Consecutiva simultánea: una nueva modalidad de interpretación

Se dice que el 90% de las interpretaciones se realizan en modalidad simultánea y, hoy en día, es la modalidad de interpretación más demandada y más empleada, especialmente en reuniones y congresos internacionales.

La consecutiva se emplea más en reuniones diplomáticas, en visitas de alto nivel (presidentes, ministros, etc.), en cenas de clausura de congresos o conferencias, o cuando no se dispone del equipo necesario de simultánea, o éste está averiado.

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Como le ocurre a muchos colegas intérpretes, pocas veces salgo de cabina para hacer consecutiva porque -acostumbrados como estamos a la simultánea- la interpretación consecutiva nos da mucho respeto.

Hace tiempo -creo que fue el año 2002- leí una entrevista muy interesante a Michele Ferrari (SCIC) en la que hablaba de su experiencia con las nuevas tecnologías aplicadas en el ámbito de la interpretación consecutiva. Su “experimento” consistía en grabar el discurso con la ayuda de su PDA (Cassiopeia palm-size PC), archivarlo y reproducirlo de nuevo, esta vez usando auriculares para poder ir interpretándolo de manera simultánea.

LF: Michele, how long have you been an interpreter?

I have been working as an interpreter in the Italian booth at SCIC for twelve years. My languages are English, French, Spanish, Greek and German, and I have a « retour » from Italian into English, in consecutive.

LF: Did your international background influence your choice of profession?

As the third child of an Italian diplomat, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence travelling from one country to another. After New York, where I was born, we moved to Canada, where I began primary school in English. There followed five years in Rome, where I attended an Italian primary school and four and a half years in Australia, where I continued my schooling in English. I switched again to Italian during our three-year stay in Greece, and I finished my secondary education at the European School in Brussels, in Italian.

However, I came to interpreting by chance, since my background is in Economics, and my intention was to become a researcher in game theory. After my «Licence», followed by a «Maîtrise» in Economics from Louvain, I went to North-western University in the U.S.A., for a PhD. I soon realized I was not cut out to do research in such an abstract field as game theory, so I settled for an M.A. and I moved to London, to take up a job in investment banking.

If spending hours proving a theorem was not for me, neither was the tough environment of the City of London my cup of tea, and after a brief stint at journalism, followed by a few boring months in consulting, I ended up restoring my sister’s Venetian style villa in North Eastern Italy, together with my brother, who was doing a bit of soul-searching of his own.

After a last, futile attempt of pursuing the «American dream» in Los Angeles, I was called by SCIC to sit for an admission exam for a six month «stage» in interpreting. I had all but forgotten that the year before I had casually responded to an ad in the paper, but I tried my luck nonetheless, and here I am now, an accidental but happy interpreter. I enjoy my work, and in my spare time I play Bach on the piano and I play my weekly 18 holes at La Tournette golf club in Nivelles. I live in Brussels together with Nuria, her two children, Sofia and Vasilios, and our little son Mario, who is one and a half years old.

LF: I believe that you have had extensive experience with consecutive interpreting. What are your views on it?

Owing to my « retour » into English, I have had to do many consecutives, of all sorts and in all types of conditions, from press conferences, bilateral negotiations, interviews, expense control missions, to official functions and the dreaded after dinner speeches. For example, in 93 and 94 I was called upon every week to do consecutives for Commissioner Ruberti whom I also often accompanied on very tiring missions.

I have to say I have always felt a sense of dissatisfaction in performing a consecutive, as if it were a constant struggle against impossible odds. Indeed, I firmly believe it is impossible to do a perfect consecutive, when faced with a difficult, dense and fast speech.

Even in the best consecutive of this world, there is always a little something missing. This is due to the fact that you cannot possibly hope to register every single component of a speech in your notes. If you want to get your content 100% right, you cannot make parallel annotations concerning the speaker’s change of tone, mood, or speed of elocution.

Therein lies the limit of the traditional consecutive: even if you get the whole content, the reproduction of the speech will necessarily be arbitrary to some degree. The problem is that in a consecutive you are not reacting instantaneously to a continuous stimulus, as you do in a simultaneous. Instead, you are absorbing the whole speech in one go and then reproducing it at your own rhythm and with your own intonation, which invariably will not consistently match that of the speaker.

This entails a lack of rigour, which has always troubled me ever since my first consecutive, and which led me to find a better solution, in order to fully respect the speaker’s original speech, in all its aspects.

LF : So you decided to invent an alternative method ! How were you given the opportunity to try out your new system?

Three years ago, I was assigned at very short notice to interpret for Vice-President Kinnock at a press conference in Rome. The very thought of having to take notes from Mr.Kinnock’s fast, dense and witty speeches, and having to reproduce them in front of a hundred people in my home country literally terrorised me.

In my despair, I thought of a possible way out of such a frightening prospect, and all of a sudden I realised I could use my Cassiopeia palm-size PC to record Mr.Kinnock’s speeches, save them in real time as «wave» files and play them back into a headset, thus actually performing a simultaneous from the original input, without having to take any notes whatsoever.

The sheer comfort of the idea of being able to reproduce the speeches in their entirety was enough to convince me to try it out for real. After a few tests with Mr.Mamer, Mr.Kinnock’s spokesman at the time, we went ahead with it and the experience was a great success.

LF : How did the audience react to this new form of interpreting?

Time after time, I was able to reproduce Mr.Kinnock’s speeches and replies with unfailing accuracy, while never keeping my eyes off the audience. I received compliments from many people, including a couple of journalists, who said they had never heard such an accurate and lively consecutive before
Generally, people were intrigued by the fact that I didn’t write anything down, except for a couple of unusual words for which I wanted to find a suitable translation, and a few numbers, which I jotted down, just in case.

LF : What are the advantages of the “simultaneous consecutive”?

If you think about it, the advantages of such a «simultaneous» consecutive are enormous: for one thing, you have the luxury of hearing the speech twice, first while the speaker delivers it, and then when you play it back in the headset; furthermore, you are using the original, unadulterated input, and not a transcription of the speech into your own notes. Both factors combine to ensure completeness and exactitude of content, and —extremely important— a perfect correspondence with the speaker’s intonation, mood and rhythm.

In these ideal circumstances, it is thus possible to ensure an ideal result, a finished product which can even be superior to a simultaneous, since the fact that you have already heard the speech a first time allows you to think your way through it beforehand.

LF: And are there any pitfalls or limitations?

Of course, there are potential problems, such as a technical failure of your machine. This is a legitimate objection, which has been invoked against my method, but then, I have personally witnessed at least two real-life consecutives in which the interpreter mixed up the pages in his note-pad, with the inevitable ensuing chaos and distress. In these cases there is no back-up solution, whereas with my method, nothing prevents you from taking full notes while the speaker makes his speech, just in case.
Another, potentially much more serious problem, is that with a portable digital recording device (pocket-PC, pocket recorder or Mp3 player) the play-back speed must necessarily match that of the original speech. This means that in the presence of a slow speaker, who makes numerous pauses or repetitions, in your « simultaneous » consecutive, you will not be able to shrug off the strait-jacket imposed by above-mentioned constraint until the very end, and you will deliver a complete but boring and artificial speech. Paradoxically, faithfulness to the original completely back-fires in this case, as people will forgive the speaker for his slowness and repetitions, but not the interpreter: they will want to get on with it, rather than hear the same «ah»s and «eh»s a second time.

LF : How could these limitations be overcome ?

To go beyond this limitation, one must venture into the world of audio editing software, in order to perform the necessary manipulations to the original sound, according to the necessities of the moment. Such software does not —at the moment at least— run on the pocket PC platform or any other operating system for palm size mobile devices. One requires a full Windows 95,98 or better to run such complex programs, which means you must move up in scale at least to the ultra-light notebook category. A device weighing around 1 kilogram is not really much bulkier than a medium sized hardback book, and as such does not represent a major constraint to mobility (battery life is the main factor to consider in this case).

The marvel of a sophisticated audio editing program such as Goldwave is that it allows you to vary the playback rate in real time, without any appreciable distortion of the original sound. This allows you to cater for all possible situations: if the speaker is dense and fast, you will not want to accelerate the playback rate (in fact you may even want to slow it down a fraction in a particularly difficult part of the speech), if the speaker is slow and makes lengthy pauses or numerous repetitions, all you need to do is accelerate those parts and breeze your way through your «simultaneous» consecutive. To make things simpler, in the presence of a moderately slow speaker, with a fairly constant elocution, you may want to simply set the playback acceleration rate to say 15% and leave it there throughout your delivery. The fact that you are actually manipulating the original sound to suit the individual situation has prompted me to define my consecutive as the «digitally remastered» consecutive. Of course, it takes a certain amount of skill in manipulating the computer and the software, but it is not beyond the capabilities of every single interpreter with an open mind.

LF : How has the administration reacted to your «digitally remastered» consecutive ?
After my original experience three years ago I received many enthusiastic requests for further explanations on how to perform the outrageous feat of a consecutive without notes. I gave practical demonstrations to interested colleagues and the Head of Service at the time had even asked me to promote my idea as a large-scale project. Things subsequently changed at the top, we went through an interim period and my project came to a halt.

The solution to consecutive is at hand

Recently, with Mr.Benedetti as our new Head of Service, and with the creation of a New Technologies unit, I have been able to breathe new life into my project. At the end of last year performed a first comparative test of the traditional vs. the «simultaneous» consecutive, in the presence of Mr. Benedetti.

LF : And how has the profession reacted to this challenge to the holy canon of consecutive?

In general, I have noticed that, except for a few purists that staunchly defend the superiority of the good old traditional consecutive, most people react very positively to the idea of a method that can spare them the ordeal of taking notes. However, I doubt that many interpreters would actually take the plunge in a real world situation. It simply takes a long time to change an established dogma, and no matter how convincingly one may prove the validity of a new method, there will always be a tremendous resistance to change. Whilst the traditional consecutive has an almost sacred status in Community institutions, which is reflected in the heavy bias towards it in all official competitions, the private market seems to be much more ready to jump on any idea that might simplify one’s life. Indeed, most of the requests for information I have received have been from free-lance colleagues, eager to try their hands at something new.

The truth of the matter is that until the official doctrine doesn’t change, there is no real hope for a large scale diffusion of my «digitally remastered” consecutive. Only if it received official recognition as a standard method of interpreting would it be possible to make all potential clients aware of its existence and its advantages.

If all end users were accustomed to the interpreter taking out his pocket PC or his ultra-light notebook instead of his note-pad, it would simply become the new paradigm, and things would function just as smoothly as before.

It will surely take a while before such a radical change can be introduced, but in the meantime, I will continue with my tests and try and get as many interpreters as possible to try my method and evaluate it.

LF : What do you see as the future of consecutive and other new technologies?

I believe in the long run people will come to accept the fact that technology can be a valid tool in improving the consistency and reliability of consecutive interpreting. New technologies will surely make a breakthrough in simultaneous interpreting and we will see more of video-conferencing and remote interpreting. I believe we should have an open attitude and be prepared to adapt to the changes that will slowly but surely come.

LF : Michele Ferrari, thanks for accepting to be interviewed.

Unos años más tarde (2005), Franz Pöchhacker hablaba de simultaneous consecutive y de sus ventajas -comparada con la consecutiva- entre ellas la posibilidad de poder interpretar la totalidad del discurso original y de manera más fiel, teniendo en cuenta incluso la entonación y cadencia del original, prescindiendo así de la toma notas. Sin embargo, también apuntaba que esta nueva técnica adolece de la capacidad de síntesis y compresión inherente a la consecutiva y además depende de aspectos y requisitos técnicos del equipo y de su correcto funcionamiento.

En 2007, en el número 124 de SCIC news apareció de nuevo otra entrevista con Michele Ferrari como protagonista, pero esta vez entrevistando a la autora de una interesante tesis master sobre consecutiva simultánea que exploraba las posibilidades de esta nueva modalidad y la aceptación que había tenido entre la comunidad de intérpretes.

Se trata, sin duda, de una nueva técnica que ofrece muchísimas posibilidades al intérprete, pero que todavía no cuenta con suficientes estudios y experimentos que la respalden.

2 comentarios en “Consecutiva simultánea: una nueva modalidad de interpretación”

  1. Hello, thanks for Your great work! I have a question: could You please tell me where You found the interview You published with Michele Ferrari? Thank You very much!

  2. Hello Federica,
    I’m afraid the document is no longer available online, but perhaps you can contact DG Interpretation and ask for the interview that was published on SCIC News either in 2001 or 2002.
    My regards from bootheando

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