Solving Simultaneous

By Athena Matilsky © 2016

Do you remember that time, growing up, when you heard someone speaking and you spontaneously replicated what they had just stated in another language? Wait, you can’t remember doing that? Good! Neither can I!

We interpreters tend to polish a few pet peeves. On our scales of righteous indignation, people thinking our job is easy probably ranks right there at the top.

Simultaneous interpretation is not easy. Anyone who has ever tried doing it, knows that. So the purpose of this post is a to serve as a follow-up to Conquering Consecutive (published on 10/26/16). Consider this to be part two on breaking down the modes of interpretation.

My advice to the simultaneous interpreter is: Start slow, work incrementally, and don’t get discouraged! Remember, your attempts are successes. When I first started out, I shadowed for six months before I even tried to interpret simultaneously. Because, well, I couldn’t interpret. So, I shadowed.

Even if you are more advanced, this advice will still serve you well. You just have to find a “slow start” that works for you; locate your foundation and then build upon it. For example, even after I had passed my state exam, when I started studying for the federal exam I began at square one (i.e. the first bullet point below). First, as a warm-up, I shadowed. Then I dual tasked, all the while exercising my brain to get used to a new speed and more specialized content. Then I would attempt the more difficult simultaneous lesson. When I found myself flagging, I reverted back to shadowing or dual tasking and then I tried the simultaneous again.

Don’t discount the importance of prep exercises! As outlined below, they are important for a lot of things, and just because you already know how to interpret doesn’t mean you can’t get better.

Here is a hierarchy of study that I find works well:


PREP FOR SIMULTANEOUS (to be done either on its own, or as a warm-up to interpreting):

  • Shadowing: For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, shadowing means repeating what you hear in the same language. This exercise trains your brain to think and listen at the same time, without the added obstacle of converting what you hear into a new language. It also helps you to familiarize yourself with terminology, which you can embed in your brain through repetition (kind of better than that stack of tired-looking flash cards sitting on your desk). If you are just starting out, pick something very slow with a familiar topic. Once you get the hang of that, shadow speeches on harder topics, including those heavy in names and numbers. Then, pick up the pace.
  • Dual task: This exercise is a step up from shadowing. Repeat what you did above, but try to simultaneously write the numbers 1-100. When that gets easy, count up by threes. After that, go backwards. Then try writing phone numbers. The possibilities are endless. Consider these push-ups for your brain!
  • Rephrase: (This is usually called “paraphrasing” but I find that name to be misleading.) Here you shadow content in the same language, but whenever you can, you substitute one word or phrase for another with identical meaning. For example, instead of saying “my mom,” you can say, “my mother.” “Went back” becomes “returned.” Etc. This exercise allows us to accomplish that same task of listening and speaking, with the added challenge of focusing more on ideas than just robotically parroting words. I know, it’s annoying, but it gets you one step closer to actually interpreting!


Once you have completed these steps, you are ready to embark on the exhilarating

roller coaster that is simultaneous interpretation.



  • Level one: Begin to actually interpret, using slower material covering familiar topics. If you notice you have missed something, take a deep breath and keep going.
  • Level two: Interpret faster simultaneous and/or unfamiliar topics.
  • Level three: Interpreter fast simultaneous, and/or specialized topics such as expert witness testimony for DNA, firearms, fingerprints, etc.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Recording yourself and repeating exercises are two vital steps in the process of self-improvement. Compare your recording to the original transcript, marking the sheet as you go. Then determine where you can improve and repeat the exercise in order to integrate what you have learned. If you skip these steps, you are missing half the lesson.


So, yes, simultaneous interpretation is hard. But if you meet yourself on your own individual foundation, so to speak, and then you add incremental challenges, you will find yourself improving without quite so much overwhelm.

And if somebody ever tells you that your job must be easy since you are bilingual… Well, just turn on the radio, explain to them what shadowing is, and tell them that if it’s so easy, they should go right ahead.

I can’t guarantee much, but I think I can guarantee they will not underestimate you again.

Happy studying!


[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 an 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:]

14 thoughts on “Solving Simultaneous”

  1. Maria Teresa Perez says:

    Thank you for this well written, informative, and educational post. A much needed reminder to even the best in our profession. It is very refreshing to go back to the foundation and the core of what makes a true professional interpreter with excellence.

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Constance Marina says:

    This is wonderful advice, Athena! It’s also an excellent reminder to those of us who have been interpreting for quite a long time that it might be a good idea to do some of these exercises occasionally. I’ve always felt that the job of an interpreter and/or a translator is the most quixotic of occupations and that’s why I love it. The challenges never cease and we never arrive at the ideal try as we might! Perfection in our field is just an illusion but one we strive for nevertheless.

  3. Gio Lester says:

    It is always nice to get a refresher. Thanks, Athena.

  4. Michael Zogby says:

    Excellent summary of simultaneous training. You have condensed a whole section in several books on SI into a few words, I’d say, if you’re a new or aspiring court interpreter, save your money & follow the steps Athena outlined in this article. Thank you Athena!

  5. Hal sillers says:

    Great post and excellent reminders, Athena.



  6. Jose Aguirre says:

    I was told by a coworker who was learning Japanese that it was called “Toggling” and he couldn’t understand how I could change languages without thinking about it from Spanish to English and back without skipping a beat. I told him I didn’t know I was doing that nor had anyone ever told me “it” had a name. I advised him that I grew up doing it as a first generation American and was born into the situation so not only did I have to learn throughout school but also teaching my parents and family members as well as getting along with other kids, and I was tested all the time by them as well. Now its just second nature. As a federal interpreter it became a tool that I used throughout my career. Its been a blessing belong to two worlds. My father told me of an old saying in his country that said, rich is the one eyed blind man in the land of the blind. Regards , Joe.

  7. Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments and for sharing your experiences! I was trying to respond individually but the system felt I was leaving too many comments. 🙂 So anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll do the last one on Sight Translation next month.


  8. Right on target, thanks!

  9. Kamila Aitken says:

    Very informative article. Thank you

  10. Carmen L. Sáenz says:

    Very well written and helpful article. It will be useful in yet another attempt to pass the Federal Oral Exam. Thank you!

  11. Leonardo Pasek says:

    A great article. Right on.

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