Four Ways to Avoid Consecutive Interpreting Hell

I’m just coming off four days of consecutive interpreting on a stage in front of 160 people. For most interpreters, that’s a recipe for disaster, or at best not something to jump out of bed for. I had misgivings when I started with this client four years ago. Back then, I wrote that at the job’s end I felt I had been dodging bullets for four days. Now I can focus on doing my best, perfecting each utterance before it comes out. How? Here are four ideas that may help interpreters beat their Fear of the Consecutive.
1.- Make sure your speaker gets it
The main ingredient of my success are the people I’m interpreting for: Drs. Stephen Gilligan and Robert Dilts, leading NLP experts from California. I’ve mentioned Gilligan’s concise delivery before; Dilts is no different. They say one sentence, I translate one sentence. This is not how it usually happens. The standard recipe is: speaker rattles on for 4-5 sentences; interpreter scribbles notes lickety-split. Then, when speaker comes up for air, interpreter regurgitates it all back from their notes. Stuff gets left out, and the interpreter is in a hurry, self-conscious about monopolizing the air time. They want to get it out, then shut up and let the speaker get back to it.
It can all be avoided if the speaker knows how to convey a message in a few words. Few do. But as their interpreter, you should encourage them to do so. We rarely do this, perhaps because we don’t want to pull rank. I say try it. If they care, they will listen.
2.- Get in the Zone
I know this sounds like a tagline for a sports drink. But it works. How you do it is your own affair. Take deep breaths, fix your gaze at the back of the room, feel the soles of your feet touching the floor... whatever. If you’re wondering why some dude in the second row is pulling a face, it will show.
But you need to be someplace where your full attention can be given to what you hear, how you translate it in your head and how you deliver it with your mouth. I’m not saying you have to do the whole thing as if hypnotized. Once you are comfortable, natural things like body language, eye contact and intonation will flow. More on that in the next item.
3.- Hands yes, notes no
I see a lot of people taking notepads into consecutive interpreting scenarios. I do too, when I know I’ll be sitting down. One of my first successful consecutives came off well thanks to good note-taking while seated. It was the mayor of a mid-sized Spanish city speaking to an entire auditorium. There was liaison interpreting, first into French, then into English. So I had loads of time to hone what I was going to say and deliver it like a pro. Where notes don’t work so well is when you’re standing up. All of a sudden you look like a waiter. It’s awkward enough, standing alongside someone and parroting what they say in another language. Having a notepad and pen in your hand only makes it screwier.
With the one-sentence-spoken, one-sentence-translated formula, you won’t need a notepad. Sure, you might get a long spiel now and again. Use your fingers (a technique I learned from a master interpreter while tag-teaming on a deposition), assigning one item to each finger. It works. Even better, having nothing in your hands allows you to emulate your speaker’s body language, how they move their hands. Their physical movement may be just as intrinsic to their message as what they are saying. It feels funny at first, but I’ve found that people appreciate it. And it makes your delivery a lot less stilted.
4.- Make the message your own
A guy came up after my last consecutive gig and asked me if I was thinking while I was translating, or translating while thinking? What language did I think in? How did I remember it all?
The truth is, I have no idea. I guess if my speaker is speaking English, I’m searching for words in Spanish, and vice versa. But more importantly, I’m listening. Because I want to deliver the translated words as if they were my own. It’s pretty fun, as an exercise. Get behind the words. Get to the meaning. Tell yourself, “Pretend you’re saying this.” before the speaker says anything, then once you’ve listened and translated, let it rip as if the words were coming from your heart. Like the absence of notepads, it looks better. Like the absence of nerves, it sounds better. Best of all, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to remember than trying to read it back off your scribbly notes.