Conference interpreting

Article: Conference Interpreting
Daniel Gile
Université Lyon 2
Pre-publication version. Published in Brown, Keith (ed). 2006. Encyclopedia of Language and
Linguistics, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Elsevier. Vol. 3. 9-23.
1. Introduction
Conference interpreting is the type of interpreting which first attracted public attention and which
was the first to generate substantial literature on training and theoretical issues. This article
highlights some of its aspects, starting with a definition and characterization, following with a
presentation of the conference interpreting profession, and concluding with a discussion of
research in the field. This review is necessarily incomplete. For further insight into practical
aspects of conference interpreting, see Jones (1998). For a thorough and comprehensive review of
research into interpreting – albeit with debatable evaluative comments – see Pöchhacker and
Shlesinger (2002) and Pöchhacker (2004). Milestone works in the field are Gran and Dodds
(1989), Gerver and Sinaiko (1978), Gambier et al. (1997), Garzone and Viezzi (2002). There are
other good reference books in Chinese, Czech, French, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish
which cannot be listed here (the CIRIN Web site at offers
regular bibliographic information on conference interpreting research or CIR).
2. Conference interpreting: a social definition
In spite of what the name conference interpreting suggests, conference interpreters work not only
in conferences, but also in other settings, including meetings of committees and working groups
in international organizations, visits of personalities, meetings of boards of directors of large
corporations, medical, information technology, economic and other scientific and technical
training seminars, TV programs, arbitration proceedings, and even court trials. In other words,
their activity partly overlaps with liaison interpreting, court interpreting and media interpreting.
Conference interpreting is sometimes confused with simultaneous interpreting (see for
example Christoffels 2004: 1), in which the interpreter sits in a booth and speaks at the same time
as the speaker s/he is translating. Actually, conference interpreting as a profession started in the
exclusive form of consecutive interpreting (the speaker makes an utterance, stops for the
interpreter to translate it, then resumes his/her speech, stops again for the interpreter to translate
the second passage, and so on). While simultaneous interpreting (SI) has become the most
popular mode of interpreting, the consecutive mode is still much in demand, especially for oneto-one interaction, both in politics and in business. On the other hand, SI is also used in court
If neither the setting, nor interpreting modalities can be used to define conference
interpreting, can it legitimately be viewed as categorically different from other types of
interpreting? Pöchhacher (2004) speaks of a spectrum of interpreting forms, analyzes traditional
categories of interpreting in terms of interaction constellations, language modality, working
mode, directionality, use of technology and professional status, and shows the commonalities
between them. And yet, in the West, and particularly in Western Europe, conference interpreters
have a strong awareness of their identity as distinct from that of other types of interpreters (in
other countries, including China, countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Japan, a rich,
industrialized country, the distinction is not so sharp). Rather than objective parameters,
sociological factors may be the strongest determinants of conference interpreting. This is
probably best understood in the context of a historical analysis. When conference interpreting
emerged as a profession in the League of Nations and International Labor Office between the two
World Wars, interpreters worked in the same room as the “delegates” (the generic term used by
conference interpreters for users of their services) and were very visible to the delegates, to
journalists and to other observers, who admired and praised them for their skills. Many of these
interpreters were academics, and/or came from the same social circles as the people they worked
for. Their image in the public eye was thus very prestigious. This prestige was maintained in the
early years of interpreting in the United Nations, where most interpreters were veterans of the
League of Nations (Baigorri-Jalón 2000, 2004). When AIIC, the International Association of
Conference Interpreters, was set up in 1953, its rules were inspired by this image of interpreters
as top-level professionals with a high social prestige, and major interpreting schools in Geneva,
Heidelberg and Paris followed the same example. Nowadays, many conference interpreters come
from less demanding training programs and many are not members of AIIC, but the (idealized)
social identity of the conference interpreter is still one of high-level professionals, and conference
interpreters are reluctant to be assimilated to interpreters with a lower status such as court
interpreters, business interpreters and community interpreters, regardless of the technical
similarities in part of their work (and of the fact that their contribution to society can be claimed
to be more important than the conference interpreters’). Thus, conference interpreters may be
prototypically characterized as people who have skills in consecutive and simultaneous
interpreting, who interpret at important technical, political, scientific and other meetings, who are
supposed to meet high quality standards, and who consider themselves part of the conference
interpreting community.
3. The conference interpreter’s professional environment
There are probably fewer than ten thousand conference interpreters worldwide, about 2000 of
whom are members of AIIC. Most of them are freelancers, and work for intergovernmental
organizations such as UN agencies, the European Commission or OECD, for regional
organizations, for non-governmental organizations, for government agencies, industrial
corporations and the media. There are also staff interpreters who work as employees of
intergovernmental organizations and some government agencies, but few are employees in the
private sector (with exceptions such as broadcast interpreters in Japan – see BS Broadcast
interpreters’ group, 1998). Most of their work is done in the simultaneous mode, but the
consecutive mode is still used actively. Most conference interpreters have two or three working
languages, including their A language (native or native-like), B languages (which they master
well enough to interpret into them from their A language) and/or C languages (passive languages,
from which they interpret into their A language). Over the past decade or so, the extension of
Europe has induced more and more interpreters working for the European Union to add further
European languages to their language combination, but in many other parts of the world, a twolanguage combination, generally English and the relevant country’s language, is still the most
Interpreting assignments are billed by the day, and generally last 1 to 5 days, except for
some general conferences and similar events in intergovernmental organizations, which may last
several weeks. In countries where the market is active, interpreters work on average between 100
and 150 days a year, which is enough to make a decent living (and to leave interpreters
exhausted). Conference interpreting can be and is a full professional occupation for many. In
countries where the market is slack, many of them are part-time interpreters and also work as
translators, journalists or academics.
While in early days, most of the speeches interpreters had to translate may have been
fairly general, nowadays, many are highly technical, one extreme being the (very common)
written technical or scientific paper read at full speed by its author at a technical meeting, with
the interpreter having to interpret it simultaneously on the spot, often without even having a copy
of the paper before him/her. Even less extreme cases can be very taxing, and in the simultaneous
interpreting booth, interpreters generally take turns and do not interpret for more than 30 minutes
at a time, meaning that they work in teams, with a minimum of two interpreters per booth. While
the first generation of interpreters was almost exclusively masculine, the vast majority of
conference interpreters nowadays are women. It has been claimed that it is easier for them to
accept a career as interpreters, while male interpreters are frustrated by the lack of social
4. The interpreting process and product in a nutshell
Basically, interpreting involves speech comprehension (the original speaker’s) and speech
production. In consecutive interpreting, they correspond to two successive phases, and
throughout history and until after World War I, the process was apparently taken for granted.
Consecutive interpreting only started to attract public attention when League of Nations speeches
by political personalities were brilliantly interpreted by outstanding interpreters (see Baigorri
Jalón 2000). Even then, what was perceived as their outstanding memory and command of
languages became the focus of attention, rather than the process itself. Consecutive interpreting is
now considered a technical skill, which requires training, but probably not higher-than-average
While consecutive interpreting seems natural, simultaneous interpreting, in which the
speaker and interpreter speak at the same time, appears more mysterious. Lay people tend to
admire the speed of translation. Linguists and cognitive psychologists have other questions: how
do interpreters manage not to code-mix the two languages? How do they manage their cognitive
resources between listening and speaking? Do they monitor themselves? How does “language
transfer” occur? To what extent do they really understand what the speaker is saying? One of the
first messages of interpreting community leaders and trainers was that interpreting is not
tantamount to “transcoding”, a mere replacement of language units in the source language by
language units in the target language; interpreters actually listen to and understand the source
speech, and then reformulate it on the basis of its meaning, rather than on a word-correspondence
basis. Moreover, their comprehension process involves analysis, with a contribution of both their
linguistic knowledge and extra-linguistic knowledge. This strong, fundamental message describes
interpreting as essentially very similar to translation. Ironically, the most vocal promoter of this
idea, Danica Seleskovitch of ESIT, Paris, misperceived written translation as more akin to
transcoding - until translators told her otherwise.
The second important fact about interpreting, both simultaneous and “true consecutive”
(conference interpreters use that name to refer to a type of interpreting where speech segments to
be interpreted are long enough to require note-taking, as opposed to sentence-by-sentence
interpreting), is that it is an intrinsically difficult exercise. In translation, most fundamental
difficulties arise from the lack of culturally and linguistically matching words and syntactic
structures in the source- and target language. In interpreting, this is less of a problem, because of
some features of spontaneous speech production and reception, and in particular less stringent
stylistic constraints on the target speech. On the other hand, cognitive load is very high, so much
so that it probably accounts for a large number of errors and omissions in the interpreters’ output,
many more than the conference interpreting community has been willing to acknowledge
officially. Many of the interpreters’ strategies are aimed at either reducing cognitive load or
containing the potential damage resulting from saturation of their attentional resources, whereas
the translators’ strategies deal mostly with problems arising from the lack of inter-linguistic and
intercultural correspondences, from lack of clarity and other weaknesses of the source text, and
from gaps in their own thematic knowledge of the relevant field.
In major interpreter training programmes, conference interpreters are trained to produce
“the same speech” as the speaker’s in the target language. In written translation, in certain types
of texts, such as scientific papers, user’s notices or press statements, the written counterpart of
this aim can be considered realistic, insofar as the information content of both the source and the
target version may be virtually identical, and readers who understand both languages may not
find a difference between them. In interpreting, several factors make the interpreter’s presence
more visible. Firstly, both in conference settings and in media interpreting, listeners can hear the
speaker’s voice, albeit at a lower volume level than the interpreter’s. Another aspect is the
interpreter’s prosody, including both an interpreting-specific intonation and a somewhat
unnatural pause pattern (see for instance Shlesinger 1994, Ahrens 2004). Both may be largely
attributed to cognitive factors: pauses correspond to hesitations (see Mead 2002) and to
interpreting strategies, and unnatural prosody may be partly explained by the fact that the
interpreter’s intonation control is affected by source-speech input. When listeners have a good
view of the speaker, lack of synchronicity between his/her facial and body language also makes
the interpreter visible.
Besides delivery parameters, the question is whether content-wise, the interpreting
product is the same as the original speech. The difficulty of interpreting has always been clear to
all and problem triggers are often discussed in the literature. However, until recently,
investigators tended to ignore its actual implications in terms of the interpreter’s output, possibly
because nearly all of them are practising interpreters and interpreter trainers themselves, and
there is a conflict between their professional interests and the unveiling of some of their
weaknesses. Gile may have been the first to stress repeatedly in his publications the relatively
high frequency of errors and omissions in interpreting output, but was not very specific. In his
recent paper on the interpreting output of formula-one press-conferences, Straniero Sergio (2003)
reports that 249 interpreted versions of Formula One drivers’ answers to questions from
journalists in press conferences, that is, close to half of the 512 interpreted renderings in his
corpus, were incorrect. In a recent doctoral dissertation which examined speeches at the European
Parliament, Vuorikoski (2004) presents and discusses many examples of errors and omissions,
and though no quantitative indications are given, the general tone of her analysis suggests that
much gets lost in the process, at least as far as rhetorical devices are concerned. On the other
hand, in many cases, the propositional content of the source speech is identical or nearly identical
to the target speech content. Moreover, by correcting slips of the tongue and various types of
errors in the source speech and by speaking more clearly than poor speakers or speakers with a
strong accent or a poor command of the language they use, interpreters may actually get more
information across to listeners and/or make the speaker’s point better than the speaker
him/herself, just as good translations sometimes serve the authors’ purposes better than the
source text. Actual losses and gains are yet to be explored.
5. An overview of the history of research into conference interpreting
While the first research contribution in the field may well be a study by Spanish psychologist
Jesús Sanz on the work and abilities of conference interpreters published in 1931 (see Pöchhacker
2004), this was an isolated case. Until the late 1960s, with the exception of an MA thesis by
interpreter Eva Paneth defended in 1957, introspective and prescriptive papers, handbooks and
other publications by interpreters made up the literature on conference interpreting. Two of these
are considered the classics. Jean Herbert’s Manuel de l’interprète (1952) is the first general
handbook of conference interpreting, and Jean-François Rozan’s La prise de notes en consécutive
(1956) sets out the principles of note-taking in consecutive interpreting which are still applied by
a majority of interpreters worldwide.
In the 1960’s, a few psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists (Oléron and Nanpon,
Goldman-Eisler, Barik, Gerver) started showing interest in the “complex skills of simultaneous
interpreting” (Gerver 1976: 166). SI was seen as an interesting model, in particular in the context
of a discussion of single-channel theories of human information processing, of the motor theory
of speech perception, and of issues in bilingualism. A small number of experimental studies were
carried out, which focused mostly on the lag between the source speech and the target speech as
an indicator of complex processing, on the use of the speaker’s pauses by the interpreter, and on
errors and omissions. Gerver also investigated other issues such as the effect of speed and the
effect of noise on interpreting output. The best review of these early studies is probably Gerver
(1976). The psychologists’ work was strongly criticized by interpreters who took up research on
their own in the next stage of the history of CIR, mostly for poor ecological validity in the design
of the task, the interpreting environment, the choice of subjects and assessment methods. Many of
the tasks performed in the laboratory were remote from real-life interpreting. Neither did the
psychological interlude contribute major findings to the knowledge of interpreting. However, as
can be seen in papers edited in Pöchhacker and Shlesinger (2001), the psychologists were aware
of the complexity of the task and were realistic and less ambitious than their successors from
within the interpreting community, who tried to find the key to the process through introspection.
Psychologists did not claim to do more than attempt a first, exploratory approach to interpreting.
Moreover, many of the basic techniques they used and many of the questions they asked remain
topical and have been taken as a basis for further investigation since the 1990’s. For these and
other reasons, their contribution remains important.
In 1977, Gerver and Sinaiko organized a symposium bringing together researchers from
psychology, linguistics and sociology on the one hand, and practitioners of interpreting on the
other, to see whether cooperation was possible (Gerver and Sinaiko 1978). This initiative was not
successful, probably due to a large extent to the interpreters’ unwillingness to submit their craft
and actual performance to experimental investigation by linguists and psychologists who, they
felt, did not understand the true essence of interpreting. This conference may be taken
symbolically as the starting point of a takeover of research by interpreting practitioners, who
chose to ignore both their predecessors’ methods and their findings (as reflected by an almost
total absence of citations of their studies in the literature), to engage in their own mode of
investigation. Research into interpreting during this period, roughly from the mid-seventies to the
late eighties, was dominated by the ideas and the charismatic personality of Danica Seleskovitch,
who set up a doctoral program in Translation Studies at the Ecole Supérieure d’Interprètes et de
Traducteurs (ESIT) of Université Paris III. Her advocacy-type research into interpreting was
centered on her Théorie du sens (“theory of sense”), which essentially postulates total
deverbalization between comprehension of the source speech and production of the target speech
by the interpreter, denies language-pair specific processes and ignores linguistic and cognitive
difficulties. Seleskovitch also rejected any intervention of linguistics or cognitive psychology in
research on interpreting, as well as experimental research – note that her own doctoral
dissertation (Seleskovitch 1975) was based on an experiment, albeit a very unsophisticated
experiment – see further down. Under her leadership, many papers and several doctoral
dissertations on interpreting were produced, and ESIT became the source of inspiration of
aspiring interpreting researchers in the West (in East-European countries, Chernov and other
Russian investigators took a different path, interacting with psycholinguists, but their work was
not available in the West). During this period, interpreting practitioners and interpreter trainers
had ample opportunity to reaffirm fundamental aspects of interpreting. They also stressed that
consecutive interpreting was an important preliminary step in conference interpreter training
because it gave trainees the appropriate analytical approach, whereas learning SI without this
preparation entailed the risk of “parrot-like” transcoding. This “Practitioners’ period” also
provided the initial stimulus and motivation for interpreting practitioners to take up research,
perhaps because the kind of rationale and writing promoted at that time did not involve abstract
theoretical concepts or a complex and rigorous testing procedure, and was perceived as less
intimidating and taxing than more conventional types of research. On the other hand, these very
features of the literature and the rejection of theory and methods from cognate disciplines were
self-limiting. While reflection brought awareness and probably advances in training methodology
(see Seleskovitch and Lederer 1989), it is difficult to pinpoint actual scholarly advances made
during that period. Moreover, with its strong stance against experimental disciplines and
quantitative, experimental methods, the prevailing paradigm prevented interdisciplinary ventures
from being developed, and monopolized research into interpreting to such an extent that
individual initiatives which followed different paradigms (such as Barbara Moser’s theoretical
cognitive-psychology based model, or Linda Anderson’s experimental testing of the influence of
previous knowledge of the speech and of the availability of the speaker’s image) could not be
heard. In terms of theoretical and empirical advances, the Practitioner’s period was a period of
virtual stagnation over 10 years (see Fabbro’s warning in Gambier et al. 1997, p.17).
Actually, many interpreters and interpreter trainers disagreed with some of the premises of
the prevailing paradigm, and in particular with the idea that language-specific differences were
irrelevant to interpreting performance. A number of them also felt that introspection and
prescriptive claims were not enough, and that more systematic scrutiny and testing of the claims
were called for, with more scientific criteria, taking inspiration from work done in existing
disciplines. Gradually, their views gained strength and visibility. A paradigm change started to
emerge, as illustrated and partly triggered by a conference on interpreter training organized by the
Translation and Interpreting School (SSLMIT) of the University of Trieste in November 1986
(Gran and Dodds 1989). The distinctive feature of this conference, convened by a training
institution which was not well known at the time, was probably the fact that individual
interpreting trainers and representatives of many other training institutions were able to speak out
as equals in a setting where representatives of the more prestigious schools were a minority and
some of the prevailing ideas were publicly and openly challenged for the first time in a formal
meeting of interpreters. At the same conference, the SSLMIT presented its research policy, with
an important interdisciplinary component through partnership with neurolinguists. This was the
first time that an interpreter training institution formally announced an interdisciplinary research
policy. The SSLMIT Trieste also launched The Interpreters’ Newsletter, the first journal devoted
to interpreting research, and followed up with a series of empirical research projects, many of
which were conducted for and reported as graduation theses, many of which were conducted with
the help or under the supervision of researchers from cognate disciplines. The general orientation
chosen by the SSLMIT was subsequently adopted in the CIR community as the new research
model, which is still followed to this day.
6. The CIR community and its research production
Except for occasional authors from the cognitive sciences who are invited to write about their
disciplines and how they could contribute to CIR, virtually all authors of CIR are interpreter
trainers and graduating students. The interest of cognitive psychologists and linguists in
interpreting seems to be essentially limited to SI as a model to test their theories. Moreover, the
conference interpreting environment is not favourable to experimental research, as is explained
later in this paper.
Conference interpreters generally earn more money than researchers; students who show
talent for research and write good theses tend to go into professional life after graduation, perhaps
after writing one paper summarizing their thesis at the request of their supervisors. This also
explains why continued commitment to research, especially labour-intensive empirical research,
is difficult to find among other members of the CIR community, most of whom are successful
interpreters themselves.
Another typical feature of conference interpreters is their educational background: most of
them have studied languages, translation and/or interpreting, but few have studied academic
disciplines in curricula offering formal training in research methods (psychology, sociology, the
natural sciences, etc.), and only a fraction of those who have completed a PhD in interpreting
(fewer than eighty so far) have worked under supervisors with such formal training. This is
reflected in some qualitative characteristics of CIR discussed further down.
The data presented here are taken from the CIRIN database, a systematic collection of
bibliographical information about conference interpreting. It probably covers rather well books
and papers published in the West. Its coverage is more uncertain with respect to MA theses and
to publications in East-European, Asian and Latin-American countries which are not followed by
publications in mainstream journals. Table 1 presents general productivity trends since 1970. At
the time this paper is written, most of the data for years 2000 to 2003 are available, and a linear
extrapolation over the period 2000-2004 was done on the basis of this information. The following
general trends emerge:
< insert table 1 >
1. The total volume of CIR publications, theses and dissertations is small, about 3000 items.
There was a spectacular rise in the yearly production from the early seventies to the mid-nineties,
with growth rates between 51 and 97% from each five-year period to the next. Growth has
continued since, but at a slower rate, between 18 and 38%, with fewer than 200 new texts every
year. The fast growth period may correspond to the unused potential of interpreter training
programs being realized: interpreter trainers may have been more exposed and attracted to
research than in the past, and graduation theses of interpreting students, which used to be devoted
to either translation or terminology, were redirected towards research into interpreting. The
slower growth in the past few years may indicate that this process has now come to maturation
and that the pool of human resources potentially available for research into interpreting,
composed almost exclusively of interpreting instructors and interpreting students, is no longer
growing significantly.
2. The number of articles in collective volumes is also increasing. From the late eighties on, they
were almost as numerous as papers published in journals. Over the past few years, they have
actually been more numerous than papers published in journals. This may be explained by the
large number of Translation Studies (TS) conferences organized by universities with translator
and interpreter training programs in which interpreting researchers take part. These conferences
are most often followed by proceedings.
3. The proportion of empirical studies in CIR has been increasing. After the experimental
interlude, during which it was relatively high (20% in the first half of the 1970s), it dropped to
around 10% during the Practitioners period. In the Renewal period, with its aspiration to more
scientific methods, it picked up again, rising regularly to more than 30% in the past few years.
Note that the proportion of theses reporting empirical research has been rising to even higher
levels, more than 80% over the last 5 year period. Since theses account for up to close to 20% of
the overall production, and many of their authors subsequently summarize them in papers, they
seem to be good promoters of empirical research.
4. The total number of doctoral and postdoctoral dissertations remains very low, fewer than five
a year. This rate is not likely to increase spectacularly, due to economic reasons as explained
above. In countries where the market is relatively slack and getting tenure at university in an
interpreter training programme requires a PhD, as has become the case in Spain recently, there
may be more PhDs in the coming years than in countries where the market situation is better
(Belgium and France, for example), or in countries where teaching positions do not require PhDs
(such as Italy and Japan).
Over the years, the most active centres in terms of publications have shifted. While in the
1970’s, French and German authors were the most prolific, in the data available so far on years
2000 to 2004, Italian authors account for 130 bibliographical items, that is, 16% of the total,
Chinese authors for 104 items, Spanish authors for sixty four items and Korean and German
authors for forty seven items each. However, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
Firstly, as explained above, many authors write a single graduation thesis and never write again,
especially in countries such as Finland, Italy and Spain, where graduation theses are a
requirement and supervisors suggest strongly that they be research theses, as opposed to
annotated translations or glossaries. Secondly, in some countries, and in particular in mainland
China, re-publication and re-re-publication of the same paper are frequent. Thirdly, the number of
bibliographical items authored in Interpreting Studies, a recent discipline without a strong
research culture (see below), is not necessarily a good indicator of actual research production. A
somewhat better indicator is probably the number of active authors in each centre. Most of them
try to renew themselves over time, and most of them have some influence on research, if only by
inspiring, and sometimes advising newcomers. Table 2 takes as a minimum activity criterion four
papers over each five year period (except for the last period, 2000-2004, for which data are
incomplete at the time this paper is written). As can be seen, except for a peak in Italy after the
Trieste initiative, there are no more than six such active authors in every country. Considering
that in the most “productive” countries, authors come from at least two distinct universities, it is
difficult to talk about “research centres”, possibly with the exception of ESIT during the
Practitioners’ period, of the Italian translation and interpreting schools at Trieste and Forlì, and of
the JAIS (Japan Association for Interpretation Studies). Interestingly, all authors from ESIT were
experienced conference interpreters cum interpreter trainers. In Italy, some of the authors are
interpreters and interpreter trainers from the two universities, and some are graduating students.
In Japan, initially, almost all authors were interpreter trainers without any academic affiliation
(most of the training is done in private schools): over the past few years, an increasing number of
academic authors are not interpreters themselves. All of these features are reflected in both the
issues addressed and the type of research carried out.
< insert table 2 >
In a previous analysis of CIR production, on data up to and including 1999 (Gile 2000,
table 3), training accounted for the highest proportion of bibliographical items, around 20%. In
the 1990s, it was followed by language and linguistic issues (14%) and by professional issues
(12%). Since the year 2000, proportions have not changed much: items addressing training issues
still account for 20% of total production, language and linguistic issues account for 14%, and
professional issues for 8%.
Since MA theses account for a large number of empirical studies and herald the arrival of
the next generation of interpreting researchers, it is interesting to take a closer look at their
distribution over time (table 3). It appears that while Charles University, Prague, has had a
tradition of graduation theses on interpreting for many years, Italian centres took over the leading
rank from the mid-eighties on. Initially, the SSLMIT Trieste was virtually the single contributor
to this development. Later, the SSLMIT Bologna in Forlì joined it with a regular, intensive
production of theses, most of them empirical. Also note the contribution of Finland, another
country with a tradition of theses at the end of translation and interpreting courses. Interestingly,
a relatively large number of MA theses are being defended in China in the past few years; most
of them are not empirical.
< insert table 3 >
For institutional reasons and in view of the limited social importance of conference
interpreting (as opposed to court interpreting and community interpreting), this overall pattern
does not seem likely to change much in the near future, though more input can be expected from
newcomers to the European Union, and even more from China, as they join the global movement
with their still unused human resources. Some leading members of the CIR community may also
turn to court interpreting and community interpreting, when government interest in social and
legal issues associated with immigrants and ethnic minorities results in programmes and funds for
research in these fields.
7. Major issues in the literature
7.1 Training
Training issues have been the most numerous in the literature throughout the development of
CIR. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, training is the one topic which is relevant to all
interpreter trainers, that is, virtually all authors in the CIR community; secondly, texts about
training can be descriptive, analytical or prescriptive, and do not require abstract theory or
rigorous empirical designs, which makes them easier to write. Indeed, save for a few exceptions,
mostly experiments with admission test methods and some investigations on the personality of
interpreters, which could contribute to better selection of candidates (see for example Kurz 1996),
there are few reports of actual research on training issues. Besides a rather large number of
general textbooks (thirty three in the CIRIN bibliography, including nine books since 2000), most
texts deal with the principles of interpreter training, with ideas about testing, with descriptions of
curricula and of specific training methods, with the strengths and weaknesses of specific training
exercises, with training approaches, and are written in the form of descriptions, prescriptions and
Conference interpreter training programmes share common ground with professional
translator programmes: they distance themselves from language acquisition, which they place
upstream of translator/interpreter training, and focus on skills, in particular analytical skills and
strategic decision-making. A difference in focus between the two disciplines is that there is much
domain-specific training in translation, and little domain-specific training in conference
interpreting, perhaps because few conference interpreters are specialized in a particular field.
Another intriguing point about investigation into conference interpreter training is that there is a
resurgence of interest in teaching and learning consecutive. At first sight, this seems surprising,
since consecutive has been said to be declining strongly over the past decades. On the other hand,
training in consecutive is considered indispensable by many trainers, not only as a professional
skill which is still in demand, but also because it forces students to listen closely and analyze the
source speech carefully before reformulating it in the target language, thus teaching and
strengthening the right approach before students start learning simultaneous interpreting. What
may be even more important is that research into consecutive, and especially training in
consecutive, is convenient: consecutive notes are good indicators, there is a large pool of students
for naturalistic and experimental studies, and the classroom environment is valid both for training
and for research.
7.2 Language issues
During the Practitioners’ period, discussion of linguistic theories and language-related issues was
not encouraged: proponents of the mainstream school of thought claimed that they belonged
upstream of interpreting, that the interpreting process was language-independent, and that any
study of particular characteristics of single languages or language pairs (in contrastive studies) in
the framework of discussions of interpreting would confuse issues from different realms. A
radical change occurred in the late 1980s, at the start of the Renewal period. A number of
authors, including interpreting instructors and graduating students, started examining the
problems and strategies associated with interpreting in specific source-language target-language
combinations. While most authors in the Practitioners’ period referred to English, French and
German, authors now draw upon their experience with other languages, including East-European
and Asian languages. The influence of text linguistics is also felt, in particular with some interest
in cohesion and coherence. However, as is explained below, the main focus of CIR is cognitive,
and language issues are mostly analyzed against this background, in particular with a strong
implication of pragmatics (Setton 1999).
7.3 Cognitive issues
SI involves heavy cognitive pressure. This is partly what attracted cognitive psychologists in the
1960s, and this is probably the most central issue around which most of CIR gravitates, just as the
“free-versus-literal” translation issue has always been central to translation theory. Several
statements found in the writings of proponents of ESIT’s “theory of sense” show that they were
aware of the problem, but they never integrated it into their theory, possibly in an effort to keep
linguistics and psychology outside CIR. Note that during the same period, the interpreter’s
cognitive limitations were incorporated into Ghelly Chernov’s “probability prediction model”,
which centered around the idea that human speech contains much redundancy, and that
interpreters can interpret simultaneously despite the difficulty of the task by anticipating the
speech to an increasing extent as it unfolds. Chernov’s model was never cited by ESIT authors,
and further investigation into cognitive aspects of interpreting had to wait for the Renewal period
before being taken up widely. Also in the mid-seventies, Barbara Moser, a young graduate of the
interpreting program in Innsbruck, developed an information-processing model of interpreting
(see Moser 1978; also see Setton 2003) based on Massaro’s model of speech comprehension, and
basically traced the flow of information from the perception of sound patterns to feature detection
to words, phrases, then to higher level units in successive steps, with the recurring storage of
output units in “generalized abstract memory”. This relatively detailed information-processing
model does not incorporate elements to account for difficulties interpreters have in either
understanding the source speech or reproducing the target speech (see below), or strategies they
use to overcome them. Hella Kirchhoff, from Heidelberg, may have been the first interpreter to
devote serious theoretical thought to the issue of cognitive load (see her 1976 paper in
Pöchhacker and Shlesinger 2002) and to the results of saturation of the interpreter’s available
cognitive resources. In the early 1980s, Gile, who was not aware of Kirchhoff’s work (during the
Practitioners’ period, little information was being disseminated on research outside the prevailing
paradigm - the IRTIN network, now renamed CIRIN, was set up in 1990 to change this),
developed a set of “Effort Models” in a similar mindset: he considered that both simultaneous
and consecutive interpreting were taxing cognitive operations which easily saturated available
processing capacity and caused weaknesses in the interpreter’s output (see for example Gile
1995). In his model of SI, he divided operations into a Listening and Analysis Effort L, a (shortterm) Memory Effort M, and a (target speech) Production Effort. Each of these Efforts had nonautomatic components and therefore required processing capacity, and managing attention
between the Efforts required a further Coordination Effort C. According to the model,
interpreting could only function if:
1. The interpreter’s total available capacity exceeded the total requirement of these three Efforts
and the Coordination Effort.
2. At any time during the interpreting process, enough processing capacity was allocated to each
of the Listening, Memory and Production tasks at hand.
Gile attributed most of the errors, omissions and other weaknesses in interpreting output
to failure to meet these conditions due to capacity overload or poor capacity management. This
accounted for many problems observed in daily practice and noted in the literature, including
difficulties with read speeches, with fast speakers, with strange accents, with enumerations,
numbers and proper names, and explained, through a “carryover effect”, some errors and
omissions in source speech segments without identifiable difficulties. Gile’s “tightrope
hypothesis” posits that interpreters work close to saturation, and many events occurring during
interpreting tip the scales and generate errors and omissions.
Saturation phenomena also account for many problems in consecutive interpreting, which
consists of two phases. During the listening phase, the interpreter’s attention is shared between
listening and analysis, memory and note production in much the same way as it is shared between
listening, memory and speech production in simultaneous interpreting. The reformulation phase
is less critical (Gile 1995).
The main functions of online strategies in simultaneous interpreting are to prevent such
problems from occurring or to contain their effects, typically by controlling cognitive load. Such
online strategies include stalling until further information comes in, using hypernyms, lowering
memory load by unloading information in neutral sentence beginnings, anticipating, etc. (see
inter alia Gile 1995). Some strategies are language-pair specific, in their frequency if not in their
nature. For instance, when word-order differences between source- and target language are likely
to force interpreters to wait until they can reformulate the relevant source speech phrase or
sentence, they often start with neutral sentence beginnings rather than commit themselves or wait
until the full source-speech sentence is available before they start reformulating it. In consecutive,
most strategies also have a strong cognitive-load management component and are related either to
note-taking and note-reading, or to target speech reformulation.
Interpreting directionality (working from one’s foreign or B language into one’s native or
A language, or the other way around) can also be discussed in terms of cognitive load and the
tightrope hypothesis: assuming processing capacity required for comprehension and production is
lower in one’s A language than in one’s B language, when conditions are such that
comprehension is difficult (strange accent, poor listening conditions, etc.), it makes sense to work
from one’s A language; when production is likely to be more difficult (when the speaker is fast,
when it is particularly important to use elegant language, etc.), it makes sense to work into one’s
A language. Under simultaneous interpreting conditions, there may also be language specific
difficulties: accents and dialects may be more of a problem in Arabic, Chinese and Swedish than
in French, English and Spanish, and production may be more difficult in languages with
numerous embedded structures, where the content of the beginning of a sentence must be kept in
working memory longer on average than in languages with fewer embedded structures, and in
languages with a rigid word order, where syntactic decisions must be made early on in the
sentence and may force interpreters to wait longer before making such decisions. Interpreting
directionality is far less critical in consecutive, since the two languages are not simultaneously
present in working memory and word order and ambiguity do not pose online problems: most of
the time, consecutive interpreters can base their production decisions on far larger chunks than
simultaneous interpreters (several sentences as opposed to a phrase or single sentence). This
could explain the fact that many conference interpreters who refuse to work into their B language
in simultaneous do accept assignments in consecutive in the same A-into-B direction.
All these issues point to the essential role of working memory in interpreting. This topic
has attracted much attention over the past two decades or so, the main question being whether
interpreters have an especially efficient working memory which allows them to handle at the
same time comprehension of the incoming source speech, production of their target speech,
monitoring of their target speech, and problem-solving when difficulties arise. In her doctoral
dissertation defended in 1995, Presentación Padilla found higher memory spans in interpreters
than in non-interpreters. In a more recent dissertation, Minhua Liu (2001) found that the
interpreters’ advantage resides not in a higher overall working memory capacity, but in more
efficient processing of domain-specific operations. Christoffels (2004) also found higher memory
capacity in interpreters than in other subjects. The most recent and sophisticated cognitive model
of interpreting is Setton’s (1999) relevance theory and mental models theory-based construct.
Setton assigns much weight to pragmatic markers which, he claims, counterbalance to a large
extent the potential effects of syntactic differences between source- and target language.
7.4 Neurolinguistics
The important role neurolinguistics played in the development of CIR in the early 1990s is
mostly due to the partnership established in Trieste between interpreter trainers and neurolinguist
Franco Fabbro. Much of the work was focused on investigating lateralization patterns in
interpreters, but initial findings suggesting more balanced involvement in both hemispheres in
interpreters were contradicted by ulterior results, and at this point, the evidence is inconclusive
(see Pöchhacker 2004: 114).
Neurophysiological indicators in the form of EEG tests, PET tests, hormone tests, skin
conductance tests, pupil dilation tests, blood pressure measurement etc. were also used for other
investigations, in particular as indicators for cerebral and other physiological activity in various
tasks, including interpreting into A and into B, and for stress investigations. Some
interdisciplinary initiatives with neurophysiology were taken by Ingrid Kurz in Vienna (see Kurz
1996), and others by Jorma Tommola in Finland and Barbara Moser-Mercer in Switzerland.
However, technical and methodological problems make it difficult to use such tests widely, and
as pointed out by Michel Paradis and others during discussions in various conferences, findings
of brain imaging techniques such as irrigation patterns and electrical activity in different parts of
the brain are difficult to interpret with respect to issues interpreters are interested in.
7.5 Quality
Interpreting quality is probably the topic on which the largest amount of empirical research has
been carried out so far. Starting with a survey among interpreters by Bühler in 1986, several other
surveys, in particular by Ingrid Kurz, tried to determine what was the relative weight given to
various aspects of interpreting quality (including content parameters, language parameters and
delivery parameters) by various groups of users of their services. On the whole, user expectations
tend to focus on content rather than on form, and some differences can be observed in the
priorities of users from different groups. However, actual user reactions to interpreting output
seem less clear cut. In particular, intonation and voice quality may be far more important than
conceptual hierarchization in user expectation surveys suggests (see for instance Collados Aís et
al. 2003, or Shlesinger 2004). Besides variability in quality expectations, there seems to be high
variability (and low inter-rater reliability) in actual evaluations (see for example Gile in Target
7:1, Gile 1999). This may be due to variability in personal norms and preferences (see for
instance Kopczynski 1994, Gile 1999), to variable inter-individual sensitivity and to attention
fluctuations. In some cases, interpreters know their clients’ preferences: summarizing in some
circumstances, translating as accurately as possible every phrase in the source speech, focusing
on synchronicity (when interpreting for the media), etc. When such preferences are not known,
the interpreters’ norm by default seems to give the highest priority to restitution of informational
content, followed by clear and pleasant delivery.
8. Methodological issues
Until the late 1980s, research into interpreting was mostly carried out in two very distinct ways.
Interpreting practitioners proceeded mostly by introspection and intuition, and illustrated their
theories with examples rather than backing them with strict hypothesis-testing. The prevailing
idea was that naturalistic research was the only ecologically valid one, though interestingly,
Seleskovitch’s only empirical study, carried out for her doctoral thesis (see Seleskovitch 1975),
was experimental: she asked twelve interpreters to do a consecutive interpretation of two English
speeches into French and looked at their notes for indicators of the process. The actual data
collected in the few empirical studies carried out by interpreting practitioners who followed the
same stream were mostly examples of specific words or phrases found by interpreters to render
ideas expressed by specific words or phrases in the source speech, and inferences were made on
that basis only.
This “liberal arts paradigm”, as it was christened by Barbara Moser-Mercer (1994), is one
conventional type of academic discussion, an extension of the classical philosophical and
religious debate. In the case of written translation, it has a long-standing tradition and still
accounts for a large number of texts in the literature. There are, however, three reasons which
might explain why the way it was implemented in CIR during the Practitioners’ period generated
strong opposition. Firstly, in contrast to the conventional type of procedure in the humanities,
authors tended to proclaim their own ideas and ignore authors with different opinions. Strong
claims were made, some of which went against what other interpreters and interpreter trainers
believed was true. Some interpreters and interpreter trainers with a different mindset considered
that making such claims without seeking to back them with systematic evidence was
counterproductive. The most controversial point was perhaps the exclusion of language-specific
issues from public debate.
From the early 1980s on, interpreters who aspired to more systematic exploration of
reality and testing of theories (Linda Anderson, Daniel Gile, Jennifer Mackintosh, Barbara
Moser-Mercer, Catherine Stenzl and others) started to call for a different way of doing research
on interpreting. Stenzl and Gile, in particular, pleaded for naturalistic studies which would
provide more data on what actually happens in the field. This call is in line with a classical
exploration pattern in empirical disciplines, where naturalistic studies give rise to theories, which
are tested by experimental methods. Interestingly, in interpreting studies, development was
different. Psychologists started out with experimental exploration right away, thus missing the
opportunity to gather data which might have helped prevent some methodological weaknesses,
while interpreting practitioners chose an introspection-based prescriptive path. These choices are
understandable: psychologists had already developed theories and tried to apply them to and to
test them through interpreting, while interpreters had the feeling they knew their trade inside out
and did not see the need to test their knowledge step by step in a slow process. Moreover, they
correctly identified ecological validity issues in the psychologists’ work, and apparently did not
see how to bridge the gap. As aspiration to more scientific exploration of interpreting gained
influence, investigation of interpreting in the interpreters’ community divided into two streams.
One was the liberal arts paradigm, and the other, which seems to have become the prevailing
approach, is what Moser-Mercer calls the “natural science paradigm”, and corresponds to what is
traditionally known as the “scientific approach” or “scientific method”. This second stream can
also be divided in two sub-streams. The first implements the more traditional experimentalist
approach, generally with specific hypotheses, classical experimental designs and inferential
statistics as the decision-making tool. This is the line followed by researchers from the cognitive
sciences, such as Fabbro, Lambert, Liu (2001) and, most recently, Christoffels (2004). However,
in the CIR environment, this type of research encounters serious obstacles, the two most
important ones being the following:
1. Variables that exert strong influence on interpreting output are numerous. They include the
source language, the target language, the spontaneous, semi-spontaneous, or prepared nature of
the speech, delivery speed, the speaker’s intonation, the speaker’s accent, the logic of the speech,
information density of the speech, syntactic structures in the speech, including the length of
sentences and the number of embedded structures, the quality of the sound reaching the
interpreter, the interpreter’s knowledge of the subject matter, experience, training, mental and
physical state, motivation, visibility of the speaker from the booth, the number of delegates who
listen to interpreting, the interpreter’s relations with other colleagues in the team, etc. This results
in much variability (highlighted in particular in Lamberger-Felber 1998), hence the need for large
samples and many replications of experiments before findings can be considered robust.
2. Only a few hundred interpreters at most are concentrated in interpreting centers such as
Brussels, Paris, London and Tokyo, only a fraction of these are willing to serve as subjects for
experiments, and only a fraction of potential volunteers have the required language combination,
experience, specific type of training and working languages required for a given experiment or
set of experiments. In practical terms, it is therefore very difficult to find enough subjects for
experimental studies to cover all the experimental conditions being investigated in a sufficient
number of specific constellations of values of relevant parameters.
As a result, few studies fulfilling the standard requirements of experimental research have
been carried out so far, and the pool of confirmed findings of such studies is still very small.
When replications are carried out, findings are often contradictory (see for example Christoffels’
data on recall as opposed to Gerver’s or Lambert’s in Christoffels 2004).
The second stream of research in the “natural sciences paradigm” is compatible with the
same fundamental principles, but does not seek the same level of precision. Rather, it conducts
naturalistic research and experimental research with generally simple design and mostly less
sensitive/accurate tools. Typically, studies in this category involve interpreting of authentic or
quasi-authentic speeches at different delivery speeds, with or without prior preparation, with or
without particular accents, with or without body language, interpreting the same speech in
simultaneous and consecutive and comparing the two, interpreting the same speech into different
languages and comparing strategies, etc. Typically, assessment of the output is based on
examination of errors and omissions, strategies, retrospective comments, etc., and no inferential
statistics are used. This approach possibly represents the best compromise in the conference
interpreting environment in its present state:
1. It is a way of increasing substantially the volume of empirical studies in CIR: such studies can
be carried out without much training and skills in sophisticated experimental design and without
much manipulation, and are therefore within the reach of motivated interpreter trainers and
graduating students. Moreover, without inferential statistics, they can be conducted as small scale
studies (no minimum sample size is required) and replicated often (see the methodological
discussion in Gile 1999).
2. Ecological validity is better in such studies than in experimental setups involving control of
every feature of the source speech and where recall tasks, articular suppression, the presence of
physical devices such as electrodes or chin rests and other extraneous factors may interfere with
the process and/or the interpreter’s output.
3. The lesser precision of the tools used is not necessarily a problem, due to high variability in
interpreting. Significant but small differences found on small samples without replications and
under uncertain ecological validity may be less relevant to the interpreting community than
differences large enough to be detected with blunt tools in ecologically more valid experiments,
which can be replicated more easily.
In other cases, modern technology and the nature of the phenomena being studied do
make it possible to be very precise while maintaining ecological validity. For instance, it is now
possible to measure the interpreter’s lag behind the speaker, or compare the speaker’s and
interpreter’s pauses, or analyze prosody very accurately with inexpensive sound processing
software, and these possibilities are being leveraged by interpreting researchers (see for instance
Mead 2002, Ahrens 2004).
Over the past decade or so, many empirical studies based on good ideas were published
by interpreter trainers and graduating students. The status of their findings, however, is often
uncertain, due to severe methodological flaws (shared by authors of research into written
translation - see for example Gile and Hansen 2004). These reside more in the rationale than in
the implementation of research techniques, and include designs which do not take into account
confounding variables, unsubstantiated claims, incorrect inferences, comparison of non
comparable entities, invalid indicators, overgeneralization, etc.
Interestingly, such flaws are found not only in studies by graduating students, but also in
the work of highly motivated, thorough interpreters who have acquired considerable theoretical
knowledge. Their root cause is most probably the fact that they were never trained in empirical
research methods and never acquired the norms of rigorous rationale which are an essential part
thereof. There is also some tension between proponents of the more scientific approach, who
have claimed that followers of the liberal arts paradigm are not rigorous enough and make many
unsubstantiated claims, and the latter, who accuse the former of empiricism and of neglecting
theory (see for example Pöchhacker’s criticism and Gile’s response in Schäffner 2004).
9. Interdisciplinarity
Linguistic aspects of interpreting and attention-sharing phenomena clearly call for
interdisciplinarity with linguistics and cognitive psychology in research into conference
interpreting (Gran and Dodds 1989; Kurz 1996), and other fields such as sociology, law and
communication theory are clearly important in the study of community interpreting, court
interpreting and interpreting for the media. After the Practitioner’s period, conference interpreting
researchers turned to cognitive science, and many authors have massively used theoretical
concepts from linguistics and cognitive science, in particular Kurz, Moser-Mercer, Padilla, Setton
and Liu. Authors from cognate disciplines have not reciprocated and do not use concepts and
theories from CIR. This can be partly explained by gaps between the respective foci of the two
communities. Even when they write about conference interpreting, some mistake it for
simultaneous interpreting, some assert that consecutive interpreting requires special long-term
memory skills whereas authors in the literature explain their view that this is not the case, some
make assumptions about the history of the interpreters’ bilingualism without regard to studies in
which interpreters provide relevant data about the issue. These few examples can be taken as an
indicator of their lack of regard for the CIR literature. This may be due to the fact that most CIR
publications fail to meet their standards, as suggested by a statement by Gran and Fabbro to that
effect in Gambier et al. (1997, p. 19). Most of their publications remain within the paradigms,
theories and bibliographical references of their own disciplines, and only a few refer to more than
a token sample of CIR publications. Besides methodological issues, this asymmetry is probably
due to the lower sociological status of interpreting research. Most of the successful cooperative
ventures between interpreters and researchers from cognate disciplines were carried out within
cognate disciplines with respect to both the methods and research questions (in particular
working memory issues and neurolinguistic issues), and promoters of interdisciplinarity such as
Gile, Pöchhacker and Shlesinger have recently expressed disappointment with the results so far.
The effective evolution of interdisciplinarity is still an open issue.
The future
The future of conference interpreting is uncertain. In the world of science and technology, an
increasing number of delegates now use English and do without interpreting services. Even in
international organizations, there is an increasing tendency to hold meetings in English. In future
years, the conference interpreting market may stagnate, or even shrink, and migration from CIR
toward research into other forms of interpreting may occur. This may result in some loss with
respect to research on the specific features of conference interpreting and conference interpreters,
but may also be associated with some gain, in particular as regards psycho-sociological aspects of
interpreting (see for example Schäffner 2004).
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