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.

InterpretersHelp’s new Practice Module – Great Peer-Reviewing Tool for Students and Grownup Interpreters alike

I have been wondering for quite a while now why peer feedback plays such a small role in the professional lives of conference interpreters. Whatwith AIIC relying on peer review as its only admission criterion, why not follow the logic and have some kind of a routine in place to reflect upon our performance every now and then. After having received our university degrees, we are not immune to developing bad habits or dropping in performance for the next decades to come.

In light of this I was all the more pleased to learn at Translating and the Computer 40 that InterpretersHelp had implemented a brand new practice and feedback module.

I decided to test it straight away with my students at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. So instead of meeting in the classroom, I had my students interpret a video at home in the InterpretersHelp practice module and send their interpretation to me for feedback. I listened to eleven complete interpretations and gave detailed feedback using the evaluation criteria and the comment function InterpretersHelp offers. (First lesson learned: Listening to eleven interpreted versions of the same speech from start to finish is a safe way to drive anyone insane.) Later we met face-to-face at the university to discuss recurring issues and general patterns in interpreting particular parts of the speech.

Here are my lessons learned from a trainer’s perspective:

– Listening to all your students‘ recordings is extremely time-consuming. Make sure you plan accordingly.
– Giving structured feedback trains your sense of analysis and helps to discover similarities and differences between your students‘ skills, strengths and weaknesses.
– The discussions in the group were much more focussed on patterns, strategies and best practice than on individual mistakes.

Feedback from my students was:

– The tool was great and intuitive to use. They also used it after our first test session to practice on their own and prepare for their exams.

Some minor technical hiccups were reported, some of which were fixed immediately by the IH team. For example, a „Pause“ button and synchronous playing/reversing/forwarding were implemented immediately after we reported that we desperately needed them. There still seems to be an imprecision in the alignment of original and interpretation track, which makes it a bit difficult to measure decalage, but chances are this will be improved in the near future. A downloadable recording file in two-track format was implemented at short notice. Loading the recording can be a bit slow depending on your hardware and internet connection, but this is being worked on. So far, the practice module only works in Google Chrome, and it cannot be used on a mobile device. For technical reasons, the choice of source videos is currently limited to YouTube. I personally would love to see speechpool.net integrated as a source of video material, which seems to be an option InterpretersHelp  is not averse to either.

But back to the question of peer review practice among grown-up interpreters: Why don’t we make a habit of completing one practice interpretation per language combination once a year, just like our medical check-up, and sending it to several colleagues for review? If you are shy about exposing yourself to your peers‘ criticism, you can start choosing a good speaker and an easy subject, and once you feel a bit braver you go for the super fast-speaking and mumbling techie.

I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this, so feel free to leave comments here or on Twitter or Facebook 🙂


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.