Language Skills-Building for Interpreters

Interpreters face somewhat of a conundrum upon entering the profession. That is, we are expected to have “native-level” discourse and comprehension skills in all of our languages. Advertisements boast “perfect fluency,” and respectable interpreting courses necessarily steer their content away from language acquisition. Yet, of course, secretly we realize that none of us is perfectly fluent in any language; not even close. So, I think it’s time for us all to admit that we have some work to do in the area of language and that there is nothing shameful about this.

That brings me to today’s topic.

When your guide is the authority

In January, Andrew Gillies visited our Master’s in Conference Interpreting program here at Glendon College, in Toronto. Perhaps you have heard of him; he literally wrote the book on consecutive interpretation. He brought Jean-François Rozan’s wealth of note-taking knowledge to the English-speaking world. What you may not know is that Andrew Gillies has also written a book, much of which is devoted to improving interpreters’ language skills: (Conference Interpreting – A student’s practice book https://www.routledge.com/Conference-Interpreting-A-Students-Practice-Book-1st-Edition/Gillies/p/book/9780415532365). I would like to present a couple of my favorite exercises here. They are applicable to any of your languages.

Practice makes perfect

  1. Transcript Exercise: An in-depth analysis of your language mistakes.

Step 1: Record yourself interpreting into your language of choice. Interpretation should be about three minutes long.

Step 2: Type up an exact transcript of everything you hear. Put this in the first column of a table.

Step 3: In a second column of the same table, correct the transcript. Any errors that you see should be fixed. This will give you a chance to use your own knowledge of grammar and put it to the test, without the pressure of interpretation tripping you up.

Step 4: In a third column of the same table, ask a native speaker of this language to correct your correction. Here, you will notice any errors that escaped you the first time.

Step 5: Now, with these corrections in mind, perform the interpretation again!

Who told you to stop?

  1. Memorization Exercise: Integration of elegant, native-level phrases into your every-day speech.

Day 1: Select a couple of lines of good, native speech from a news article or another reputable source. Write the content down. Memorize it. (If you are a court interpreter, feel free to target pieces relevant to the law.)

Day 2: Review Day 1’s excerpt, making sure you still remember it. Then, memorize another one for day 2!

Day 3: Repeat the process: Review the lines from Day 1 and Day 2, and then add another to your arsenal.

I’m currently on Day 10 of this process with good Spanish selected from news articles. I don’t do it every single day, but I have calendar reminders to make sure I don’t lose the habit. My vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds, and Andrew Gillies promises that after a couple of months of this, you will be armed with useful words and collocations to help you get by as you interpret.

This is only the beginning

And that is that. If you’re curious to watch Andrew Gillies talk about these and other exercises, check out his YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIngThw913A

Happy Studying!


Feature photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash; content photo by Brando Makes Branding on Unsplash


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena 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: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

6 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 17:15h, 06 March Reply

    I promise I will try to do this. Thank you, Athena!

  • Sandra Aidar-McDermott
    Posted at 20:53h, 06 March Reply

    Great practice. And as you imply at the beginning of your article, we can also improve in our A language. Thank you!

  • Daniela Schmidt
    Posted at 00:41h, 07 March Reply

    Very interesting language acquisition exercises. I developed and I am also teaching a Modes of Interpretation interpreter continuing education class. From my experience and studies on interpreter “brain”, as an interpreter and interpreter continuing education instructor I recommend to my participants to practice a mode of interpretation per day for not more than 15 minutes.

  • John Shaklee
    Posted at 11:59h, 09 March Reply

    Thank you for the concise guidance, Athena.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 22:09h, 09 March Reply

    Good stuff Athena. A good 30 years ago or so, I decided to embark in vocabulary enrichment. I used to read the Reader’s Digest “Enriquezca Su Vocabulario” section religiously when I was a child, so I had a serious repertoire already by the time I started doing translation/interpretation work. I had this book that had literarily and literally kicked my butt, meaning that I couldn’t understand just about most of it. It was like some sort of Spanish from another galaxy: Don Quijote de La Mancha. So, I picked up my trusty old school dictionaries and began reading it with the objective of growing my Spanish vocabulary. If anybody decides that’s a good idea, caveat emptor: this is just the first paragraph of the first chapter, and the entire book reads like this. Very humbling experience. I never did get very far on this endeavor. Lol, it’s embarrassing, actually. Look:
    En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lantejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían las tres cuartas partes de su hacienda. El resto della concluían sayo de velarte, calzas de velludo para las fiestas, con sus pantuflos de lo mesmo, y los días de entresemana se honraba con su vellorí de lo más fino. Tenía en su casa una ama que pasaba de los cuarenta, y una sobrina que no llegaba a los veinte, y un mozo de campo y plaza, que así ensillaba el rocín como tomaba la podadera. Frisaba la edad de nuestro hidalgo con los cincuenta años; era de complexión recia, seco de carnes, enjuto de rostro, gran madrugador y amigo de la caza. Quieren decir que tenía el sobrenombre de Quijada, o Quesada, que en esto hay alguna diferencia en los autores que deste caso escriben; aunque, por conjeturas verosímiles, se deja entender que se llamaba Quejana. Pero esto importa poco a nuestro cuento; basta que en la narración dél no se salga un punto de la verdad.

  • Viktoria Chilcote
    Posted at 00:30h, 10 March Reply

    Useful. Thank you for sharing and the encouragement to improve our language skills.

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