How to *Listen* like a Conference Interpreter

Dec 21, 2017

Jonathan Rechtman

Teal Flower
Teal Flower
Teal Flower

Every summer I teach a five-day course on interpretation at the University of Ottawa’s Chinese-English Translation and Interpretation Program.

It’s designed to be a “taster” course rather than an actual training program, and I tell the students that even if they don’t wind up choosing interpretation as a career, many of the skills that we learn in these five days can just make you, well, a more effective listener and communicator!

Below is the basic skills-stack that I share with my students over the course of five days. The truth is that anyone can practice these techniques anytime they are listening to anyone talk — whether its a meeting at work or a speech on TV (I wouldn’t recommend practicing on The Donald, though)!


With only five days you’d think I’d try to get the students interpreting right off the bat, but in fact I don’t even let them begin interpreting until Day Three. Aside from self-introductions, we spend the entire first day practicing what I call “structural listening.”

All human communication tends to have a logical structure of some sort, and most speeches have more or less the same structure as an essay: there’s usually some kind of opening statement, a bunch of main points, and then a summary conclusion. If you transcribed a speech verbatim and analyzed it as a whole, you’d find it pretty easy to identify these components.

The tricky part about interpreting, of course, is that you don’t get to see the whole thing laid out for you — the information is generally dribbled out in some undeclared sequence with lots of logical twists and turns along the way.

“Structural listening” is a dynamic sorting of information as it is communicated. As the speaker speaks, imagine the words coming at you as a stream of Tetris blocks falling toward your ears. If you just let those words stack up as they come, without any logical structure, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed and lose track of what’s going on.

Instead, as these words are falling at you, parse them into useful chunks of information and map those chunks out logically in your mind; this piece goes here, that piece goes there, so that all the information stacks nicely into a neat, clean structure.

The goal of structural listening is to create a “mental map” of the speech — its a bit like a memory palace, only instead of disconnected itemized objects, the mental map adds a layer of logic that threads all the information together from start to finish.

We practice structural listening on (obviously) well-structured speeches with clear logical components.

For the first few speeches I just ask the students to listen, then repeat back as much of the structure as they can verbally in the original language (no notes, no translation). After we’ve done a few of those, we start describing our mental maps and drawing them in very rough strokes on the black board.


Day Two is essentially a crash-course in note-taking. Different schools of interpreting have more or less rigid conventions around note-taking methodology; I offer students a “lite” version of the orthodoxy along with some custom tips and tricks that work well for me, but I emphasize that at the end of the day everyone’s notes are “for you, by you” — its worth playing around with different styles until you find what works for you, and then work hard to internalize those conventions so that recording and reading them becomes second nature.

Honestly, though, the tactic of how to take notes is not nearly as important as the strategy behind what notes to take.

I always try to impress upon students that notes aren’t meant to capture everything that the speaker said; they’re simply a series of prompts that jog your short-term memory (which is why it can be hard to use them the next day). If you try and get down everything that was said on paper, chances are you’ll wind up with a dense mess of ink that bogs you down more than supports you.

Your notes should basically contain two things: (1) your mental map of the speech’s structure, with all the logic relationships intact, and (2) any details that your short-term memory can’t be burdened with, such as numbers, names, or other highly specific information.

Anything else will be either a crutch or a burden.


Here’s where we actually start interpreting.

The most common mistake inexperienced interpreters make — and honestly one of the most common mistakes in communications generally — is a focus on the literal to the detriment of comprehension.

Literal interpretation leads to “word-grafting” — swapping out one term for another, word-by-word, until you have a string of words that individually appear to correspond to the original but when read together make absolutely no sense. This is basically the problem with (statistical-approach) machine translation: each component translation is dictionary-perfect, but in aggregate it’s just a hot mess.

Instead, deconstruct the text into its purest and most abstract form. Go beyond the words — ask yourself, what’s the point?

One good practice for isolating meaning from words is this: listen to a segment of speech, and then restate the entire segment in the same languagebut without usingany of the same words as the original. When you can do that, you know you’ve got the point.

Once you’ve got the point and can articulate it freely without relying on the original verbiage, it’s actually not too hard to do the same thing in another language entirely. At that point it doesn’t even feel like interpreting — once you’ve internalized the underlying meaning, it just feels like talking in the target language, using your own words to articulate someone else’s point of view.

It’s actually quite liberating!

Day 4: Applying CONTEXT

Once you start looking for meaning beyond simply words, you quickly realize that a lot of subtext is drawn from context — that is, you can’t really understand what’s being said about without sufficient background knowledge of what’s not being said.

For example, if you’re at a conference on financial reform and someone mentions “Libor manipulation”, it would be really helpful to know not only how to say “Libor” in the target language, but to have some sense of what Libor is and how it was manipulated and why.

To some extent that just means doing your research beforehand — anyone attending any meeting should probably do some basic preparation. But for interpreters, who are often self-styled generalists, meeting-specific research is only the last step. The real work comes in the form of daily routine: (1) being hyper-informed about everything in the world, and (2) being hyper-sensitive to the underlying connections between disparate fields.

On Day Four we spend time practicing “contextual thinking.” We go through all the headlines in a daily newspaper and try to identify thematic threads between the articles. How are tensions on the Korean peninsula and Fed interest rates and the rise of Chinese bike-sharing apps connected to Brexit and the disintegration of the continental ice sheet?

We also do a role-playing exercise in which each student has to speak about a common topic from different stakeholder perspectives. Last week I had the students give presentations on “Economic Integration along the Silk Road,” with each student representing a Chinese steel conglomerate, a sovereign wealth fund, a UNESCO official, a Vietnamese textile manufacturer, etc etc.

Channel your inner Thich Nhat Hanh, I tell the kids. Remember that everything is interconnected.


Look, you can pick apart the science behind Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” all you want, but I’m pretty sympathetic to the view that mastery is best achieved through sustained deliberate practice.

My own formal study of conference interpreting was a bit short of ten thousand hours, but if you count Chinese language study more generally, it’s well over the top (and still going — mastery is a lifelong pursuit!)

So we spend most of the last day practicing, and meta-practicing: that is, practicing how to practice. The students give feedback to one another on the quality of their interpreting, and I give them feedback on the quality of their feedback. We run through “lite” versions of more advanced exercises that they’re not really ready for yet, but will be someday. We talk about what the journey ahead might look like, and what kind of resources they may find helpful along the way.

Obviously five days isn’t enough to teach or learn conference interpreting — it takes years. But I do believe that these these five component steps — structural listening, note-taking, going beyond words, applying context, and practice — not only represent a solid foundation for the study of interpreting, but indeed are a useful framework for thinking, listening, and communicating in any context.

Jonathan Rechtman is co-founder and chief interpreter at Cadence Translate, a leading provider of translation services to the global business and investment community, and an innovator in real-time translation technology.

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This article previously appeared on the Cadence Translate Medium page.