What do conference interpreters’ booth notes tell us about their information management?

First of all, a big thank you to all of you who followed my call and provided copies of their booth notes for my little study – I finally managed to collect booth notes from 25 colleagues! Now, what was this study all about? The purpose was to see what interpreters write down intuitively on a blank sheet of paper, i.e. with no given structure like a terminology database, supposing that what you find on these notes is what is really relevant in the booth. What I was interested in was

1. to see if these notes possibly confirmed what research says about knowledge management, or terminology management more in particular,

2. to check if this information can be mapped to the structures of booth-friendly terminology managmenent systems.

I was also hoping to get some inspiration about the more general question of how (or if) computers could best support conference interpreters in their work.

As the information on the notes might be confidential, the first thing I decided to do was create a mock set of notes reflecting the statistics of my sample notes:

– Average number of terminological records per set of notes: 20 (10 nouns, 4 phrases, 6 acronyms)
– Of all terminological records, 99.6% were technical or specialised terminology.
– 14 records were in one language only (2 in source language, 12 in target language), 5 records in two languages, 1 record in three and more languages.
– Non-terminological records: 6 numbers; 1 context information like names of legal acts, persons, positions; graphic illustrations (1 drawing, 1 underline)

My self-made model notes look like this:

Of all the things I observed in the notes, I was more surprised by what I did not see than by what I saw:

– Hardly any verbs and adjectives
– not really many drawings illustrating conceptual relations
– 72 % of all “terminological records” found were made in one language only, and each interpreter wrote down terminology in one language only at least once.

Overall, it looks like the “deeper” information about content and semantic relations is rather dealt with during preparation while information work in the booth is more about having crucial context information and the right technical term in the target language (almost all terminological records were of technical nature). In short, this filling of personal knowledge gaps in the booth is the tip of the iceberg of a conference interpreter’s information and knowledge work. This confirms what research says, but makes me wonder whether a terminology tool that – in booth mode – displays key terms in the current target language only (possibly in word clouds) might be more efficient as a word-finding trigger than bilingual, glossary-style lists. Or is cognitive overload the only reason why simultaneous interpreters would note down their terms in one language only in the booth?

Luckily I was even able to collect one team sample, i.e. the notes of 5 interpreters working at the same conference. It was interesting to see that there was indeed some overlapping in the terms noted down and that these “shared” terms were mainly written at the top of the respective sheets. In particular, 2 acronyms were written down by all 5 interpreters, another 2 acronyms by 4 of the 5 interpreters, and one technical term by 3 of them. Just like the complete study, this is by no means representative, but at least it indicates that it might be possible to provide key terms for certain meetings which are useful to all interpreters.

Beyond statistics and hard data, this study made me think a lot about the possible reasons that put interpreters off going paperless in the booth. It also inspired me to discuss this question with colleagues. It appears that there are several factors that tend to work better on paper than on a computer:

– Screen space: There is only so much information you can display on a computer screen. With agenda, meeting documents, glossaries and online resources, it is hard to squeeze everything onto a display not much bigger than a regular sheet of paper.

– Exchange platform: Simultaneous interpreters in the booth like to use a sheet of paper as a kind of exchange platform to ask for coffee, write down when to change turns and note down difficult terms, numbers etc. to support each other.

– Permanent visibility: Once written down on paper, information doesn’t usually disappear from our view easily, something that may well happen on a computer.

– Document handling: When working with different documents (original and translation of speeches, draft agreements, legislative texts), they can be arranged on a desk (if not too small) in a way to find one’s way through them and/or share them with the colleague who is busy interpreting in order to find the right page or line for her o him.

– Input: The input function of pen and paper is just very intuitive.

These were my main conclusions from this lovely little study. If you want to know all the details, I encourage you to read the full article, which was published in the Proceedings of the 40th Conference Translating and the Computer, London, UK, November 15-16, 2018, p 132-144. All the slides are also available for download.

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.

How to measure the efficiency of your conference preparation

Half of the time we dedicate to a specific interpreting assignment is often spent on preparation. But while many a thought is given to the actual interpreting performance and the different ways to evaluate it, I hardly ever hear anyone discuss their (or others’) preparation performance. However, if we want to be good information and knowledge managers rather than mere information and knowledge workers, we need to close the management cycle and put extra effort into checking if our work serves its purpose and making possible adjustments to optimise it.

Efficiency being the ratio between input and output (how much do you spend to make a dollar?), the question now is what to measure in the first place. Admittedly, the efficiency of information and knowledge work is not the easiest thing to measure. Apart from the fact that whilst interpreting we have other things to worry about, it is hard to tell the difference between the way we actually interpret and the way we would have done without the most essential part of our information work, i.e. preparation. Strictly speaking, previous work experience and knowledge acquired outside the interpreter’s professional life also count as “preparation” and can even be more helpful than preparation in the stricter sense.

To put the concept of efficiency of information and knowledge work in conference interpreting into measurable terms, it could be reduced to the following question:

How much time do you spend to make a useful information unit?

As it happens, back in 2006 I conducted a case study to check exactly this: a conference interpreter’s preparation effort in relation to its usefulness. As a baseline, I decided to use the terminology prepared for a technical meeting, assuming that this is what comes closest to a quantifiable amount of information. Even if preparation is not all about terminology (or glossaries), it is an important part, and if it is well done, it covers semantics and context information as well.

So in order to get a number representing the output, I simply counted all the terminological units prepared for one meeting (376) and afterwards had the interpreter count those units that actually came up in the meeting (197) so that the terms prepared “in vain” could be deducted. I then calculated the percentage of the used terms in relation the total amount of elaborated terms, the so called usage rate. In the case study the overall usage rate at the conference at hand was 52%. The usage rate of terminology from a previous conference of the same client about the same subject was 48 % (81 out of 168 terminological units). This has of course no statistical significance whatsoever, but it can surely be a useful indicator for the individual interpreter. And interestingly, when repeating this exercise with my students from now and then, the results are usually of a similar order of magnitude.

Once the output (terms used) has been determined, it can be related to the input. Assuming that the input is mainly the time spent on preparing the terminological units that came up in the conference, this time is divided by the terms used in order to obtain the relative or average time spent per terminological unit. This value can be considered an approximation to the efficiency of the interpreter’s information work. In the case study the average time spent per term used was 5 minutes (9.5 hours for 113 terms). When repeating this exercise with students, this value usually ranges roughly from 1 to 10 minutes.

Such numbers of course merely serve to quantify the information work we do. In order to really complete the management cycle and find out in how far preparation could possibly be optimised, a closer look needs to be taken at the quality of information and knowledge gaps that occur during the interpreting assignment at hand and how they are or could be handled – which is a different story altogether.


Informations- und Wissensmanagement im Konferenzdolmetschen. Sabest 15. Frankfurt: Peter Lang. [dissertation] www.peterlang.net

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.

Booth notes wanted for a study | Kabinenzettel für Studienzwecke gesucht

Dear fellow conference interpreters! For a study on information management in the booth, I am currently collecting sample booth notes (those papers you scribble terminology, names, numbers, acronyms or whatever on). So if you would like to make your personal contribution to this study, it would be great if you could email or whatsapp me a scan or foto of your booth notes to ruetten@sprachmanagement.net or +49 178 2835981. Your notes will of course be treated confidentially. Thanks a lot in advance!

Liebe DolmetschkollegInnen! Für eine informationswissenschaftliche Studie sammle ich derzeit Kabinenzettel, also die Blätter, auf denen Ihr Eure Notizen jeglicher Art verewigt, sei es Terminologie, Namen, Abkürzungen oder was auch immer. Wenn Ihr mir also einen Eurer Schriebe zur Verfügung stellen möchtet, würde ich mich sehr freuen. Gerne als Scan oder Foto emailen oder appen an ruetten@sprachmanagement.net oder 0178 2835981. Natürlich wird alles vertraulich behandelt. Schon jetzt mein herzliches Dankeschön!

Do interpreters suffer from decision fatigue? – Entscheidungsmüdigkeit beim Dolmetschen?

+++ for English see below +++

Entscheidungen sind anstrengend. Chicken or Pasta, Sekt oder Selters, Windows oder Mac, vom Blatt dolmetschen oder frei – den ganzen Tag müssen wir uns entscheiden, und je mehr Entscheidungen sich aneinander reihen, desto entscheidungsmüder werden wir, desto weniger gründlich wägen wir die Möglichkeiten also ab oder bleiben im Zweifel beim Status Quo. Dabei sind Entscheidungen mit vielen Optionen vergleichsweise anstrengender als solche mit wenigen Optionen.

Als ich zum ersten Mal von Untersuchungen gehört habe, die besagen, dass Richter sich im Verlauf ihres Arbeitstages immer schwerer tun, qualifizierte Entscheidungen zu treffen (NY-Times: Do you suffer from decision fatigue?), war ich auf Anhieb fasziniert von diesem Phänomen der Entscheidungsmüdigkeit, einem Begriff, den man ansonsten häufiger im Zusammenhang mit Verbraucherverhalten diskutiert findet. Aber vielleicht geht es Euch ja auch manchmal so: Wenn man am Morgen noch hochmotiviert ist, sogar Fragen zu ergründen wie ob man lieber „Paradox“ oder „Paradoxon“ sagt oder ob es trotz begrifflicher Unterschiede legitim ist, „Geisteswissenschaftler“ mit „humanista“ zu dolmetschen, also ohne Not eine ganze Reihe von qualifzierten Entscheidungen trifft, wird das alles gegen Nachmittag immer egaler. Man lässt dann auch mal Abkürzung Abkürzung sein und kann sich einfach nicht mehr aufraffen, Termini zu recherchieren, für die man eine einigermaßen brauchbare Entsprechung hat. Und wenn man etwas nachschlägt, denkt man auch gar nicht mehr unbedingt darüber nach, welches die beste Quelle ist und ob der Kollege das gesuchte Wort nicht vielleicht viel schneller ausspucken könnte.

Entscheidungen treffen wir jedenfalls nicht zu knapp (und hier reden wir ja nur um diejenigen rund um unsere Informations- und Wissensarbeit!). Los geht es ja schon los in der Vorbereitung: Lesen oder überfliegen? Vokabel rausschreiben oder überlesen, recherchieren oder improvisieren? Und weiter in der Kabine: Blicke ich auf den Redner, den Bildschirm im Saal, meine Papiere, meinen eigenen Bildschirm oder den Bildschirm, der das Saalgeschehen überträgt? Frage ich den Kollegen oder nicht? Schlage ich eine unbekannte Entsprechung nach oder belasse ich es bei der improvisierten Lösung? Und wenn ich nachschlage: Papier oder Computer? Sitzungsunterlagen, Wörterbuch, eigene Terminologiebestände, die von Kollegen, online-Nachschlagewerke – und dann: welches zuerst? Linguee, Iate, Leo, Bildersuche & Co. – jede Quelle hat ja so ihre Vorzüge.

Fragt sich nur: Was lernen wir nun aus der Erkenntnis? Abgesehen vom Wahren eines ordentlichen Blutzuckerspiegels (ganz wichtig!) fällt mir da spontan ein: Die Zahl der notwendigen Entscheidungen minimieren oder durch Automatismen ersetzen, will heißen, die Wissensarbeit von vorneherein möglichst entscheidungsarm strukturieren, um die Entscheidungslast gering zu halten. Konkret kann das bedeuten:

– Möglichst nur ein Medium wählen, um Medienbrüche zu vermeiden. Ich empfehle ein Laptop (Subnotebook, Ultrabook …), weil es am meisten kann. Andere schwören auf Papier oder ein Tablet. Seit ich mir angewöhnt habe, papierlos zu arbeiten und möglichst alles am Computer zu machen, und nicht ständig mit dem Blick zwischen Papier und Bildschirm hin- und herwechseln muss (permanente Entscheidungen), bin ich deutlich entspannter und effizienter.

– Zahl der digitalen Nachschlagequellen minimieren. Glossare jeglicher Art lassen sich zusammen mit der Tagesordnung einfach in einer Excel-Tabelle zusammenwerfen und so mit einer einzigen Suchanfrage durchwühlen, Sitzungsdokumente systematisch mit einer Desktopsuchmaschine durchstöbern, wenn alles in einen Ordner liegt. Abgearbeitete Dokumente gleich löschen (sind ja zur Not noch im Papierkorb)! Die einschlägigen Internetquellen lassen sich mit der Qtrans-Searchbar und anderen Tools sehr einfach quasi-gleichzeitig durchsuchen.

– Entscheidungen outsourcen: Die Kollegen zu fragen ist ja ein bisschen aus der Mode gekommen, seit man alles mit kurzem Tastengeklimper nachsehen kann. Jedoch: Räuspertaste drücken und fragen ist oft die effizienteste Art, eine Informationslücke zu schließen, denn es geht eindeutig am schnellsten und ist am zuverlässigsten, denn wenn der Mensch etwas nicht weiß, bekommt man meist ein recht eindeutiges “keine Ahnung” und keine Ansammlung irrelevanter Fuzzy Matches zur Antwort (mehr Optionen = mehr Entscheidungsanstrengung!). Und dann kann der Kollege immer noch die Such- und Entscheidungsarbeit übernehmen.

– In der Vorbereitung: Feste Plätze für bestimmte Informationsarten reservieren. Termini immer in die gleiche Datenbank (mit entsprechenden Kategorien) packen, Ordnerstruktur für einen Auftrag immer nach dem gleichen Muster gestalten, fremden Glossare, die man noch mal brauchen könnte (“das vollständige menschliche Skelett in fünf Sprachen”), immer alle auf den gleichen Haufen (sprich in den gleichen Ordner).

– Auch bei der Vorbereitung, beim Extrahieren von Termini aus Redemanuskripten oder anderen Texten: Wenn man merkt, dass man entscheidungsmüde wird und bei jedem zweiten Wort überlegt, ob man dazu nicht doch noch einmal tiefer recherchieren muss oder es in den Terminologiebestand aufnehmen soll, eine Entscheidungspause einlegen und zunächst mit einer weniger entscheidungsintensiven Arbeit (Recherche, Lernen) fortfahren. Ich lege immer bewusst das Lesen von Texten und Extrahieren von Terminologie auf den Vormittag, die Terminologierecherche auf den Nachmittag, weil ich letzteres auch in kleinen Häppchen erledigen kann, ohne aus dem Fluss zu kommen.

Bestimmt erlebt jeder die Entscheidungslast in der Informationsarbeit beim Dolmetschen anders learn more. Deshalb hoffe ich, dass meine Tipps den einen oder anderen inspirieren, freue mich aber auch über Eure Einschätzungen!


Do interpreters suffer from decision fatigue?

Decisions are tiresome. Chicken or pasta, tap water or champagne, Windows or Mac, go for sight translation from the manuscript or just listen to the speaker – our daily life is a whole series of decision-making. The more decisions follow one other, the more probably decision fatigue will kick in, i. e. the less thoroughly we ponder the pros and cons of our options and the more likely we are to just leave things the way they are. And the more options there are to choose from, the more tiresome it becomes to decide.

When I first heard about those studies (see NY Times: Do you suffer from decision fatigue?) showing that judges tend to struggle more to make qualified decision in the morning than in the afternoon, I was intrigued by this concept of decision fatigue, which by the way tends to be discussed primarily in the context of consumer behaviour. You may have experienced it yourself: In the morning you are absolutely happy to discuss questions like whether you are supposed to say ‘American Indian’ or better go for ‘Native American’, or if the German ‘Geisteswissenschaftler’ is well translated with ‘humanist’ despite some conceptual discrepancies. You make a whole series of qualified decisions just like that, while in the afternoon you cannot be bothered to do so any more. Just leave the acronym as it is and live with the solution your mind has just come up with without further investigating, and if ever you look something up, you tend not to check your options like what would be the most suitable source of information (it might turn out to be your booth mate).

All in all, our information work requires plenty of decisions each day (let alone the interpreting process as such). It all starts when preparing for a meeting: Should I read this text or just skim it? Note down this unknown word or just ignore it, double-check or improvise? And on it goes in the booth: Do I look at the speaker, the screen in the meeting room, my screen, my papers or that screen in the booth that shows what’s happening in the meeting room? Do I ask my colleague for this tip-of the-tongue word or not? Check unknown terms or just live with the impromptu solution? And if ever I check: On paper or in my computer? In meeting documents, dictionaries, my own term database, colleagues’ glossaries, online sites – and where do I look first? Linguee, Iate, Leo and the like – each of those has its points.

Now the question is, what can we conference interpreters learn from it? Apart from keeping your glucose level high at all times (very important!), I suggest minimizing the number of decisions to be made or replacing them with automatisms, i.e. structure your knowledge work accordingly in the first place in order to avoid unnecessary decision load. This means, for example:

Go for one medium only so to avoid media breaks. I recommend laptop computers as the most versatile instrument. Others prefer paper or a tablet. Since I have gone paperless and I do not have to switch between looking at the screen and looking at a (pile of) paper (=constant decision-making), I am far more relaxed and efficent.

Reduce the number of digital sources of information. Glossaries of any type, agenda etc. can be copied into one spreadsheet and can then be searched in one go. Meeting documents of any format stored in one folder are easily searched through with a desktop search engine. It is a good idea to delete finished documents immediately (you can retrieve them from the recycle bin at any time). The most relevant online search sites can easily be consulted with multi-glossary search tools like the Qtrans Search bar.

Outsourcing decisions: Asking colleagues has become a bit old-fashioned since the answer to any odd question seems just a couple of key strikes away. However, pressing the mute button and asking may still be the most efficient and reliable way of closing an information gap. After all, your colleague is safe to say ‘no idea’ in no time if he or she does not know the answer, without endless lists of fuzzy matches (more options = higher decision load). And then your he or she can take over and do the searching and deciding on the right term for you.

Whilst preparing, reserve a fixed place for particular types of information. Put your terminology all into the same database (categorized accordingly), always follow the same pattern when structuring your job folders, put other people’s glossaries and other valuable documents (‘the complete human skeleton in five languages’) that might turn out useful in the future into one folder.

When extracting terms from manuscripts or other texts, you might feel depleted after a while (spending hours deliberating whether to take a closer look at a particular term or just leave it alone). Take a decision break and switch to a less decision-intensive task (memorizing, researching). I always try to do the reading and term extracting before lunch and the term research bit in the afternoon.

I am sure that all conference interpreters have different perceptions of their information work, as well as different habits and preferences. I hope that you find some inspiration in my ideas – and please feel free to share your thoughts on it.