is being said, SORTING it into chunks of meaning, LINKING those chunks together and STORING all this somehow somewhere before REFORMULATING it in another language.
The obvious difference between the two is that you have to perform all these operations virtually simultaneously in the case of simultaneous whereas this is not the case with consecutive where the last stage in the process- REFORMULATING- comes later. Another difference is that in consecutive, given the time-lag between listening and reformulating, you need a memory prop for the storage part of the process..and this is achieved by taking notes during the listening phase, whereas in SIM the  interaction of short and long-term memory is all done up here. Given the problems students often have with their notes you might well say that consecutive is just as difficult but that’s not the point. The point is that in consecutive reformulation is put off until later thus slowing down at least part of the interpreting process. This has the advantage of allowing to student to concentrate on certain parts of the process, rather than all of them at the same time.
Indeed, one of the basic principles of learning is that you should learn to crawl before you learn to walk and walk before you learn to run. Don’t get me wrong- consecutive interpreting isn’t child’s play. Which is why interpreting courses don’t start with consecutive either. They usually break down the component parts of the interpreting process even more. They start with work on separate skills such as active listening, understanding, discourse analysis and public speaking. As students progress in these separate areas they gradually move on to combining them, after a while combining the listening to a mental analysis of a simple speech with the reformulation of the basic ideas in that speech, either into the same language or into another one..what you could call rudimentary consecutive interpreting. Notes come later since they might interfere with listening if introduced too early. When they are brought in they are best eased in and this can be done easily again by separating them out from the listening process..instead you can take a text of a speech, read it, analyse the way it’s constructed and try taking notes which will reflect that structure, will be a useful prop for your memory and will help prompt appropriate reformulation later on even if you don’t actually do the reformulation at this stage.
So there are different ways of introducing these component skills individually and then in various combinations and most teachers of interpreting would argue that this gradual approach including the combination of skills in full consecutive interpreting tends to develop the student’s listening and analytical skills and also- and this is a crucial point- to prevent him or her falling into the trap of literal reformulation from one language to another.
You see when students start off with simultaneous there’s sometimes  a tendency to go for the simple solution…the literal one with for example a public house being rendered into French as “une maison publique” or one I remember saying myself, “le glacier” becoming “the glacier” when my teacher was in fact referring to the ice-cream man playing his jingle loudly outside. I wasn’t thinking because I was confronted with a new unfamiliar situation..that of sitting in a booth with headphones on.
It’s to avoid that temptation as much as possible that students are taught to listen, think and analyse before and during consecutive interpretation practice when everything is slowed down and separated out before we try and put it all together in SIM and where the reformulation phase is sufficiently distant time-wise from the listening phase to prevent the source language contaminating the reformulation or target language.
Ideally, even when SIM is introduced we can still separate out the problems and skills involved. We can work with texts we are familiar with in order to remove one of the inherent difficulties of SIM which is not having the big picture of the whole speech before we start interpreting, something we do have with consecutive. We can work with short and simple texts. We can work on specific skills such as abstracting, summarizing, paraphrasing and anticipation.
So the point is that skills can be isolated and taught separately before being combined and most teachers prefer to teach their students the slowed-down or dragged-out version of such a combination that consecutive amounts to.
Consecutive also gives students more time to think about and judge what they are doing right or wrong and to listen to what their peers are doing right or wrong..they even have some evidence on their note pad to check whether they were listening or analyzing properly. So although it may not be any easier to do a brilliant consecutive than a brilliant simultaneous the whole process is laid bare for the student to observe and this should make the learning process easier. So, easier to learn and self-assess.
At the same time laying bare the whole process makes it easier too for teachers to assess what their students are doing and thus easier to teach..some interpreters have said teachers prefer teaching CONS for that reason..it’s simpler, less teacher-intensive and less equipment-intensive, but as I see it there’s nothing wrong with that. If it is easier to teach than SIM surely that’s a good argument for starting with it.
I would add that since it’s easier to judge an interpreting performance when it’s done in consecutive, examination panels, particularly in the European Union, tend to set great store by the ability of candidates to perform well in consecutive even if they know they will probably do very little of it once recruited. That’s more of a Realpolitik argument in favour of learning consecutive properly rather than a pedagogical one.
Another argument in favour of achieving a high degree of proficiency in consecutive is that it can- if you’re lucky- be the conference interpreter’s passport to fast-track career development since you might be chosen to accompany high-level delegations on important trips abroad, particularly if you have a retour language as well.
Finally, I ought to point out that although I’ve concentrated on the teaching of conference interpreting we shouldn’t forget that most of the interpreting done every day world-wide is not conference interpreting..it’s public service or community interpreting done in hospitals, courts, immigration offices or police stations. There simultaneous interpretation is virtually unheard of and a mastery of consecutive interpretation even if not always strictly necessary..with a lot being done sentence by sentence…would be a major asset.
So to sum up: students at interpreting schools spend a lot of their time learning how to do consecutive interpretation.
because it is still an essential part of a conference interpreter’s range of professional skills which can actually help to further his or her career.
Because most teachers of interpreting consider it to be not only an end in itself but also a good lead-in to SIM interpreting and a more transparent and observable way of learning to interpret in general, and because-precisely as a result of its greater transparency- test panels at many major employers of conference interpreters still insist that candidates be proficient in it.

Having said all that, it appears that there is as yet no conclusive empirical or research-based evidence to prove that achieving proficiency in consecutive before moving on to simultaneous interpreting actually improves your simultaneous, so perhaps it’s time that someone tried to come up with the evidence- to prove or disprove it, either way.
In the meantime, for those of you who are students of interpreting I hope very much you will enjoy learning to do a decent consecutive.

Should students learn CONS before SIM?- most would agree, although Stephen Pearl at UN said it was “absolutely crazy” and Pat Longley at PCL started both at the same time. Hong Kong had separate SIM and CONS interpreters”.

Dick Fleming is a former staff conference interpreter and trainer at the European Commission, Brussels.



Simultaneous interpretation advanced


A Student’s Practice Book.

Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book brings together a comprehensive compilation of tried and tested practical exercises which hone the sub-skills that make up successful conference interpreting

Unique in its exclusively practical focus, Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book, serves as a reference for students and teachers seeking to solve specific interpreting-related difficulties. By breaking down the necessary skills and linking these to the most relevant and effective exercises students can target their areas of weakness and work more efficiently towards greater interpreting competence.

Split into four parts, this Practice Book includes a detailed introduction offering general principles for effective practice drawn from the author’s own extensive experience as an interpreter and interpreter-trainer. The second ‘language’ section covers language enhancement at this very high level, an area that standard language courses and textbooks are unable to deal with. The last two sections cover the key sub-skills needed to effectively handle the two components of conference interpreting; simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

Conference Interpreting: A Student’s Practice Book is non language-specific and as such is an essential resource for all interpreting students regardless of their language combination.


The issue of “QUALITY”


Franz Pöchhacker, University of Vienna.

Published in: Ren W. (ed.), Interpreting in the Age of Globalization: Proceedings of the 8th National Conference and International Forum on Interpreting (pp. 305-318) Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 2012.

Abstract: The complex and multidimensional notion of quality is addressed here from the perspective of the professional service providers. With Bühler’s pioneering survey among conference interpreters serving as the point of departure, the importance of various quality criteria is investigated on the basis of a worldwide web-based survey conducted in the context of a larger research project at the University of Vienna. The findings, which point to a stable pattern of preferences, are discussed with regard to their generalizability on a global scale, with special reference to China and Chinese.


Ever since the profession of conference interpreting emerged on an international scale in the mid-twentieth century, the concept of quality has been a major concern in professional practice and training. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1980s that the topic of quality came to be addressed explicitly and on the basis of systematic investigation. A key role in this endeavor fell to AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters founded in 1953, whose strict requirements for the admission of new members, in conjunction with a language classification scheme and detailed specifications for appropriate working conditions, served as an early paragon for quality assurance in the profession.

In a brochure addressed to would-be conference interpreters, AIIC (1982) referred to quality as “that elusive something which everyone recognises but no one can successfully define.” The ability to recognize quality was indeed demanded of AIIC members when asked to assess the performance of candidates for membership, and it was in this context that the challenge of defining quality was taken up by Hildegund Bühler in a pioneering empirical study.

The present paper reviews that seminal piece of research and reports on an effort to replicate it on a worldwide scale using state-of-the-art survey techniques. Special emphasis will be given to methodological issues as well as to the question raised in the title of this paper, that is: to what extent can the findings from the international survey be taken to reflect “global standards” for the relative importance of the performance quality criteria under study? In other words, can a global survey approach do justice to socio-culturally specific aspects of the phenomenon under study – or is there a need to take account of what we might call “interpreting quality with Chinese characteristics”?


The assumption that quality in interpreting is not a monolithic concept but involves more than one component can be traced back to Jean Herbert (1952), who mentioned accuracy and style as the two main concerns, suggesting that interpreters were sometimes faced with a choice between these two. Furthermore, he pointed to the role of such factors as grammar, fluency, voice quality and intonation in an interpreter’s performance. For decades, though, the relative importance of these and other criteria remained unclear.

It is widely known that the first scholar who sought to collect empirical data on the various factors that play a role in the evaluation of conference interpreting was Hildegund Bühler, an interpreter by training who spent most of her career as a scholar in the field of terminology and taught translation and translation theory at the University of Vienna. Married to an active conference interpreter, she took a special interest in the profession and conducted several studies on aspects of a conference interpreter’s work. In a pioneering effort, Bühler (1986) surveyed members of AIIC about the criteria they presumably applied when assessing the quality of an interpreter and his or her performance. For this purpose she drew up a list of 16 criteria, distinguishing between linguistic-semantic and extra-linguistic factors. The former included “native accent”, “fluency of delivery”, “logical cohesion of utterance”, “sense consistency with original message”, “completeness of interpretation”, “correct grammatical usage”, “use of correct terminology” and “use of appropriate style”, and the latter “pleasant voice”, “thorough preparation of conference documents”, “endurance”, “poise”, “pleasant appearance”, “reliability”, “ability to work in a team” and “positive feedback of delegates”.

As evident from some of the criteria in the second group, such as poise and appearance, Bühler envisaged an assessment of interpreters and interpreting in the consecutive as well as the simultaneous mode, and sought to cover such behavioral aspects as preparation, reliability and teamwork. On her one-page questionnaire, the list of 16 items was to be rated by respondents on a four-point ordinal scale ranging from “highly important” and “important” to “less important” and “irrelevant”. Responses were collected (at an AIIC Council meeting and international symposium in Brussels in 1984) from 41 AIIC members. In addition, six members of the association’s Committee on Admissions and Language Classification (CACL) filled in the questionnaire.

The most highly rated criterion by far is “sense consistency with original message”, which relates to the arguably crucial idea of source-target correspondence, but without making explicit reference to such controversial concepts as equivalence or faithfulness. Rather, Bühler’s use of the terms “sense” and “message” points to levels of meaning beyond the linguistic surface, as foregrounded by Danica Seleskovitch in her “théorie du sens” (e.g. 1977). The criterion of “sense consistency” with the original could therefore be expected to be embraced without any reservations by the conference interpreting community. Also related to these ideas is the second-ranking criterion, “logical cohesion”, which captures the requirement for the interpreter’s output to “make sense” to the audience.

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, all other output-related aspects of performance quality were deemed less relevant by Bühler’s respondents than behavioral qualities such as reliability and thorough preparation, which were considered highly important by four fifths and nearly three quarters of respondents, respectively. Only half the respondents, in contrast, gave the highest rating to factors like correct terminology and grammar, fluency and, interestingly, completeness, with paraverbal characteristics such as voice, native accent and style appearing further down in the list.

Bühler’s seminal study proved highly influential in stimulating further surveys among interpreters and, in particular, end-users (e.g. Kurz 1993). Nevertheless, the limitations of Bühler’s small-scale study seem all too clear. Most critically, it is not known how her sample of 47 AIIC members was constituted, so it is not possible to generalize the findings to the total population. And since Bühler’s questionnaire contained no items eliciting demographic background information, nothing is known about the age, gender, working experience or language combination of this group of conference interpreters.

Some of these shortcomings were redressed in the first follow-up study on interpreters’ quality criteria, which was not conducted until some one-and-a-half decades later. Using a web-based rather than a paper-and-pencil questionnaire, Chiaro and Nocella (2004) surveyed interpreters throughout the world for whom they collected a range of demographic data, including age, gender, education, interpreting experience, geographic region and employment status. Their sample of 286 respondents was 71% female, with a mean age of 45 years and an average of 16 years experience in interpreting. Forty-four percent of the respondents were born in Western European countries, and as many had a degree in interpreting. Rather surprisingly, most of the interpreters in the sample (46%) came from the Americas, which may suggest that Chiaro and Nocella (2004) targeted professionals beyond the field of conference interpreting, the main centers of which have traditionally been in Europe. Indeed, their statement that they sent out “about 1000 invitations … to interpreters belonging to several professional associations” indicates that their target population was both smaller than the full membership of AIIC and broader in terms of affiliation. Unfortunately, the authors do not specify which professional associations their respondents were affiliated with, nor do they state explicitly whether AIIC was among them. It is therefore largely unclear to what extent the AIIC members in Bühler’s study can be compared to the interpreter sample accessed by Chiaro and Nocella.

Another problem with comparability arises from the difference in the tasks the researchers expected their respondents to perform. Whereas Bühler used a rating task for each of her sixteen criteria, Chiaro and Nocella, while using a largely similar list of items, had their respondents establish a ranking, from most important to least important. What motivated this change in research design was the view that Bühler’s respondents had proved “incapable of discriminating and were giving equal importance to all the criteria” (Chiaro & Nocella 2004: 283). While this contention seems somewhat overstated, given the sequence reflected in Figure 1, it does apply to the four or five middle-ground criteria (terminology, fluency, grammar, etc.), all of which were rated as “highly important” and as “important” by nearly half the respondents.

Chiaro and Nocella therefore had their respondents perform two ranking tasks, one for the set of nine “linguistic criteria” and one for a set of eight “extra-linguistic criteria” that differed considerably from Bühler’s original list. The results for the former are shown in Table 1, juxtaposed with an ordered list based on the percentages for “highly important” and “important” in Bühler’s study.

Table 1: Comparative Ranking of Quality Criteria

Chiaro & Nocella (2004)

Bühler (1986)

  1. consistency with the original
sense consistency with original message
  1. completeness of information
logical cohesion of utterance
  1. logical cohesion
use of correct terminology
  1. fluency of delivery
fluency of delivery
  1. correct grammatical usage
correct grammatical usage
  1. correct terminology
completeness of interpretation
  1. appropriate style
pleasant voice
  1. pleasant voice
native accent
  1. native accent
appropriate style

Notwithstanding the comparability issues arising from the different tasks (and also, perhaps, from the reformulation of some of the criteria), the most striking difference between the two lists of priorities clearly concerns the criterion of “completeness”, which ranks second in the study by Chiaro and Nocella and only in sixth place according to the ratings collected by Bühler. Another significant discrepancy is seen for the importance of correct terminology, which received the third-highest ratings from Bühler’s AIIC interpreters and was ranked only sixth by those filling in Chiaro and Nocella’s web-based questionnaire.

In the face of such diverging results, and the dearth of empirical findings regarding professional interpreters’ quality-related preferences in general, there is an obvious need for further research. In an effort to respond to this need, we conducted a comprehensive survey as part of a larger research project on “Quality in Simultaneous Interpreting” carried out at the University of Vienna.


The “Survey on Quality and Role”, which was carried out among AIIC members in late 2008 (Zwischenberger & Pöchhacker 2010), combines the need for replication with the desire for innovation. With regard to the former, it was decided to follow Bühler’s choice and target AIIC as the most comprehensive professional association of conference interpreters in the world. In the interest of comparability, we also adopted Bühler’s original criteria and kept her rating task, though using more consistent wording for the four response options. The focus of our overall project (on simultaneous interpreting) and the tradition of user-expectation surveys using only output-related criteria, led us to concentrate on Bühler’s “linguistic” criteria, plus voice quality, as included in the list since Kurz (1993). Taking note of research on quality expectations published over the years, we extended the original list of criteria to include “lively intonation”, as studied in particular by Ángela Collados Aís (1998) at the University of Granada, and “synchronicity”, which had emerged as a feature expected of simultaneous interpreting by respondents in the AIIC-sponsored user expectation survey carried out by Moser (1996).

Aside from these additional criteria, and a set of follow-up questions concerning the potential variability of quality-related preferences depending on the type of assignment or meeting, the crucial innovation in this survey project was the use of a state-of-the-art approach to questionnaire administration and data collection. Like Chiaro and Nocella, we used a web-based questionnaire; unlike these pioneers, however, we were able to benefit from user-friendly software available from the open-source community.

3.1 Survey Methodology

Online surveys using web-based questionnaires emerged in the early 1990s, and a number of tools are now available which allow non-experts to design and administer surveys of one kind or another. One of the best-known providers is SurveyMonkey, a US company founded in 1999 that offers a basic version of their survey tool for free. A word of caution must be sounded, though, as some of these readily available tools do not allow the survey administrator full control over the data and the survey population. Most critically, access to the survey instruments is often provided by a link (URL) that can freely be disseminated and allows anyone to participate. This can obviously undermine the integrity of the data and thus the validity of the findings.

For our survey we therefore opted for an application that ensures controlled access as well as full autonomy in the handling of data. The software is called LimeSurvey and has been developed in the open-source community since 2003 (when it was created under the name of PHPSurveyor by Australian software developer Jason Cleeland). As its original name suggests, it uses PHP as the programming language, in combination with MySQL, a relational database management system. This software can be downloaded and installed on a server, if available. In our case, the survey application was hosted in-house on our own server at the Center for Translation Studies.

The software application has two main components: a questionnaire generator tool and a survey administration tool which, in turn, runs two separate databases – one with the e-mail addresses of potential participants, and the other with their responses. Since the two databases are not linked, the system guarantees full anonymity of the responses, whereas it allows the administrator to monitor whether a response has been received from a given e-mail address in the database. If not, the system can be used to send a reminder to those addresses from which no response has been received. For each entry in the database of addresses, the system generates a unique access token (password), which can be used only once to complete the survey. This makes it impossible to complete the survey more than once (not a major concern in our case) or to share the link with persons beyond the defined survey population.

Clearly, then, it is essential to have a defined survey population and an e-mail address for each of its members. Ten or twenty years ago, this requirement made it highly questionable whether a web-based approach could ever yield a representative sample. And even now, a web-based survey instrument will obviously reach only those who have and use e-mail.

This was also a slight limitation in our case, as some members of AIIC prefer, for whatever reason, not to have their e-mail addresses listed. Since our survey was not an AIIC-sponsored initiative, we compiled our list of e-mail addresses from the Association’s membership directory for the year 2008, ending up with over 2,500 entries. This made for an excellent sampling frame, but sampling as such would again have involved some tricky issues, such as aiming for a balanced representation with regard to regions, working languages and employment status. We therefore avoided sampling altogether and opted for a survey of the full population; that is, e-mail invitations to participate in the web-based survey went out to all 2,523 addresses in our database. All but a few members of our target group have English as a working language, so the bias of using an English-language questionnaire for respondents throughout the world should be very small to negligible.

The survey instrument as such, developed in a painstaking process within our project team, was comprised of three parts. One of them (Part C) focused on the issue of conference interpreters’ self-perception of their role. While certainly relevant and related to the issue of quality, this part of the study is discussed elsewhere. Another part (Part A) elicited demographic and socio- professional information, including employment status, AIIC region, age, gender and working experience. Part B of the questionnaire was devoted to the relative importance of quality criteria and essentially consisted of an array-type item listing the eleven criteria and offering four response options (“very important”, “important”, “less important”, “unimportant”) as well as a “no answer” option for each criterion.

3.2 Survey Findings

A total of 704 AIIC members worldwide participated in the survey, which was active for 7 weeks from late September to early November 2008. This highly satisfactory response rate (28.5%) gave us a sample that, in many ways, closely matches the profile of AIIC members in general. Thus, the average respondent in our survey is 52 years old and has been in the profession for 24 years. By the same token, the male–female ratio of 1 : 3 (76% women) is as typical of the overall membership structure as the predominance of freelancers, who make up 89% of our sample.

The ratings (“very important”, “important”) for the eleven criteria are summarized in Figure 1.

Captura de pantalla 2013-04-24 a las 07.52.02

Figure 1: Ratings of Quality Criteria (n=704)

The findings shown in Figure 1 reflect a distinct pattern of priorities. In part, the sequence of criteria matches that found in previous studies, especially the user expectation surveys initiated by Kurz (1993). This concerns the two top-rated criteria, “sense consistency with original message” and “logical cohesion of utterance”, and the criteria that generally attract the lowest ratings of relative importance, such as “pleasant voice” and “native accent”. Much more so than Bühler’s study, our survey also yields a clear order of priorities for the four output-related criteria that are sandwiched between the ones at the top and at the bottom of the list: fluency ranks as an undisputed number 3, followed by the correct use of terminology and grammar, with completeness ranking even lower. This is in line with Bühler’s findings, but – again – in stark contrast with those of Chiaro and Nocella, whose ranking had completeness as the second most important criterion of quality. The reasons for this discrepancy may have to do with the composition of the survey population in Chiaro and Nocella’s study: Given the sizeable share of interpreters in the Americas, completeness may have been valued more highly because these respondents would likely be working also in court and other legal settings. However, in the absence of more detailed information on the respondent profile, such speculation is impossible to substantiate.

With regard to the top three quality criteria in the opinion of AIIC members, our survey yields a clear result: While “sense consistency” and “logical cohesion” remain undisputed at the top, “use of correct terminology” is substituted in third place by “fluency of delivery”. Differences between our results and those of Bühler (1986) arise mainly at the lower end of the list, where “appropriate style” receives higher ratings than “pleasant voice” and “native accent”. The ratings for the newly introduced criterion of “lively intonation” closely match those for “pleasant voice”, which may be a sign of conceptual overlap, even though care had been taken to avoid that by placing intonation well ahead of voice quality in the list.

In all, the views of AIIC members concerning the relative importance of output-related aspects of quality have been shown by our survey to be relatively stable. While our replication of Bühler’s study has shown the pattern of priorities to be largely consistent over time, the comprehensiveness of our full-population survey, which reached experienced conference interpreters in AIIC “regions” throughout the world, could also lead us to claim broad geographical coverage and thus a high degree of consistency on a global scale. It is here, though, that our critical reflection, as suggested by the question mark in the title of this paper, must begin. For there are several issues that make it doubtful whether these ostensibly robust survey findings can be considered “global”.


In raising a few problematic issues, I should begin by acknowledging that the term “standards” is rather broad and potentially misleading; what I mean here specifically is the pattern of more or less relevant output-related quality criteria for simultaneous interpreting as seen from the perspective of the providers of that service – the perspective of “the profession”, for short.

And how global is that profession? Clearly, conference interpreting can be considered an early example of a truly international twentieth-century profession. This is reflected in the membership of AIIC, which is not initially based on a territorial principle but open to practitioners in any country, whatever their choice of professional domicile. It is an international association of individuals from all over the world that has grown from a few dozen members in 1953 to nearly 3,000 in nearly 100 countries today.

This coverage is impressive, and yet we need to be cautious when extrapolating from an AIIC survey to the interpreting profession worldwide. One reason is that even with close to 3,000 members, AIIC by no means includes every professional conference interpreter in the world. According to the AIIC website, there are 29 members in China. By comparison, there are 73 in Austria, my tiny home country with roughly 8.4 million inhabitants.

What is worse, it is not even entirely clear how a “conference interpreter” is to be defined. Some would place the emphasis on university-level training (which would be problematic for countries with a different interpreter-training tradition, such as Japan); others might focus on proficiency in both of the main working modes (consecutive as well as simultaneous interpreting), and others again could focus their definition on the setting in which these interpreters work, that is, conferences – or (as a 1984 working definition proposed by AIIC would have it) “conference-like situations”. In defining an interpreter, we would probably want to use all of the above features, but none of them may be “necessary and sufficient” to set hard-and-fast boundaries for the concept of a conference interpreter.

With regard to settings and fields of work, we must also acknowledge that the profession of conference interpreting is stratified, or that there are different markets, with a high-end including the multilingual international organizations (known as the AIIC Agreement sector) and a more local market in which assignments typically involve bidirectional interpreting. Where this is done in consecutive, it becomes difficult to distinguish conference from liaison interpreting if one does not go by the number of participants in the interaction – or by the fee.

Mindful that we may only have captured a certain – though undisputably relevant – segment of the overall population of conference interpreters in our survey, we are complementing our work by satellite surveys in various national contexts, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Poland. By surveying the members of national interpreter associations in their (A) language, we are hoping to see whether the AIIC findings will be corroborated for the more national conference interpreting markets. In one of these country-based surveys, 107 members of the German Association of Conference Interpreters (VKD), out of the 323 who had received an invitation to participate, indicated their quality-related preferences along largely similar lines as the AIIC population (see Zwischenberger 2011). The four top-rated criteria remained the same, but “completeness” exchanged places with “correct grammar”. The latter may have to do with the types of meetings in which the respondents usually work: completeness may seem more important in highly technical specialist conferences and negotiations, whereas standards of grammatical correctness may be somewhat lower among interpreters who typically work also into their B language.

The conclusion to be drawn from these findings for the Chinese context is clear: In order to find out about the views on quality held by Chinese conference interpreters, a survey of this kind would be needed. We cannot claim that our AIIC Survey, which included only eleven respondents who indicated Mandarin as their A language, covers conference interpreting in China.

With a view to such a survey, two fundamental design issues need to be considered: One is how to define the population – and to access all or a random sample of its members by e-mail; and the other concerns the criteria to be evaluated. The first problem was tackled in a survey study by Setton and Guo (2009), who were keenly aware of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of drawing a representative sample of the country’s population of professional interpreters (and translators, for that matter). For example, the 62 respondents in their study, which centered on Shanghai and Taipei and included only 27 who mainly worked in interpreting rather than translation, had an average age of 35 years (compared to 52 in the AIIC sample). What is more, over 80% of the respondents were not affiliated with any professional association. Most of the respondents were reached via lists of alumni of interpreter training programs and lists used by recruiters.

No less challenging than defining and accessing the population is the issue of the criteria to be used in the survey instrument. They should presumably be offered to respondents in Mandarin, so they would need to be translated. As acknowledged by Bühler (1986) and investigated in depth by the Granada team in so-called “contextualization studies”, in which they asked respondents about their understanding of a given criterion (and found widely diverging interpretations), the criteria themselves are poorly defined. What is more, some of them, such as intonation, may play a different role in a tonal language like Mandarin Chinese. Indeed, linguists formerly held that Chinese had no intonation to speak of. While this is no longer the case (e.g. Kratochvil 1998), the specifics of intonational patterns and functions have yet to be fully understood – and applied to research in interpreting studies.

All this brings me to a mixed conclusion. Despite advances in technology which have enabled us to carry out a “global” survey on quality criteria, our findings, though seemingly robust, are still patchy, and I have tried to point out why filling in the picture for China is a difficult challenge. On the other hand, the conference interpreting community in China has been developing fast (cf. Setton 2011), and the same holds true for the community of interpreting scholars, as evident from the highly successful National Conference series. There clearly is ample reason to assume that state-of-the-art survey research of the type presented in this paper will soon be conducted in China on the issue of quality and other topics, extending and deepening our understanding of conference interpreting as a global profession.


AIIC (1982) “Practical guide for professional interpreters”. Geneva: International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Bühler, Hildegund (1986) “Linguistic (semantic) and extra-linguistic (pragmatic) criteria for the evaluation of conference interpretation and interpreters”. Multilingua, 5 (4): 231-235.

Chiaro, Delia & Nocella, Giuseppe (2004) “Interpreters’ perception of linguistic and non-lingu­istic factors affecting quality: A survey through the World Wide Web”. Meta, 49 (2): 278-293

Collados Aís, Ángela (1998/2002) “Quality assessment in simultaneous interpreting: The im­port­ance of nonverbal communication”. In F. Pöchhacker & M. Shlesinger (eds.) The Interpreting Studies Reader. London/New York, Routledge, 327-336.

Herbert, Jean (1952) The Interpreter’s Handbook: How to Become a Conference Interpreter. Geneva: Georg.

Kratochvil, Paul (1998) “Intonation in Beijing Chinese”. In D. Hirst & A. Di Cristo (eds.) Intona­tion Systems: A Survey of Twenty Languages. Cambridge: CUP, 417-431.

Kurz, Ingrid (1993/2002) “Conference interpretation: Expectations of different user groups”. In F. Pöchhacker & M. Shlesinger (eds.) The Interpreting Studies Reader. London/New York, Routledge, 313-324.

Moser, Peter (1996) “Expectations of users of conference interpretation”. Interpreting, 1 (2): 145-178.

Seleskovitch, Danica (1977) “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves or why interpreting is not tantamount to translating languages”. The Incorporated Linguist, 15: 7-33.

Setton, Robin (ed.) (2009) China and Chinese. Special Issue of Interpreting, 11 (2).

Setton, Robin & Guo, Alice Liangliang (2009) “Attitudes to role, status and professional identity in interpreters and translators with Chinese in Shanghai and Taipei”. Translation and Inter­preting Studies, 4 (2): 210-238.

Zwischenberger, Cornelia (in press) “Quality criteria in simultaneous interpreting: An international vs. a national view”. The Interpreters’ Newsletter, 15 (2011).

Zwischenberger, Cornelia & Pöchhacker, Franz (2010) “Survey on quality and role: Conference interpreters’ expectations and self-perceptions”. Communicate! Spring 2010. http://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article2510.htm (accessed 25 January 2011).

High-level Interpretation

Dick FLEMING, former EU staff interpreter, reminisces about some of the high-level EU meetings he interpreted at during the 1980s and 1990s, work which was sometimes tough, often fascinating and- with hindsight- immensely rewarding. He describes the interpreting arrangements for such meetings then and now and suggests that young interpreters -particularly those with two active languages- should certainly not assume they will never have the opportunity to provide interpretation at such meetings.

Amanda GALSWORTHY, The Interview, BBC World Service.

President Sarkozy’s official interpreter Amanda GALSWORTHY has sat at the top table of international politics for nearly three decades, but her name has hardly ever appeared in print. It is part of her job to know everything, but to tell no one. Amanda Galsworthy has been the official interpreter for three French Presidents, Francois Mitterand, Jacques Chirac and now Nicolas Sarkozy. She talks to Owen Bennett-Jones about some of the extraordinary situations she’s found herself in as the President’s mouthpiece.

La voix de Madame

Il y a quelques années, j’accompagnais en Haïti une délégation de parlementaires européens conduits par une députée allemande. Les discussions compliquées par la situation critique du pays se tenaient, en consécutive doublée de chuchotage, dans des lieux peu propices à des réunions mais l’équipe très réduite d’interprètes, à la fois accablée et motivée par ce qu’elle voyait et entendait ne faiblissait pas à la tâche. Un soir, lors d’une conférence de presse, un journaliste d’une radio privée demande à la présidente de la délégation combien de nationalités sont représentées parmi les parlementaires européens. Je traduis la réponse- une énumération- dont la chute est : “et puis, il y a moi qui suis allemande”. Ce féminin déclenche immédiatement le fou rire du journaliste qui se tournant vers moi me demande, goguenard, si je suis “allemande”. Je réponds du tac au tac que “non, je suis la voix de Madame”.
 L’enregistrement in extenso de ce bref échange fit merveille lorsqu’il passa à la radio ; il me valut une célébrité certaine lors des entretiens, notamment, des conférences de presse ultérieures. L’ambassadeur de France m’en fit compliment et m’offrit une cassette – malheureusement inaudible – en souvenir. Être la voix de quelqu’un d’autre, toute la voix mais rien que la voix : voilà comment j’ai toujours conçu cette profession. C’est la modeste leçon que je ne me prive pas de répéter inlassablement aux étudiants que je rencontre un peu partout.
 Ces collègues en devenir devront avant toutes choses faire entendre dans leur interprétation non pas leur propre voix mais celle de leur maître : l’orateur ; en respectant scrupuleusement les règles de l’art, ils devront traduire fidèlement le message et restituer le ton et la personnalité de celui qui parle. Ce n’est pas facile tous les jours ; tous les orateurs ne sont pas naturellement doués.
Être la voix de quelqu’un d’autre requiert une certaine maturation. La notoriété ou l’importance des fonctions des orateurs est souvent perçue par nombre d’interprètes comme des facteurs valorisants voire grisants.
 Je ne partage pas entièrement cette philosophie; j’ai, au cours de ma carrière, traduit des chefs d’état ou de gouvernement, des prix Nobel. Pourtant, ils ne sont pas parvenus à me faire véritablement comprendre le fondement même de notre métier.
Je crois l’avoir véritablement compris en 1985, lors d’une conférence à Hambourg. Elle était organisée par un réseau européen d’instituts et d’organismes pilotés par une organisation danoise. Son slogan était fort mal choisi : “La normalisation et les handicapés mentaux”. L’objectif était de rendre attentif à la nécessité d’insérer les handicapés dans la société et de cesser de les parquer dans des institutions spécialisées. La Commission européenne avait apporté son concours sous la forme d’une équipe d’interprètes.
Le dernier jour de la conférence se produisit un incident très important. Alors qu’un professeur allemand s’apprêtait à débiter une longue communication dans le style guindé caractéristique de ce genre d’événement, la salle très grande du palais des congrès est lentement envahie par un cortège de personnes qui se révéleront être les intéressés eux-mêmes. Maladroitement (certains calicots sont tenus à l’envers), les manifestants parviennent jusqu’à la tribune et demandent à se faire entendre. Les organisateurs, désemparés en apparence, improvisent sur-le-champ une discussion à bâtons rompus avec les représentants des perturbateurs. J’utilise ce terme à dessein car leurs propos montrent combien parfois les messages les plus simples peuvent produire de grands effets. La discussion se déroule tant bien que mal; le leitmotiv est une vive protestation : la conférence parle à perte de vue des handicapés sans que ceux-ci n’aient la moindre occasion de s’exprimer, les organisations les ayant accompagnés à Hambourg pour les cacher dans des familles ou des institutions d’accueil. Cinq ou six protestataires s’expriment et la parole est donnée en dernier lieu à une jeune Anglaise.
 Son souvenir ne m’a pas quitté : je la revois encore, debout assez loin du micro, un physique ingrat dans un imperméable chiffonné; elle parle avec difficulté comme les autres; comme les autres, elle est intimidée, mais s’accroche. Je ne sais pourquoi, elle captive son auditoire. Au bout d’un long moment, elle termine son discours qu’elle a fait semblant de lire et qui n’est plus qu’un tortillon informe qu’elle tire de tous les côtés. La “gentille animatrice” improvisée la remercie et l’invite à s’asseoir, ce qui lui vaut immédiatement un très sec : “je n’ai pas fini”. Au bout d’un très long silence, je traduis : “j’ai autre chose à dire”.
Cette chose, elle la dit après avoir longtemps balancé et pris son courage à deux mains, avec toute la force de sa conviction, clairement et distinctement : “Je voudrais dire…. que je veux me marier et avoir des enfants”.
 Je ne peux ni ne veux décrire l’état dans lequel je me suis trouvé après avoir interprété ces quelques mots. D’emblée, cependant, je me suis rendu compte que ce court instant m’avait conféré l’honneur insigne d’être la voix de quelqu’un qui n’a pas droit à la parole.
Ce fragment de ma vie professionnelle en est resté, jusqu’à présent, le point culminant. Il y a quelques temps au hasard d’une émission de télévision, j’ai appris que, dans certains pays, en France, notamment, les handicapés mentaux, dans certaines conditions et avec un accompagnement social important, peuvent fonder une famille.
 Je ne sais ce qu’est devenue cette Anglaise dont je ne connais pas le nom, mais je me flatte que sa voix a été entendue.
This article originally appeared in Communicate! – the AIIC webzine.

Consecutive note-taking

How best to avoid the potential pit-falls of poor note-taking. Dick, formerly organiser of EU Commission interpreter training course and subsequently trainer of trainers, tells us. Dick, antiguo organizador del curso de formación de intérpretes de la Comisión Europea y, desde entonces, formador de formadores, nos explica cómo evitar las potenciales trampas de una mala toma de notas.

Starting simultaneous interpreting

Dick, formerly organiser of EU Commission interpreter training course and subsequently trainer of trainers, gives us a few tips for students about to start simultaneous interpretation.
Dick, antiguo organizador del curso de formación de intérpretes de la Comisión Europea y, desde entonces, formador de formadores, nos da algunos consejos para alumnos en iniciación a la simultánea.

The eloquent detective

What is interpreting and what makes a good interpreter. Dick, formerly organiser of EU Commission interpreter training course and subsequently trainer of trainers, tells us.
¿Qué es interpretar, qué cualidades ha de tener un buen intérprete? Dick, antiguo organizador del curso de formación de intérpretes de la Comisión Europea y, desde entonces, formador de formadores, nos lo cuenta.