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Hi all, I'm currently studying conference interpreting and it's already my second year. I've already spent some time abroad (at least 6 months) in (some of) the countries where my languages are spoken. However, I still feel I don't fully get the meaning of a message, especially when something is too technical. I now wonder if you also had to deal with that issue during your studies and how can I become more confident when it comes to understanding the meaning of the message? I still feel unable to listen & understand AND interprete at the same time...especially when it's already difficult for the audience to follow what is said in their mother tongue... Best

asked 02 Apr '19, 11:42

Woaz's gravatar image


There are a few possible problems with different sets of solutions. Pick the one you think applies best to you.

  1. "at least 6 months) in (some of) the countries where my languages are spoken" 6 months is not actually very much in ALL or any of the countries where your languages are spoken, let alone only "some". It may be that you need to spend more time living, working and interacting with speakers of those languages. 9 months per language would be a bare minimum IMO. 18 months would be perfectly reasonable to get a very thorough and instantaneous understanding of everything you hear in a given foreign language.

  2. Maybe the issue is not about language but about discourse. Before we study conference interpreting very few of us have ever listened to a whole speech, let alone listened closely, analysed or tried to get behind what is being said and why. Experienced interpreters on the other hand have heard hundreds if not thousands of speeches. And when you've heard a lot of speeches you start to recognize patterns, and to anticipate better. It may be that you need to try to catch up on that lack of experience by reading and listening to lots of speeches in your spare time. Think about what's being said, maybe you can find analyses of speeches online (like this one of Steve jobs famous speech). You could also try reading books about how to write speeches - there are lots around. These two strategies might help you to understand better how arguments are built up and what speakers are trying to do and how. That might help you with understanding if it is not a language issue.

  3. "I don't fully get the meaning of a message, especially when something is too technical" Very often on interpreting courses students interpret speeches on different topics every class, every day, every practice session. That means that with limited time and lots of topics to prepare preparation is superficial and the fruits of that preparation are not used for very long. Both of those things are unhelpful. Try picking a single topic for all your practice sessions over a week or even two. Try to persuade your teachers to coordinate topics across classes so you are doing the same, few, topics in and out of the classroom for longer periods. With only one or two topics to prepare each fortnight, for example, you can put more time into each topic (which will help you understand conceptually). AND if you interpret speeches on the same topic again and again you will get quicker and better at explaining the concepts and saying the terminology. Repetition is a very important part of getting better at interpreting. "Experienced", after all, just means "I've done that before a few times"! NB when preparing don't use the extra time to go into more and more obscure detail. It's more useful to read basic introductions to the topic from several different sources. What comes up in all sources will be the most important. What only comes up once will be less important. So again... repetition is helpful.

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answered 02 Apr '19, 16:16

Andy's gravatar image


edited 03 Apr '19, 03:33

Hi Andy, thanks for your reply.

1) Well it was 1 year, 8 months and 5 months, and of course I had already spoken the languages more or less well before the exchange. I kind of feel that you don't get a lot in touch with the topics that (at least I feel so) you have do deal in the interpreting courses. Even in my mother tongue, these would be fairly difficult topics and I couldn't talk a lot about them without preparation...and even then I feel a bit lost because it's not "my" field, you know? It's so hard do maintain a high level in all my working language at the same time in so many topics... and I mean, I'm already IN my studies, so there is no chance to go abroad again for such a long time...

2) Could be, thanks for the tips! It also seems to me that you can practice as long as you want, but you will never be familiar with any topic...which is also a bit frustrating to me because it feels like you always start from 0. Or how long does it take to be really confident to be able to interpret "anything you want"?

(02 Apr '19, 16:50) Woaz

Hi Woaz, I edited my comment above to take into account what you say here.

(03 Apr '19, 03:06) Andy

"how long does it take to be really confident to be able to interpret "anything you want" " I don't think anyone really interprets new stuff comfortably and confidently. We've either done each subject many times before or we do a lot of preparation... or both!

(03 Apr '19, 03:41) Andy

exactly, it's not helpful to touch on a subject for such a short time - and in nearly every course, we have different would be a better idea to have the same topic for a longer period, as you said - but that's a problem to be solved by the university... I just feel a bit demotivated to not be able to interpret and it already feels like I will never become a good interpreter...

(03 Apr '19, 04:27) Woaz

"Try to persuade your teachers to coordinate topics". If you don't try, it won't happen. Explain, without getting upset, your issues and the good reasons for sticking to one topic for a while and see what happens. And of course you decide what subjects to take for practice sessions, so take the same ones as you did in class. Feeling bad about your interpreting is also a normal part of the process. Find some speeches about subjects you know about to cheer yourself up!

(03 Apr '19, 04:35) Andy

ok sounds good! thanks for the help :)

(03 Apr '19, 05:19) Woaz
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

Listen more. Read more - including reading and listening in your A languge. I know this sounds obvious but there is really no way around this, you need to do tons of that, consciously choosing the topics you don't feel comfortable about (which is usually the ones you tend to omit when reading for pleasure ;)).

"It also seems to me that you can practice as long as you want, but you will never be familiar with any topic...which is also a bit frustrating to me because it feels like you always start from 0."

Welcome to the world of interpreting ;). At times, it certainly feels like you are back to square one, again and again. You open a glossary you made some years ago and you wonder what the heck is that. And how in the world you could have possibly interpreted that conference! I spent quite a lot of time re-learning things I knew once upon a time. Or learning them in another language, if I happened to interpret conferences on a given topic in some of my languages, but not in the one I need now.

"Or how long does it take to be really confident to be able to interpret "anything you want"?"

I am sorry to say this but I don't think this will ever happen.

When dealing with topics you don't know well, it's all about preparation, really. Sometimes the topic is so new and technical that it would not be financially viable to accept the assignment, or you just wouldn't have enough time to prepare for it.

As a word of consolation, it does get better with time, and the list of topics you feel more or less comfortable about will grow. As a conference interpreter, you should never become overconfident, though. You will be challenged on a daily basis (one of the things I like about interpreting!). After all, interpreters are frequently the only laypeople in the room, helping the experts to communicate. Discovering new topics and fields of knowledge is part of this profession, so let's embrace it :)

Now back to what you can do now: trying to persuade your teachers to coordinate topics is indeed a good idea, as is practicing interpreting on your own with the same topics as in the class. In your own practice, try mixing new topics with those you know quite well already. I think it would also be good to focus on interpreting speeches that you can quite easily understand (when not interpreting at the same time). If the speech is so hard you struggle to understand the message when just listening, interpreting practice may be frustrating and not really productive.

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answered 03 Apr '19, 05:57

Joanna's gravatar image


thanks Joanna for your point of view! I like to get to know new topics and so on, but in my interpreting courses we don't even get to know which topic we are going to interpret next - or the topic is so large that even if I do some preparation, I won't understand a lot when it's too technical...that's really frustrating and I feel like I have never learned that language I'm listening to...

Read more & listen more - ok, I knew already that this is an important part and I really could do more reading/listening, I admit...but the thing is: I don't know where to start...WHAT should I read and listen to...which languages (A or C?), how technical, and so on and so forth...I feel so overwhelmed by all the things that I should do and I end up doing nearly nothing...

(03 Apr '19, 12:23) Woaz

Have you talked about this with other students in your course? I think they may share your opinion. Maybe you could talk to your teachers? They could e.g. give you in advance the plan with most of the topics. Or maybe they could use speeches that are a bit less technical. Sharing your suggestions is not a bad idea, really. Maybe your teachers know perfectly well what they're doing, but maybe they don't (I have my fair share of experience with really good and really bad CI teachers.)

"that's really frustrating and I feel like I have never learned that language I'm listening to..."

After graduating from conference interpreting, one of the first things I did was starting to learn a new language. After CI studies, I just really really needed to shift my focus for a moment from obsessing about all the things I could not understand or express in my languages to being just blissfully happy with what I could understand and what I could say (even if it was just ordering a cup of coffee in the beginning ;)). The frustration you are experiencing is not uncommon. Don't let it bring you down.

"I don't know where to start...WHAT should I read and listen to...which languages (A or C?), how technical, and so on and so forth... I feel so overwhelmed by all the things that I should do and I end up doing nearly nothing..."

Take it step by step. Every time you discover some significant gap in your language or general knowledge, write down the topic you seem to struggle with. You won't be able to read about all of them straight away but when neatly written down on your list (even if it's gonna be a long one!), they won't be all that overwhelming anymore. Try to prioritize. For sure some of the issues you have identified or will identify will be of more importance than some other ones. You can't do everything at once, and doing something is always better than doing nothing ;). (I know I know, easier said than done. :))

(03 Apr '19, 12:47) Joanna

there are a few students, that share my opinion, but there are others who are already really a good interprets - but they probably did the course already two, three or even four times! The teacher doesn't know and could think that we would be all on the same level - it's just annoying to be one of few who always gets bad feedback...but where from should I know how to interpret if I've never learned!? We all start at 0...and of course, the teacher might think that the difficulty of the speeches is fair, because most of the students get along well with it...

and the frustration is getting bigger every day I'm interpreting, unfortunately... I don't know how to get out of it :-)

thanks for the tips! I will try to consider them in future. Again: WHAT should beginners of interpreting read? Just newspaper articles with easy language just to get familiar with the topic, and the more you know, you can read more technical topics?

(03 Apr '19, 13:04) Woaz

How is it possible that you are in the same class with people who were in this course a few times before? This is, well, quite unorthodox. Are you enrolled in Master's in Conference Interpreting or is it some kind of an extra course at the university?

You are supposed to learn interpreting step by step, starting with really simple speeches, focusing on various components of interpreting etc. I think you should most definitely try talking to your teachers. If you are such a mixed group, they should think about catering for the needs of everyone, not just of those students who had some decent interpreting skills before starting a course for beginners.

As a remedy for frustration: try interpreting something really, really simple. Like Speech Repository, beginner level, with your favorite speaker ;). And then proceed with recordings of speeches, conferences etc. that are a little bit challenging but not overwhelming.

As to your reading, it's really useful to read basic introductions to the topic from several different sources, as Andy suggested. This way you will identify what is most relevant, and you will also remember things more easily.

(03 Apr '19, 13:42) Joanna

it's a MA in CI, but here you can attend classes as often as you want - and you have to, because after two simultaneous courses for each language (according to the curriculum there is simultaneous 1 & 2 and maybe 3), you are definitely not able to pass the final exam at the end of the students tend to attend classes more than once in order to practice more... but even in the basic interpreting courses (simultaneous 1), speeches (at least to me) appear way to difficult (Marcon, Juncker, for example)...

Anyways, thanks for the tips (as well for the reading). I will definitely do that - I think we all know that interpreting a lot at home is also key during the studies.

(03 Apr '19, 17:05) Woaz

This seems quite peculiar compared to my experience or to what I've heard about some other schools. How many (contact) hours of interpreting do you have in your curriculum?

Have you practiced a lot with Speech Repository / Speechpool? That's usually the best start into interpreting. You wouldn't want to start with real-life political speeches (unless chosen VERY carefully) before you've learned some basic skills.

(03 Apr '19, 17:28) Joanna

hmm, difficult to say because it I've mentioned above, we have 3 levels of simultaneous interpreting classes, and then 2 for consecutive - but (theoretically) you don't have to attend all classes in all your languages...1,5h each class, once per week - or let's say it like that: 32 ECTS (1 course has 4 credits) only interpreting for ABC/ACC combination (the rest is theory, how to prepare a glossary, note taking and the MA-thesis), and 20 additional ECTS (so you can attend whatever you want or attend classes in your 3rd C language if you have one).

I did practiced with Speech Repository, but not soooo much. I should definitely use it more at home. But I really wonder why we have to deal with real life political speeches in the basic course of interpreting... issue isn't that I am not able to interpret speeches like that (because I know you need more training), but even only listening and trying to understand what is being said is hard to me. So I wonder if my language skills in general are too weak for the your opinion, should you be able to fully understand a speech of Juncker, Macron, Merkel, etc. before starting the MA in CI?

(04 Apr '19, 04:02) Woaz

"in your opinion, should you be able to fully understand a speech of Juncker, Macron, Merkel, etc. before starting the MA in CI" You should be able to understand the language of the speech (barring the odd bit of unusual or technical terminology). What you might reasonably have problems with is the logic and the argumentation of points... again because of lack of experience of listening to and thinking about speeches in that way.

(04 Apr '19, 11:56) Andy

another question: should you be able to interpret political speeches of Macron, for example, at the end of your CI studies? Maybe my perception is just too high and I expect being a good interpreter in any field after my studies ... I should perhaps get rid of this assumption and lower my expectations and demands?! It feels like you want to get as good as Mozart in this short period of time, but at the moment you just know how to play a few other words, it's not feasible to become as good...

(05 Apr '19, 14:49) Woaz

Most presidential speeches are eminently doable for students at the end of their studies - Chirac and Hollande certainly were. But you do need to know exactly what is going on in the world and why in order to do them justice (and as I said in my previous comment understanding how points are argued will also be important). Macron is a bit more difficult because he is erudite even by the very high standards that apply in French politics and he often throws out expressions that non-natives (and some natives) might not have heard before.

(10 Apr '19, 15:10) Andy
showing 5 of 10 show 5 more comments

..dealing with your quoted feeling that "you will never be familiar with any topic " may indeed be tricky :-), I used to share something I once read (can't remember where, I'm afraid)about different levels of knowledge: understanding, performance and criticism. We need the first one only (anything else is a bonus, obviously welcome but, strictly speaking, not necessary) and that's why we can do what we do do :-) across all topics. One need only know what,say, a thoracotomy is, not how to perform one or even less to be able to adjudicate whether one was properly performed. The really tricky bit is "context", lato sensu, ie terminology and concepts one prepares, the kind of knowledge that comes from continued exposure to a given environment... is only available to those who put in the years required - but hey, what would this profession be w/o challenges? :-) Best of lucks!

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answered 03 Apr '19, 06:47

msr's gravatar image


Hi msr, thanks for the answer! Our professor also said we shouldn't be afraid of concepts/words that we don't know, because you often can translate them literally - However I always feel like "uh, I don't know that word, I can't interpret that" and stop talking for a few seconds...and afterwards, I always feel I don't understand anything in that language...

(03 Apr '19, 12:28) Woaz
1're very welcome - two further remarks, prompted by your reaction: literal translation should IMHO be a last resort (except in those rare occasions when it IS the best version)... are you sure your instructor did not say/mean that oftentimes in some areas the root of the word is the same (eg if Latin/Greek) and "only" final syllables change in different modern languages? As to silence, always IMHO and unless for effect, it should never be an option...that's where greater lag and rephrasing come into play, ie there should be no logical gaps in your discourse, even if some bits are missing (oftentimes for very good reasons, mind you) when compared with the original.

(04 Apr '19, 05:40) msr

"different levels of knowledge: understanding, performance and criticism." what a nice breakdown of the levels of knowledge!! Thanks MSR! If you ever remember where you found that I would love to be able to credit the author (because I'm sure I'm going to use it!)

(04 Apr '19, 11:58) Andy

Aren't search engines great... I think you may have been reading about Bloom's taxonomy...
Knowledge Comprehension Application Analysis Synthesis Evaluation

(04 Apr '19, 12:08) Andy

:-) probably not the man himself - I would probably have remembered the name, because of the obvious reference - but more likely somebody else who may have boiled down his taxonomy into the triad I quoted...

(04 Apr '19, 12:23) msr

yes msr, that's what the instructor meant...just change the last syllables (for exemple for medical terminology) - it was however difficult to capture them in such a short time and know that it's a technical term that you can translate "literally"

(04 Apr '19, 14:06) Woaz
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question asked: 02 Apr '19, 11:42

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last updated: 10 Apr '19, 15:10

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