Tree lined railroad tracks

Court and Conference Interpreting
– So close and so far apart

Well, I made it! One more semester to go. As I write, the train wheels rumble underneath my seat. We are somewhere between Toronto and Montreal. When I made this journey in reverse three months ago, the leaves still adorned the trees. Now the fields are covered with snow and the ponds and streams whizzing by are frozen over with ice. I’m on my way home from my third semester at Glendon, in the Master’s in Conference Interpreting program. I was asked recently to write about the difference in training for court and conference programs, so that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

Where Court and Conference Interpreting Come together

First, though, let’s talk about what’s the same. There is a huge emphasis in my master’s program on recording and feedback. This is nothing new. Any interpreter training worth its salt teaches students how to evaluate themselves and each other. We must be able to listen to ourselves, pinpoint our errors, and dig deep: Why are the mistakes happening? What patterns can we find? Is it a case of brain saturation—too much cognitive load for us to handle, meaning we simply must put in the hours? Or can we identify a gap in our knowledge or our technique? To improve your interpreting ability, you must be able to analyze your output, ask the right questions, and then find solutions. This is true for court interpreting, and it remains true for conference interpreting. I have noticed, however, that my program emphasizes certain aspects of interpreting in particular. I’ve picked three to share with you.

Background knowledge

As interpreters, we all know that context is important. Try interpreting the word “joint.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find an equivalent in your target language without knowing whether we’re referring to an anatomical structure, a shared account, or a marijuana cigarette. We know that interpreting word-for-word is non-sensical. But in my program, we take this to another level. Conference interpreters have to be ready for speeches on any topic, from fisheries to nuclear energy, with speakers from every possible region of the world. These speeches don’t make sense if you are not familiar with the subject matter. Furthermore, cultural understanding is a must. Vague references to historical events are easy for me if they’re referring to Dr. King, or the American Civil War. But what then when the speaker makes quick mention to a beverage power struggle arising from a border dispute between Peru and Chile (hint: the beverage is a liquor called Pisco)? I will miss the reference entirely if I haven’t done my homework. So…I’m reading. A lot. About everything. My brain is exploding.


Again, court interpreters will be familiar with this concept. We all understand that we must adapt the source language’s syntax to the target one if we microphonewant to be in any way coherent. However, I’m finding that a whole lot more reformulation is required in conference interpreting. I believe this is because court interpreting is so technical, detailed, and you can’t leave anything out. This means that there isn’t a lot of wiggle room, and you may end up sacrificing style for content. In other words, there aren’t too many ways to interpret, “The assailant was carrying a loaded shotgun and a knife. He approached the victim from behind and fired at point-blank range.” On the other hand, the language of conference speakers is often (though not always) more subtle: “The ebbs and flows of investment in the 20th century led to diminishing returns in a multitude of countries as the industrial revolution transformed our understanding of economic growth.” There are still key words to catch here (20th century; industrial revolution; economic growth) but there is much more room for interpretation. I’ve had to retrain my court-interpreter brain, so that I’m not trying to capture every tiny detail, and I can focus instead on the underlying intention of the speaker. One of the consequences of this shift from interpreting in the courtroom to working in the booth is that my decalage is now much longer.


Delivery is, perhaps, the biggest difference of all. In court interpreting, we have to capture every hedge, every filler, every hesitation. In conference interpreting, we must (mercifully!) leave these out. It’s a relief not to have to duplicate them because it opens up brain space for much-needed analysis and reformulation. On the flip side, our delivery is careful. We have to sound confident, calm and coherent. Saying that the original speaker wasn’t coherent does not serve as an excuse! At times we may make more sense than the original speaker. In court interpreting, delivery is often sacrificed for accuracy. We’re told not to say “um” and “uh” all the time, but no test actually penalizes us for poor delivery. Not so in conference interpreting. “You are there at the service of your client,” our teachers tell us over and over again. “They will be listening to you for hours. Don’t make them guess what you mean, decipher your pronunciation, or throw their headphones across the room because your voice sounds so unpleasant.” So, my classmates and I are all working on our radio-presenter voices.

Time for a much-needed break

It’s been a long semester, and we are all ready for a break. But the progress we’ve made in three months has been formidable. My classmates and I have had ups and we’ve had downs, but we are starting to sound like the interpreters we would one day like to be. So now it’s time to give our brains a break before coming back in the new year ready to tackle even tougher stuff. We wish you all a beautiful holiday season, and if you’re studying, too, chin up! Put the hours in and you won’t regret it.

Portrait of Athena Matilsky

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: You can read other pieces by Athena by clicking here.

13 thoughts on “Court and Conference Interpreting
– So close and so far apart”

  1. Great article, Athena. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  2. Susana Gee says:

    Athena, what a fantastic article. I read every bit of it. The information is so on point and helpful. As always, thank you for your tips and insight.

  3. Alfredo Babler says:

    Señores voy a contarles
    Hay nuevo encanto en la sabana
    En adelanto van estos lugares
    Ya tienen su diosa coronada

    Hey diosa, good stuff, as always. Thanks.
    Without any intent of being a Debbie Downer/Chicken Little type of party pooper, IDK that we have enough time to see all our dreams come true before the next singularity snaps humanity into a total paradigm change that will supersede the present status quo and precipitate planetary change (deep enough?), but you truly do get an A for effort. God willing, may all your dreams come true.

    Feliz Navidad, Athena.

  4. Salaheldin Idris says:

    Thank you, Athena, for your input when comparing court interpreting vs conference interpreting. Now I am on the same journey I am trying to jump from court to conference. The only difference between us that you are already at school and I am trying to do on my own. However, I think what you wrote is very important for everyone whether he is a court or conference interpreter. But I believe the background knowledge (in both languages) is very important because many of the topics discussed in the conference need deep and verified knowledge almost in every subject and it’s important for a conference interpreter to be good a reader with analytical skills. But other skills such as formulation and delivery are also very important for example public speaking is one more desirable skill conference interpreters should have in their pocket.

  5. Alison Moses says:

    Bravo Athena! I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors. As a conference interpreter of over 40 years ( hard to believe!), having graduated from Georgetown’s erstwhile Interpreting and Translation Division, I began in Brazil, returned and worked in the Inter-American system, got invited to the EU and stayed for 12 years (even harder to believe!!!) and worked at FAO, in Rome for 10!

    I agree that conference interpreting is a different ballgame even though both court and conference are engaged in simultaneous. I think I think more than the venue, it is important to understand the different types of interpreting…simultaneous, consecutive and whispering. In your example you said court requires much more precision. I don’t totally agree with that. I was in a meeting yesterday on cybercrime and transnational organized crime and I can promise you there was no “wiggle room” to try and be fancy and so forth. There was no room for “ summing up” anything as they spoke very specifically about drug trafficking, trafficking of humans, bitcoin usage and cryptocurrency in the hands of criminals. We had to be on point and specific without leaving anything out, just like in court. The difference in court is that maybe someone’s life is hanging in the balance with your interpretation. Scary!!!

    Yes, delivery is crucial. “Um” and “uh” are unacceptable under all circumstances, in my opinion. But for those who have those language habits it takes time to weed them out of daily parlance.. Inflection is important as is diction and cadence. So there is a lot in the real word that schools may or may not cover.

    “Baggage cognitive” as our dear professor at Georgetown used to say, is imperative. One must be well read from the get-go and continue to gain knowledge as a lifetime learner. This includes political, economic, social, scientific, cultural and all kinds of content as well as language perfection.

    I’m not familiar with your school, but you surely sound like you’re on top of your game. I’d love to teach there! Rest assured it takes decades to excel in any venue! Have fun and keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you for your advice and encouragement! Your examples for attention to detail make sense–I generalized a bit in the article. I think that how “fancy” you can get, and the type of decalage you will need, is determined by the event itself. And yes to diction and intonation! We are working on that as well. 🙂

  6. Another great article, Athena!
    Thank you for taking the time to write; I really enjoyed it.

  7. Richard Ortega says:

    No comment


    I am a legal interpreter and I am also starting now as an interpreter for conference with people coming from Central America to discuss crime prevention. My problem is that I do not have any knowledge of the conference theme until I arrive. I am getting better but still I feel very uncomfortable. I just returned from a 5 day conference in Chicago and my first day was difficult! How to be prepare if I don’t know the subject to be discussed until I arrive to the conference?

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Marie, this is a constant reality for interpreters, but there are many articles on the subject online.

      First thing if to insist with the organizer or agency: you cannot do your job if you are not prepared. Then, check the same event the previous year. There may be a website they are withholding from you – this year’s or previous years’ will help you greatly. Once you have the event’s name, google it!

      You will find some more material on conference interpreting here on The NAJIT Observer and here are links to some of my articles on the subject:

      1- – for conference interpreters

      2- – geared to clients

      3- – also to clients

      Hope they help!

  9. Andrew Lule says:

    Athena, I really enjoyed reading your article! Your journey seems long, but extremely promising. My goal is to develop and improve my Spanish speaking as well. This article gave me great insight into someone who is on a similar path as myself. I think that this article is a must-read for college students who hope for a future in translation or interpretation.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I always enjoy reading them. 🙂

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