Getting Back to Crisp Consecutive

For me, among the specific skillsets that court interpreters use on a daily basis, true old-fashioned consecutive is the one that has the highest potential to showcase our talents. Because this is the mode that we use most often to go into English, on the record, in open court, it is for all to hear. Knowing this, I think my colleagues would agree that consecutive can be cause for performance anxiety that can translate into both excuses and innovation. When our skills and practices stray from the industry standard, we have a duty to think about how we got here, and to work on getting our consecutive groove back.

Why consecutive?

Ever since we started studying to be interpreters, consecutive has been a part of our lives. No matter what field we work in, whether by remote or in person, there is always reason to use it. We learned that in order to render a true and correct interpretation, we need the complete thoughts that simultaneous doesn’t always allow. What’s more, we try to avoid the disruption and chaos of speaking at the same time as others.

Two styles, one witness.

I recently interpreted for a witness in a jury trial. All circumstances allowed me to use crisp, clean consecutive. Nobody was rushing the proceedings, the witness was very clear in all answers, and the attorneys had done a great job preparing their questions. Our flow was terrific. A couple of times, I interrupted the attorney by mistake (he hadn’t completed his thought/question) and began a bit of simultaneous for the question. I noticed that on the few occasions I did this, this same witness who I had been flowing so well with, was thrown off. She had to have things repeated. She was less clear. Hmm. Note to self. I was told later that the same witness had to continue testifying through another interpreter. This time, her interpreter did quite a lot of non-consecutive work, and observers noticed a marked change in how her testimony flowed and sounded.

No excuses

With all the advantages of consecutive, why do we continue to look for excuses not to use consecutive? “Things go faster if I use (modified/pure) simultaneous,” is a common reason I hear. I think the truth, however, lies in our apprehension that our rendering will be deficient. This concern for accuracy has even led to a very popular technology solution to aid consecutive with a recording device. This tells me that as a profession, we still believe in the value of consecutive.

There are definitely valid reasons for switching to simultaneous mode where consecutive is normally used. A common example is running explanations. Many times a witness is asked to stand up and point to a chart while giving a description. I personally support my colleagues who use simultaneous in these situations. To me, when we’re interpreting into the record, consecutive should be our starting point both into and out of English. If we must switch to another mode or hybrid because circumstances warrant it, we should consider it a special situation, and not use it as an excuse to avoid consecutive altogether.

Where are your skills?

Has time in the profession helped you improve your consecutive skills, or are you losing them? Have you convinced your court that a hybrid is the best they can get from you, going simultaneous into a witness’s ear and consecutive into the record? Has the sound system in your court allowed you to simply use the microphone to speak louder than the witness?

When was the last time you really worked on better notetaking, memory, visualization, and other techniques to help you produce top-notch consecutive? Just about every time a big educational opportunity comes up for us court interpreters, there is a presentation that helps us hone our consecutive skills. Are you putting them into practice when you get back to court?

Be inspired by talented colleagues

Some of my most remarkable experiences in the courtroom have been observing great consecutive. There was an interview just yesterday where I observed a Russian interpreter doing pure, lengthy consecutive without even taking notes. I have colleagues who can do extremely lengthy consecutive by using excellent notetaking. What a great goal to aim for, if we’ve let our skills erode with time or complacency, right?

So next time you have the opportunity to use consecutive, do. If you’re tempted to pull that microphone closer so you can speak over the witness, resist. Witness going on a tangent? Visualize. Pull out all the stops and dust off the training books if you have to. Improving skills where you’re lacking is the professional thing to do… and so is consecutive.

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  • Dan DeCoursey
    Posted at 11:53h, 07 February Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jennifer! In the Southern District of California, most judges have asked us to use simultaneous for questions and consecutive for answers. Your observation that witnesses understand questions better in consecutive mode is definitely food for thought!

  • Alexis
    Posted at 13:26h, 07 February Reply

    Thank you Jennifer. As an Interpreter I have always believe that in order to do a good and fair job interpreting for the courts I agree that consecutive mode is the most appropriate way to interpret, it is only fair for the people we are serving. This topic is really great to continue talking about it and exploring possibilities to help the courts understand how helpful this mode is. Once again congratulation for bringing up this topic.

  • Michael Mahler
    Posted at 15:40h, 07 February Reply

    I also thank you Jennifer. I personally deplore the use of simultaneous at the witness stand. I have seen interpreters use simultaneous at the witness stand using equipment so that the only one hearing the interpreter’s Spanish is the witness thus depriving our monitoring colleague, Spanish speaking attorneys and spectators from hearing the interpreter’s rendering. Sometimes we make mistakes without noticing and doing live consecutive allows our interpreting partner and/or others to bring it to our attention so we can correct our mistake.
    It is all for the greater good. Thanks again for a timely topic.

  • Jennifer De La Cruz
    Posted at 22:56h, 07 February Reply

    Hello, Dan, Alexis, and Michael!
    I’m so pleased that you can relate to the topic. It’s not often that I write about skills since they can be such a complex topic with so many possible scenarios. I hope that at the very least, as Dan said, this will give some food for thought. After all, we set the standards for our industry by demonstrating excellent practice that’s as good for us as it is for those we serve. When my consecutive is flowing well, my overall wellbeing benefits. Thanks for commenting!
    Jennifer

  • Rebecca
    Posted at 09:27h, 08 February Reply

    Great post Jennifer. The importance of constantly trying to improve our skills cannot be overstated. Yesterday I had a judge who seemed to be trying to convince a defendant not to plead guilty. He asked long convoluted questions such as: Do you realize that in order to be found guilty of conspiracy the Commonwealth has to prove that you committed at least one overt act that while not being illegal in and of itself did significantly advance the furtherance of the conspiracy? It was great practice and reminded me of the importance of calmness and good notes.

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 23:49h, 08 February Reply

      Rebecca,
      That sounds like it was quite a challenge! That’s a great illustration to remind us to keep up the skills. As Terri says, there could be an order to do simultaneous (despite any efforts on our part to use consecutive, if that’s what we would prefer) but if we get too used to one mode, when we’re expected to do another, we could fall short.
      Terri,
      That’s interesting and I wonder how receptive the judge would be to your opinion on why your way was the best for accuracy in that case? It may be worth a shot.

      Thanks to both for reading and commenting!

  • Terri Shaw
    Posted at 11:55h, 08 February Reply

    Recently a courtroom clerk called the clerk who had assigned me in a federal court to complain that I had done a plea colloquy consecutively. She said the judge wanted me to ” interpret simultaneously” because it takes less time.

  • Gloria Hughes
    Posted at 17:51h, 09 February Reply

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us!

    I completely agree with you. It is interesting to see that many people, some attorneys and judges, seem to think that the simultaneous mode is faster than the consecutive mode. In my experience, be it at the witness stand and during depositions, I have discovered that it is frequently quite the opposite!

    This is especially true when witnesses or deponents understand a bit of English and want to listen to the questions being asked in English and they also want to hear them interpreted into their language to make sure they understood correctly.

    Every time I am asked to use the simultaneous mode in a deposition I try to make the attorneys understand it may actually take longer and the record may not be as clear: Frequently, deponents are more familiar with a word (equipment, tools, job title, etc.) in English and, at times they don’t the equivalent in their own language. Sometimes deponents are in pain and they have trouble concentrating and it is much harder for them to pay attention and understand when two people are speaking at the same time.

    It is our responsibility to protect and ensure the accuracy of the record and I truly believe it is much harder to do it when proceedings are interpreted simultaneously.

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 01:19h, 12 February Reply

      Thank you for your great comment, Gloria! I’ve heard some interpreters, attorneys, etc., wonder about the leveling of the playing field when it comes to moderately bilingual witnesses/deponents having the opportunity to hear questions twice. In an intense cross-examination, I can envision an attorney wanting to have a quick banter rather than the lag time consecutive requires. However, it seems to me that if I prefer consecutive, the attorney could simply ask the judge to have me modify my approach. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not my place to assume, and there’s such a strong case in the industry for consecutive that I could at least be supported by the ethical principles. If the judge orders me to do something different, so be it. Any difference in outcome would be off my conscience. 🙂

  • John Leahy
    Posted at 09:10h, 30 March Reply

    This is a great post, Jennifer. I am currently doing my masters thesis in translation/interpretation on “consecutaneous” and it seems that interpreters have strong feelings about this topic. It is intriguing to me as there are a lot of people talking about it but not much has been written about it. Thank you for addressing it!

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 12:27h, 30 March Reply

      Thank you for reading this post, John! I would love to know more about your research and findings on Consecutaneous! I’m sure there’s much to be said, still!

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