Conquering Consecutive By Athena Matilsky

If you have ever taken a class on interpreting, you know the drill: We listen not for words, but ideas. We don’t write everything; we take notes on key words. And yet, even though we may have heard this from multiple teachers, it seems that many of us only have a vague understanding of what this means.

We know we shouldn’t interpret literally. If we did, we would end up with sentences that had no coherent meaning in the target language, such as “dogs with tails short I like.” Even the most novice among us understand that we need to analyze and interpret the language in order to have it make sense.

This is easier with shorter sentences, like, “Yes, your honor.” And, “Please state your name and address for the record.”

But in the consecutive mode, as soon as the sentences grow longer, we start to fall apart. Why? Because we know we are supposed to be listening for ideas, but we don’t know which ones. We don’t pay attention to how they are connected. And so, we garble them. On top of that, since we don’t know what we are listening for, our notes can only take us so far. Finally, things really begin to break down when we think the speaker is done but he keeps going. Suddenly all we are hearing are words, and we are frantically trying to mop up as many as possible. In the process, we sacrifice the original meeting of the utterance.

Back in April 2015, I wrote that before we interpret, we must first process what we hear. I cannot stress this enough: When it comes to interpreting in the consecutive mode, comprehension is paramount. Everything else, including our note-taking, is secondary.

Take the following sentence: “Well, your honor, I was on my way downtown when I stumbled on this back-alley restaurant. It’s one of those places that catches you by surprise.”

With no method to our madness, we will probably hastily scribble some notes. Sacrificing our listening skills in our effort to write as much as possible, we forget to notice how the words are connected.

Often, our rendition will sound something like this:
“Your honor, I was on my way to this restaurant downtown. It was in a back alley and the place surprised me.”

If we are judging our work on words alone, that’s not actually so bad. We caught your honor, and that may be a scoring unit on the test. We caught the other major words too: downtown, back alley…and we got surprise. Plus we remembered restaurant. Sure, we forgot well, but we got almost all the words!

The problem is that in listening for words and not ideas, we lost the fact that the speaker was on his way downtown. We lost the part about him finding the restaurant by accident. And while we captured surprise, we did not attribute the emotion to the proper cause. We garbled it.

This happens more than you may think. We all do it. Unless you have ever recorded yourself and listened critically, you just may not know.

“Okay great, Athena,” you say. “Now what? Now we know the problem, how do we fix it?”

My answer to this question is simple: Critical listening. To start, forget your notes. Just listen. At the beginning, practice saying the source utterance in your own words. Then, count the ideas. Figure out how the ideas are connected. Yes, this may give you some traumatic flashbacks to grade school sentence-diagramming, but I promise you: It’s worth it.

If I were breaking the sentence above for my students, it would go like this:

  • Idea number one: I was on my way downtown.
  • Idea number two: I stumbled on this back-alley restaurant.
  • Idea number three: It’s one of those places that takes you by surprise.
  • Connecter: When.
  • Details: Well; your honor.

First, we know there are three ideas. Organizing our understanding into ideas helps us keep the original meaning intact, maintaining the original intent of the message. Plus, sometimes just remembering how many ideas there were helps to trigger our short-term memory if we have forgotten a piece.

Second, listening for the connectors is vital. Connectors are words like and, but, since, because, when. In this case we know that two things happened: The speaker was on his way downtown. That happened at the same time as he stumbled on the back alley restaurant. How do we know the timing? Because of the connector: when.

Finally, the last sentence is a bit long and unusual, but it still contains only one idea. Listening to it in its entirety makes our interpretation simple. In listening for the idea, we understand that the whole ending to the example sentence is simply a description of the restaurant. The sentence has a lot of words, but it’s a simple idea. There is no need to be overwhelmed, and our job just got so much easier!

Once you know what you are listening for, interpreting becomes simpler. After you have practiced listening, your notes fall into place and they help you remember the little details, like “well,” and “your honor.” Our notes become helpful instead of confusing.

This method takes practice; it is a matter of retraining your brain, and you can’t do it while interpreting real-time. This is an at-home practice exercise.

But don’t take my word for it! Try it out yourself and comment below to let us know what you think.

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

22 thoughts on “Conquering Consecutive By Athena Matilsky”

  1. Zaw Winmaung says:

    Thank you. We need keep that that ”idea” in mind and practice every now and then. I still have the habit of jotting short notes and symbols.
    (1) ”Well, Your Honor” would make me interpret –Da-pay-mei–(But) Your Honor. No exact or near term in Burmese for ”well”in this context.

    (2)I could miss –accidentally–too. There is a corresponding terms in Burmese but instead of — ma-taw-ta sut– (by chance) or ma-yi-yway-bei-ne ( unintentionally) we might have said –yote -ta-yet–(suddenly).

    1. That’s fascinating, and even more of a reason why we need to listen for the idea, since sometimes there may not be an equivalent word!

  2. Carmen says:

    Absolutely on the money- practice and the right practice makes it perfect!

    1. It’s how we interpreters get to Carnegie Hall…

  3. Richard Bennett says:

    Very informative. Thanks very much.

  4. Heidi Cazes says:

    This is a great article!! It really gives an excellent example of cognitive processes and how your brain works when interpreting..
    It is also a great argument to understand why one first has to master consecutive before being able to do simultaneous interpreting!

  5. AJ Elterman says:

    Thank you, Athena. Very useful advice especially for consecutive interpreting.
    I find note taking more challenging when the speaker talks about abstract concepts or using many names of intitutions, departments, names and titles of individuals, dates, and other dense material and continues to add multiple sentences, while I am trying to follow and capture his/her message with minimal note-taking. And the challenge is bigger when interpreting from a language that is very different from English in both syntax, semantics, usage, etc.

  6. Fantastic
    article, Athena. Listening with a purpose, organizing our thoughts and compartmentalizing are crucial tasks, and they all take place in our brains even before we put pen to paper and “draw our map” to the treasure that allows us to render a complete and accurate message. Thank you for shedding light onto the fog of consecutive interpreting 🙂

  7. Miguel Dominguez says:

    I needed that, so realistically true.

  8. Mylene M. Green says:

    Thank you very much Athena. This article truly made me stop and think…am I doing this? I determined I can definitely improve my consecutive skills by following your suggestions. Believe it or not, consecutive is probably my favorite modes of interpretation and it is not because I am great at it– I just love the challenge!

  9. Hal Sillers says:

    Thanks, Athena! Excellent observations and a great article!!



  10. Run 3 says:

    Great! Thanks for sharing the information. That is very helpful for increasing my knowledge in this field.

  11. Wilda Perez says:

    This was helpful but would love to hear your thoughts in interpreting when patients/providers make a lot of pauses, use a lot of fillers, and repeat themselves.

  12. Yeni Dávila says:

    Hello everyone!
    Since this is my semester topic to research… would any one here mind if If I quote your comments??
    Of course I will be citing the article properly to give credit to the author.

  13. Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments and feedback! I’m glad my article could be helpful. Wilda to answer your question: Those are probably the hardest to interpret–the utterances where not much is actually said. But the logic behind what I wrote remains the same–you listen for main ideas first, and then your notes help you with the details. In the case of fillers, any time I here an, “um,” “pues,” “bueno,” “este…” “well” I write “–” as my note. Basically that’s my symbol for filler. I’m sure this could be a longer discussion, but that’s the idea in a nutshell.

  14. Thank you very much Athena. This article truly made me stop and think…am I doing this? I determined I can definitely improve my consecutive skills by following your suggestions. Believe it or not, consecutive is probably my favorite modes of interpretation and it is not because I am great at it– I just love the challenge!

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