Deliberate Practice – What’s in it for Conference Interpreters

The one thing that strikes me most about deliberate practice is the notion of immediate feedback. How could that possibly work in simultaneous interpreting? You can’t just interrupt each other when interpreting, can you? Well, most certainly not while on the job, but could you give immediate feedback when practising in a silent booth or at home? It reminds me of a dear colleague who once kindly recommended that I shouldn’t end every Spanish sentence with a „no?“, and then she started a tally of all my „nos“ while I was interpreting. Apart from the fun we had, I got rid of this habit once and for all in no time.

But apart from bothering your colleagues to get rid of your bad habits (or not to fall into them in the first place), there must be more to deliberate practice, I thought. So I grabbed what sounded like the most promising book about the subject: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool to see if I could find some inspiration for experienced interpreters or students. And just to whet your appetite, I am happy to share my favourite ideas:

Once reached an acceptable level of – automated – performance, you do not necessarily improve by just going on doing the same thing for years. Your performance may even deteriorate. Leave your comfort zone, challenge your homeostasis if you want to improve.

So that’s that for the discussion about whether conference interpreters need any further training in interpreting once they have graduated („our daily work is training in itself“) …

Don’t just „try harder“, but differently. If you want to practice purposefully, define a realistic sub-goal and focus on the particular sub-skill, then make sure you receive immediate and positive feedback and repeat.

This makes me think of what Andrew Gillies (who also refers to Ericsson) says about practice: Dissect the process of interpreting and practice different sub-skills separately. Andrew suggests a plethora of useful exercises in his book Conference Interpreting – A Student’s Practice Book. And even if you are too lazy to do specific exercises: We all have these meetings once in a while where we know the content inside out, and I have seen colleagues writing emails or playing sudoku while interpreting. Why not focus on a particular aspect of your performance instead? You can play with your ear-voice-span, try to find new ways of expressing the standard phrases, monitor your voice and intonation, watch out for false starts or eeehms, try to make meaningful pauses or structure your output more clearly etc.

You need a mental representation of good performances. Only when you know what it „feels“ like to do something properly, you will be able to notice that what you are doing does not match this way of doing it well. By way of adaptive thinking, you can then correct mistakes.

The part of mental representations that are elicited by interviewing the best of the best performers in their respective fields (e.g. surgeons) could be quite interesting also for interpreting studies. In her dissertation Experience and Expertise in Conference Interpreting: An investigation of Swedish conference interpreters, Elisabet Tiselius conducted a study comparing the performance of interpreters with longer, shorter and no experience. Among many interesting findings, it becomes clear that the notions of deliberate practice and expert interpreter are not clearly defined in the world of interpreting. Differences between short- and long-experience interpreters were not as significant as one might have expected. „It may very well be that monitoring and informativeness are the components that make the expert performance superior. The challenge ahead is to dig deeper into these differences in order to understand and define expertise in interpreting.“ So a lot is still to be done is this field of research!

All these insights remind me of another experience of having received immediate feedback. At university, one teacher we had would always listen in and watch us intently when we were interpreting, and he would frown as soon as we talked nonsense, or even interrupt and correct us. As a student, I found this teaching method rather effective, albeit cruel. But now, from a deliberate practice perspective, I understand that it might have been even more effective if – just like the tally experience mentioned at the beginning – (a) we had focussed on a sub-skill and (b) the feedback had been given not only immediately, but in a somewhat more enjoyable way. Lesson learned!

Further reading/watching:

Aline Casanova, who is both a conference interpreter and ballet dancer, has a special perspective on the subject.

Elisabet Tiselius, expert in deliberate practice and expertise in interpreting, refers to an analogy made by Ericsson, comparing conference interpreters to violinists:

Blog article on internet platforms for practising in virtual teams: Speechpool, InterpretimeBank & InterpretersHelp – the Perfect Trio for Deliberate Practice in Conference Interpreting


About the author

Anja Rütten is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A), Spanish (B), English (C) and French (C) based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has specialised in knowledge management since the mid-1990s.

Speechpool, InterpretimeBank & InterpretersHelp – the Perfect Trio for Deliberate Practice in Conference Interpreting

After testing the practice module of InterpretersHelp last month, the whole practice thing got me hooked. Whilst InterpretersHelp gives us the technical means to record our interpretation together with the original and receive feedback from peers, there are two more platforms out there which cover further aspects of the practice workflow: InterpretimeBank and Speechpool.

To start with, you need source material to interpret – which is where Sophie Llewellyn-Smith’s fabulous speechpool comes into play. Just like InterpretimeBank and InterpretersHelp, it is a platform for practicing conference interpreters. It serves for exchanging speeches suitable for this purpose, i.e. you can upload speeches you recorded yourself and listen to those others recorded. Of course, there are zillions of speeches out there on the internet. But to practice purposefully, e.g. on everyday subjects like, say, sourdough bread, or dive into more technical subjects like ballet or fracking, it is sometimes difficult to find suitable speeches in the required source language. And this is where Sophie’s great idea of pooling speeches made by interpreters for interpreters kicks in. It currently has over 200 German, Spanish and French speeches and more than 900 in English. Obviously, the whole platform only works if many people participate actively and make contributions. Technically, you upload your video on youtube.com and add it to Speechpool using the YouTube url. This makes it a perfect match for InterpretersHelp, which also uses YouTube to handle the source speech videos.

Once you have found your speech to practice with, there’s InterpreTimeBank, a platform to find peer conference interpreters from all over the world to pair up with and exchange feedback. My colleague (and former student) Fernanda Vila Kalbermatten drew my attention to InterpretimeBank recently:

Es una plataforma muy recomendable para continuar con la práctica después de terminados los estudios. La mayor ventaja es que nos conecta con intérpretes en otros países, que actúan como público en consecutivas y nos pueden dar feedback sobre nuestros retours. La comunidad necesita crecer, por lo que invito a todos los intérpretes en activo a participar.

InterpreTimeBank is still in its initial phase, so the community needs to grow. Once you have found your perfect practice buddy, you can start interpreting, be it doing consecutive interpretation over the web, or exchanging your simultaneous interpretations using the fabulous practice module of InterpretersHelp and give and receive feedback using its integrated feedback function.

How much more could you ask for to keep practicing after university, brush up a language combination or just keep your skills sharp? For, as Karl Anders Ericsson puts it, an automated level of acceptable performance is not improved by just going on for years. In fact, it may even deteriorate. But that’s for next time …


About the author

Anja Rütten is a freelance conference interpreter for German (A), Spanish (B), English (C) and French (C) based in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has specialised in knowledge management since the mid-1990s.