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Consecutive Interpreting

Consecutive interpretation is a mode in which the interpreter begins their interpretation of a complete message after the speaker has stopped producing the source utterance. At the time that the interpretation is rendered the interpreter is the only person in the communication environment who is producing a message. In practice, a consecutive interpretation may be rendered when the interpreter does not have a text in its entirety, that is, the person delivering the source utterance may have more to say, but the interpreter has enough information to deliver a message that could stand alone if need be. It is important to note that although the person who originated the message has ceased their delivery of new information, this speaker has not necessarily given up the floor and, once the interpretation has been delivered, the speaker may resume delivery of their message.

Though most people may be more familiar with simultaneous interpretation, where the interpreter renders their interpretation while still receiving the source utterance, consecutive interpretation has distinct advantages in certain interpreting situations, not the least of which is that consecutive interpretations render more accurate, equivalent[i], and complete target texts. In fact, the two modes, when performed successfully, employ the same cognitive processing skills, with the only difference being the amount of time that elapses between the delivery of the source utterance and the delivery of the interpretation. This being the case, mastery of techniques used in consecutive interpretation can enhance an interpreter’s ability to work in the simultaneous mode.

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The Interpreting Process

Before we continue I would like to take a moment to explain the interpreting process in order to explain how consecutive interpretations produce more accurate and equivalent target texts. In order to interpret a text the interpreter must be able to receive and understand the incoming message and then express it’s meaning in the target language. In order to accomplish this task, the interpreter must go through an overlapping series of cognitive processing activities. These include: attending to the message, concentrating on the task at hand, remembering the message, comprehending the meaning of the message, analyzing the message for meaning, visualizing the message nonverbally, and finally reformulating the message in the target language[ii]. Seleskovitch (1978) compresses these tasks into three steps, noting that the second step includes the, “Immediate and deliberate discarding of the wording and retention of the mental representation of the message” (Seleskovitch, 8); interpreters often refer to this as “dropping form.” By discarding the form (words, structure etc.) of the source text the interpreter is free to concentrate on extracting and analyzing the meaning of the text, and conceiving strategies for reformulating the message into the target language.

Seleskovitch, among others, points out that there is another practical reason for the interpreter to discard the form of the source text, there is only so much that a person can hold in their short-term memory. As the interpreter receives the source text the information passes initially through their short-term memory. If the interpreter does not do anything with this information it will soon disappear. Smith (1985) notes that, “Short term memory...has a very limited duration. We can remember...six or seven items only as long as we give all of our attention to them” (Smith, 38). If an interpreter attempts to retain the form of a source utterance their short-term memory will be quickly filled with individual lexical items, which may not even compose a full sentence.

If the interpreter then attempts to find a corresponding lexical item in the target language for each of the source language forms in their short-term memory all of their attention will be wasted on translating these six items rather than attending to the incoming message, as Smith points out, “as long as pay attention to short-term memory we cannot attend to anything else” (Smith, 38). In a consecutively interpreted situation this would result in the interpreter stopping the speaker every six or seven words so that the interpreter could clear their short-term memory and prepare to receive new information. Cleary this is not a preferable manner in which to communicate, and, as Seleskovitch points out, it would require the interpreter to know every existing word in both languages.

It is because of the limitations of short-term memory that interpreters are required to drop form and concentrate on meaning. Both Seleskovitch and Smith propose that meaningful segments of great size can be placed into long-term memory and retrieved later. Of course a chunk of information must be understood in order to be meaningful. To demonstrate this idea Seleskovitch uses the example of a person who has just seen a movie, after viewing the film the person will be able to relate the plot and many of the details of the of the film. If the person continues to discuss the film with others the details will remain fresh in their mind for a longer period of time. In this example the person is able to remember the film because they understood it, and are, “conversant with the various themes found in films...the movie-goer can easily and fully process the ‘information’ conveyed...and for this reason he remembers” (Seleskovitch, 1979, 32). Smith adds, “it takes no longer to put a rich and relevant chunk of meaning into long-term memory than it does a useless letter or word” (Smith, 45), because of this the moviegoer will probably be able to relate the salient points of the film in a fraction of the time it took them to receive the information. Since the information was understood, its salient points can be reformulated into another mode of communication. For example, when the moviegoer discusses the plot of the film they do not recreate its form, nor do they take two hours to render their “interpretation.”

Due to the greater ease of assimilating larger meaningful chunks of information it behooves the interpreter to focus their attention on these larger chunks. A larger chunk of text will usually contain a greater amount of meaning. It is this relationship that aids the interpreter’s understanding of the source text when working consecutively. As shown above, once a chunk of information is understood it can be reformulated into another form. As Seleskovitch (1978) points out, “In consecutive interpretation the interpreter has the advantage of knowing line of the argument before he interprets” (Seleskovitch, 28).

Interpreters are not charged with merely understanding the message, they must also be able to remember it, in order to deliver their interpretation. Seleskovitch notes that dropping form aids the interpreter’s memory because they are not concentrating on remembering the words, or even the structure of the source text. Instead, the interpreter understands the message, connects it to long-term memory, and is then able to reformulate it in much the same way the moviegoer can relate the points of a film. Of course the interpreter must provide a more equivalent target text than the moviegoer. To this end interpreters working consecutively will often make notes as they take in the source utterance. These notes help the interpreter retrieve the message from their long-term memory and consist of, “symbols, arrows, and a key word here or there” (Seleskovitch, 1991, 7). These few notes are effective because interpreters do not produce their target texts based on the form used by the speaker but on what they understood of the meaning of the source text. The “key words” may consist of words that will remind the interpreter of the speaker’s point, or of specific information “such as proper names, headings and certain numbers” (Seleskovitch, 1978, 36).

Seleskovitch also points to the time afforded an interpreter working in the consecutive mode as an asset in reformulating the message in the target language. Because the interpreter does not need to split their attention between receiving the message, and monitoring their output, as is required in simultaneous, they can devote more of their processing to analysis and reformulation of the text thereby producing a more accurate and equivalent interpretation.

Situations for Consecutive Interpreting

Even though the interpreter’s goal is always to produce the most accurate and equivalent target text possible consecutive interpretation is not always possible. Situations where one speaker maintains the floor, with little or no interaction with the audience and situations where there is rapid turn taking between a group of interlocutors may require the interpreter to work simultaneously. While Seleskovitch notes that spoken language interpreters working at international conferences may sometimes interpret entire speeches consecutively, the consecutive mode often requires some type of pause so that the interpreter may render the message.

That said, there are situations that lend themselves to consecutive interpretation, I would like to discuss three such situations, one general, and two specific. In general, consecutive interpretation can be employed successfully in one-on-one interpreted interactions. One-on-one interactions often allow for more structured turn taking behavior than large group situations. Interviews, parent teacher meetings, and various type of individual consultations may be interpreted consecutively with minimal disruption to the flow of communication perceived by the participants.

Specifically, there are two types of interpreted situations that, due to the consequences involved, require consecutive interpretation rather than simultaneous. These are legal and medical interpreted interactions. In these situations, where a person’s life or freedom is at stake, accuracy and equivalence are of the utmost priority; as we have seen, consecutive interpretation provides greater accuracy and equivalence than simultaneous does. Palma (1995) points out that the density and complexity of witness testimony requires the interpreter to work consecutively, and to be aware of how long a chunk they can manage effectively. Palma notes that, especially during expert witness testimony, where the language used can be highly technical and is more likely to use complex sentence constructions; a segment of text that is short in duration may be extremely dense in terms of the content and complexity of its ideas. In this case the consecutive mode has the added advantage of allowing the interpreter to ask speaker to pause so that the interpreter may deliver the message. The interpreter may also take advantage of the time in which they hold the floor to ask the speaker for clarification. Use of the consecutive mode is also helped by the fact that court officials (attorneys, judges etc.) may e familiar with the norms of consecutive interpretation and by the fact that turn taking between the witness and the attorney often proceeds with only one the two speaking at any one time.

In the case of medical interpreting accuracy and equivalence are also at a premium due to the possible consequences of a misdiagnosis. Like expert witness testimony, doctor-patient interactions may be filled with medical jargon or explanations of bodily systems that may be particularly dense for the interpreter. Again turn taking may be more structured in a one-on-one medical environment especially if the patient is in full control of their faculties. As in the legal setting, the medical interpreter may take advantage of the structure of a doctor-patient interaction in order to request for pauses and clarifications.

Generally, the logistics of a consecutively interpreted interaction must be established before the communication takes place. In the case of a single speaker who will have little or no interaction with the audience this means either the speaker will pause for the interpreter, or the interpreter, and hopefully the audience, knows that the interpretation will not be delivered until the speaker has finished. Establishing the logistics with all the parties involved, before the interpreted interaction takes place, can help prevent the uneasiness that participants often feel while waiting for the interpreter to begin.

Consecutive in Relation to Simultaneous

As mentioned above the primary difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting is involves the time lapse between the delivery of the speaker’s message and the beginning of the interpretation. While this is a significant difference, one that provides more challenges for the interpreter, at their roots consecutive and simultaneous interpreting modes stem from the same set of cognitive processes. These processes are described by many interpreting theorists, (Gish, 1986-1994; Colonomos, 1989; Isham, 1986), while Seleskovitch (1978) establishes the parallel between consecutive and simultaneous. According to Seleskovitch an interpreter working in the simultaneous mode uses the same strategies, dropping form, analyzing the message for meaning, and developing a linguistically equivalent reformulation, as does the interpreter working consecutively. After all, the goal is the same for both interpreters; to deliver an accurate and equivalent target text. The difference is that in the simultaneous mode the interpreter continues to receive and process new information while rendering, and monitoring the target for equivalence. Because interpreters working in the simultaneous mode are still interpreting meaning rather than form they also allow for a lag between themselves and the speaker. That is, the interpreter waits until the speaker has begun to develop their point before beginning to interpret. By allowing for lag time, and the interpreter ensures that they are interpreting meaning, not just individual lexical items, which Seleskovitch suggests would be an exercise in futility.

“Even memorizing a half dozen words would distract the interpreter, whose attention is already divided between listening to his own words, and those of the speaker...His memory does not store the words of the sentence delivered by the speaker, but only the meaning those words convey.” (Seleskovitch, 1978, 30-31)

Seleskovitch solidifies the correlation between the cognitive processes involved in each mode when she states, “simultaneous interpretation can be learned quite rapidly, assuming one has already learned the art of analysis in consecutive interpretation” (Seleskovitch, 30). This view has been adopted at interpreter training programs at both California State University Northridge and Gallaudet University, both of whom require classes teaching text analysis and consecutive interpreting skills prior to those dealing with simultaneous interpreting.


Rather than being two separate skills, mastery of consecutive interpretation is in fact a building block for successful simultaneous interpretations. In fact, thanks to the time allowed for comprehension and analysis of the source text consecutive interpretations offer greater accuracy and equivalence than do simultaneous interpretations. There are situations that lend themselves to consecutive interpretations (one-on-one interactions), and others still which require use of the consecutive mode (legal, medical) due to the consequences of a possible misinterpretation.

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