Getting More Mileage Out of Your Short-term Memory

By Janis Palma

Simultaneous interpreting makes people say, “I don’t know how you can do that!” But a good consecutive makes people think, “I could never do that!” Consecutive interpreting is a public performance and shows the world that bilingual competence does not equate efficient interpretation. The key to a good consecutive is short-term memory, and we know short-term memory is limited, so good retention is a skill we all need to improve.

Technology has provided a few tools for interpreters to work around the need to develop retention skills by replacing consecutive with simultaneous interpreting of recordings. It certainly gets the job done. However, professionals may consider it cheating. In any event, interpreters are losing their consecutive interpretation skills due to this reliance on tech toys. Without them, they may end up interpreting every five words and sounding like an amateur.

Professional interpreters should be able to master all three basic skills: sight translation, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting. To get more mileage out of your short-term memory, maybe these tips will help you rely on your own skills rather than some external device.

Identify the type of discourse

Consecutive interpreting for judiciary interpreters generally involves two types of discourse: scripted and spontaneous. Consecutive interpreting is performed mainly for question-and-answer exchanges between attorneys and witnesses. Sometimes, it can also take place between judges and defendants, or law enforcement and detainees; however, for illustration purposes, let’s concentrate on Q & As conducted on the record, such as pretrial depositions or trial testimony.

When attorneys engage in these Q & As, they have prepared their questions to follow a very specific line of inquiry intended to obtain certain information from the witness. If the attorney is the one who called the witness and is conducting a direct examination, the questions will be open ended, which allow witnesses to give narrative answers. Conversely, if the attorney is the opposing counsel and is conducting a cross-examination, the questions will be structured in such a way as to build on information already provided by the witness, seeking yes or no answers that could reveal either contradictions or outright untruths.1

Understanding the strategy each attorney is using in direct or cross-examination is the first step for interpreters to make the best use of short-term memory retention capabilities. Once you identify the script the attorney is using for the direct examination it is pretty much like all the other boilerplate language used in court. You rely on your long-term memory for that repetitive language and use your short-term memory to fill in the blanks where information may change. For example, direct examinations will always start with background questions, like name and address, employment history, or academic background. Depending on the type of case, background questions may include health history or prior experience in a certain occupational field.

Even during cross-examination, interpreters can ease the load on their short-term memory because those long and often compound questions often repeat information already provided during direct examination.

Once the background questions end, the attorney will then go into more substantive questions about the issues in the case, which interpreters can generally find in court documents such as the agent’s affidavit in a criminal complaint, or the pleadings in civil cases. Federal courts and many state or local courts now have electronic filing systems available to the public where you can find these documents; all you need is a case number. If your court does not have an electronic filing system, you can always ask the party who contracted you for a copy of these documents.

Even during cross-examination, interpreters can ease the load on their short-term memory because those long and often compound questions often repeat information already provided during direct examination. Just in case, keep a separate list of all those names, numbers, and addresses that are constantly repeated, so you can easily refer to this visual aid while interpreting.

Following the train of thought in spontaneous discourse

Answers to direct examination questions, for the most part, will be spontaneous discourse. Just like background questions, certain answers will follow a pattern: name and address, followed by the five Ws and the H—what, when, where, who, why, and how. During direct examination, answers tend to be narrative, and in cross they are generally yes or no; thus, be sure to use the best part of your short-term memory for these narrative answers during direct examination.

So far, you’ve seen how you can lighten the load on your short-term memory in consecutive interpreting during direct examination questions and cross-examination answers. If you pay attention to the line of questions and the answers in direct (and use the list of repeated information as a visual aid), cross-examination questions should not be a burden on your short-term memory either. So really, the only challenge left for interpreters in the consecutive mode is the witness’ narrative during direct examination.

This is the only time your short-term memory will be burdened by the witness (1) speaking too fast, (2) talking for too long, or (3) using words with which you are not familiar. To counteract these obstacles:

(1)       Prepare before each case so you feel confident about your knowledge of the facts and command of the vocabulary and terminology involved.

(2)       Control your witness. Allow your witness to speak only for as long as you can retain and deliver without forgetting. However, it is your professional responsibility to develop a short-term memory capacity beyond the ordinary capacity of non-interpreters. You do this with consistent practice and by pushing yourself to retain a little more each time you interpret.

(3)       And finally, if you are taking notes and your witness is speaking too fast, focus on the storyline; pay attention to the overall message, not merely the words. Let your notes help you recreate the message, so it makes sense in the target language and is idiomatic, (rather than being merely a string of nonsensical parts of speech with no real grammatical logic.)

Your notes are not supposed to be a map for you to find your way back home. They are just supposed to be the breadcrumbs you leave, but it is always up to you to remember the way! This is sort of a Cliff Notes version of a full workshop on building up your short-term memory for consecutive interpreting. I hope I have at least encouraged you to try to push the limits of what you can retain and recall. You may surprise yourself.


[1] The Art of Cross-Examination by Francis L. Wellman, first published in 1903 and still read by law students and attorneys nowadays, available online:

[Janis Palma became a federally certified judiciary interpreter in 1981, while working as a freelancer in Miami, Florida. In 1986 she was accredited by the ATA as a translator into/from English and Spanish, and between 1986-87 worked for the U.S. State Department as a contract escort & seminar interpreter.  She joined NAJIT in 1984, served as President, and is currently a Life Member. During her 29-year career Ms. Palma has published extensively, participated in many professional conferences, taught courses and workshops around the country, and been a rater for federal and state certification examinations. She is still active interpreting in various federal courts, translating for private clients, and volunteering for her state’s professional association.]

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NAJIT.

4 thoughts on “Getting More Mileage Out of Your Short-term Memory”

  1. Jill Hoskins says:

    Thank you so much for giving me some apt reminders and new information, Janis. Some of us unexpectedly are doing more consecutive these days due to one-channel video platforms.

  2. JANIS PALMA says:

    My pleasure, Jill. I suppose this is one good thing about the “new normal”: interpreters are having to “dust off” their consecutive interpreting skills, which will always be a plus.

  3. AJ Elterman says:

    Thank you so much for another informative and inspiring article on interpreting. What a perfect overview for court interpreters, with the context in practice. I always enjoy reading your writing.

    1. JPalma says:

      My pleasure, AJ. Thank you for your positive feedback!

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