Determination, strength

Sailing Through Sight!

– by Athena Matilsky © 2017

Ah yes. Sight translation. The interpreter tendency to ignore sight translation is kind of like that affliction suffered by us, middle children. You know middle child syndrome, right? It’s like this: our big brother Simultaneous is overtaking the track field and our parents (the interpreters) are too busy trying to catch up to him while making sure that our little sister, Consecutive, isn’t leaking scoring units all over the bleachers. Meanwhile, us, poor middle children, represent that out-of-sight-out-of-mind interpreting mode, Sight Translation.

We are always leaving Sight Translation until last. Even I did! To read my articles about its siblings, click here: Conquering Consecutive and Solving Simultaneous. I think it’s something about having the writing there on the page that makes us leave it until the last second. And the truth is, sight translation ought to be simpler than the other two modes of interpreting, for precisely that reason. And it can be, with one big caveat: It should still be treated with respect. Potential pitfalls should still be studied and avoided.

Sight TranslationSight translation involves reading a source-language text out loud in the target language. I imagine that in real life, the most frequent sight translations we perform are done with text messages on cell phones in family court. Hm. That’s complicated. Okay, that will have to be an entirely different article. For our purposes here, I’ll stick with the more standard documents you see on a test. Usually, it will be something in legalese for English (i.e. a police report) and something more informal in Spanish (i.e. a statement to the police or a letter to the judge).

Essentially, sight translation is a version of simultaneous in which you are given the magic power of going at your own pace and reviewing the material beforehand. To that end, if you remember only one thing after reading this post, please make it the following: Take full advantage of your review time. For test purposes, the clock starts the moment you begin interpreting, so there is absolutely no reason to start interpreting immediately. On the state exam, you are given a full two minutes to review. The federal exam gives you a minute and a half. Use that time.

On the other hand, when we are interpreting real-time in court, it can feel like the entire courtroom is watching us. That doesn’t matter. You know how sometimes attorneys ask the judge for a moment to review their notes? This is your turn. Always, always, always review the document before beginning. If it seems like they have asked you to do something that goes beyond the scope of sight translation, ask for a moment to consult a supervisor; or, if need be, speak up to say that the document is not appropriate for sight translation (be prepared to back this statement up). Hm. Okay, that’s new blog idea number two. It’s important to realize that this mode of interpretation is there for translating shorter, less complex documents on the spot, in order to help cases move along efficiently. It is not a replacement for thorough and accurate written translations. Just because the attorney didn’t get her 50-page document translated doesn’t mean you should sight translate it. Indeed, you shouldn’t. Familiarize yourself with your courts’ standards for what should be interpreted and what shouldn’t, and be ready to represent that to the court.

And with that, here are some tips for sailing through sight translation:

  • Always review the document beforehand.
  • Review first for comprehension. Don’t get worked up when you realize there’s a word you don’t know. Make sure you completely understand what this document is about, in the source language.
  • Next, if there is time, review quickly for problem words and, more importantly, problem phrases. For example, when interpreting “the really big, overpriced house,” “house” will need to be the first word when you interpret in Spanish, not the last. This is your chance to take note of that so you don’t get tripped up later.
  • When you begin interpreting (starting with its title!) go slowly and deliberately. If you have ever listened to Holly Mikkelson’s examples on Edge 21, you will know what I mean. You get the chance to set the pace. Take advantage of it.
  • While you are interpreting slowly and deliberately, scan ahead. The biggest trap in sight translation is only reading one word at a time. Inevitably you will end up backtracking, getting flustered, and wasting time. Save time on the front end by going slowly and scanning ahead. This is the sight translation version of décalage (lag time).
  • Study typical sight translations and stock your arsenal with standard phrases: (“To whom it may concern,” for example.) Since sight translations tend to use formulaic language, you want to have a collection of phrases that will roll off your tongue without having to wrack your brain.
  • Practice with a tape recorder, listen to your translation, compare it to the original document, note what you would like to improve; and do it again. This applies to every single mode of interpreting, and it cannot be stressed enough. Practice makes perfect!


If you follow these tips, sight translation will become a piece of cake. Indeed, you’ll sail right through it. Just know that if you ignore it, it may begin to feel neglected, and then you’ll be dealing with spilled scoring units on more than just the bleachers. (Can you tell I’m the middle child of five?)


Happy studying!


*Disclaimer: I may have been the middle child, but my parents did give me lots of attention. Just like we’ll be doing for sight translation. Right? Right.

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:

5 thoughts on “Sailing Through Sight!”

  1. Emma T. Mendoza says:

    It would be nice to have a course, or a series of courses that prepared the court interpreter for the oral exam in the interpreter’s language. Too many of the courses offered do not meet the one specific language an interpreter needs to prepare for the oral exam, Some of the courses do not indicate that a 40-hr course can replace the 6-hr mandatory course, which can save the students money, by just taking one course to fulfill the licensing requirements. Interpreters should not need to have a 4-yr degree to take the oral exam; however, courses need to be more streamlined for the interpreter’s language in order to provide adequate preparation for the state (Texas) mandatory oral exam. In addition, the state (Texas) needs to provide better information concerning requirements, licensing, and schools that provide such courses.

    1. Emma,

      I teach courses specifically for the Spanish oral exams (two are starting next week). I’ll be looking into CEUs from various states as well-I have an application pending already with Pennsylvania.. There are a lot of options out there for Spanish language. There are fewer courses for interpreters of other languages, unfortunately. But something to remember is that the technique advice is effective across all languages, and the better you get at analyzing your own recordings and applying the advice you hear, the more self-sufficient you’ll become.

      I can’t speak to the individual licensing requirements of each state, but I wish you luck finding something that fits your needs!

  2. Gio Lester says:

    Once during a deposition, the attorneys wanted me to sight translate a pile of documents! They really have no idea of how we work. That’s why I do not understand colleagues who fail to recognize the need for client education and their own role in the process. Thank you, Athena.

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