Consecutive Interpreting Unit 5: Memory


Memory is important in all phases of the interpreting process.

Once you have listened intently to the message, you must remember it.

You also need to remember the incoming message long enough to analyze and process it into the target language accurately.

If you are working in consecutive interpreting, you must remember what the message meant and then remember what your notes meant.

Later when you render the interpretation, you must remember what you said and compare that with the source message.

If you decide to make a correction to your interpretation, you must remember your repair and your original rendition in addition to the source message.


Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) theory of human memory which shows that sensory information once received is held in short-term memory for recall and is lost if not rehearsed after it arrives therefore the rapidity of the simultaneous interpreting process does not allow time to rehearse information and as a result interpreters generally do not recall what they interpret.


Ilg and Lambert (1996) reported that recall in consecutive interpreting is better than in simultaneous interpreting. The difference in recall is due to the opportunity to take notes in consecutive interpreting.


“CI seems to represent a deeper form of processing due to such factors as additional rehearsal time, longer exposure to the information, visual cues provided by the notes and the aural feedback when rendering the consecutive delivery.”  Ilg and Lambert (1996, p. 84)


The authors also said the recall advantage of CI over SI in part to the fact that the consecutive interpreter can process information in silence.


Schweda Nicholson (1996) provides a summary of short-term memory which is also known as working memory. The duration of working memory is thought to be only 250 milliseconds.


Baddley (1990) states there are three parts to working memory.

1)      The first is central executive which controls working memory.

2)      The second is the visuospatial sketchpad which is the pace where mental images are probably created and stored.

3)      The third part is the articulatory loop which can retain limited amount of information. The articulatory loop is phonological (sound-based) system that allows you to remember small amounts of information.

These three aspects of working memory combine to allow interpreters to use visualization and other strategies to assist in the interpretation process.


In addition to working or short-term memory, there is long-term memory. Schweda Nicholson states that long-term memory has two broad categories, procedural memory and propositional memory.


Procedural memory is used to perform actions such as typing or rollerblading after learning the individual actions within each skill. Once the entire set of actions has been integrated into the larger skill, it is no longer necessary to consciously focus on the performance of each action in the process.


Propositional memory is the memory that allows a person to remember concepts rather than performance-based operations.


Schweda Nicholson describes the relevance of procedural memory to interpretation. This is the kind of memory that is evoked without conscious awareness. That means that even though the process of simultaneous interpretation is very complex and demanding, some aspects of it can become less effortful with practice.


Even though memory is an important part of the interpretation process, simultaneous interpreters are generally not responsible for remembering the content of the messages that they have interpreted after they are finished interpreting.


Consecutive interpreters must remember the message well enough to deliver it after the source message has stopped. Experienced interpreters tend to shift quickly and efficiently between working memory and longer term memory stores, without conscious realization.


Schweda Nicholson emphasizes that there is a constant interplay between working and long-term memory during the interpretation process. Interpreters can quickly access what they know about a tipic and tap into memory stores related to that knowledge to help them process the incoming message.


Example of the functions of short-term and long term memory:


Learning to Ski downhill for the first time:


Putting on ski equipment:

1st: By watching my sister put on hers. – central executive and visuospatial images

2nd: Then put on mine – I also heard the click when putting my boots inside the bindings – articulatory loop


Skiing technique:

1st: by watching and listening to my sister explain and model how to stop and turn.   

                                                                             Visuospatial and articulatory loop

2nd: By copying and trying it myself. Of course, I did not do it correctly the first time but with practice, I began to get the hang of it. - Procedural memory

After skiing several times, it has now become second nature to do those steps without really thinking - Propositional memory

Storing Information:

To improve retention capacity, one of the most well known ways is by “chunking”, or organizing information into units that are easier to remember. Chunking involves “dividing a message into meaningful units, possibly changing the sequence of ideas, to render it more understandable” Gonzalez et al. (1991 p. 383)


This means that the interpreter does not need to remember each individual word in a sentence. Instead, the interpreter remembers the meaning of phrases or idea units. By remembering idea units instead of words, the interpreter has fewer individual units to remember and the burden on memory is reduced.


The chunking process is dependent on careful listening strategies along with the nature of the source language message and its delivery. Factors that affect listening effectiveness are density, rate, and coherence.


When information is encoded in long-term memory (LTM), it tends to be encoded semantically or based on meaning. Information that is stored in LTM tends to be information that you perceived, found some meaning in, and had somehow applied to your life.


In contrast, when information is stored in short-term memory it tends to be encoded based on the analysis of the sounds of the words. (Baddeley, 1976)


This means that when interpreters attend to the underlying message rather than just the words, memory function is enhanced. When you work with the exercises in this unit, listen for the meaning expressed by the speakers, not just their words.


Retrieving information: Once information is stored, the next step is retrieving the information or remembering. Gonzalez (1991) say that the more pathways there are to items stored in memory, the more likely it is that you will be able to access the information you need to retrieve. “Memory is like a cross-referenced index card file; the more ways one has to index items or the more associations one has with items, the more pathways that lead to an item, the more likely the individual will be able to take one and find what he or she is looking for”( p.384)


That is why it is important for interpreters to analyze messages carefully and organize them into meaningful units by forming connections to items previously stored in memory, rather than focusing on individual words.


These authors say that successful storage and retrieval of information in memory depends on whether the person wants to remember the information or if they know it will be useful to them. For example, if you really want to know how to arrive at a certain destination you will listen carefully, perhaps take notes, and possibly envision the route in your mind. If you are not responsible for the details associated with arriving at the specified location you may not attend to the details and thus not store or remember the information. You are more likely to remember information you will use or want to remember.


Here is a list of factors that Gonzalez et al. (1991)say affect how people store and retrieve information.









If an interpreter’s memory skills are well developed, there is a much higher chance that the resulting interpretation will be accurate than if memory skills are weak or poorly developed. Developing and practicing specific processing skills such as auditory memory, note-taking, repetition, and other skills may lead to increased effectiveness in the interpretation process. Practice in specific skills can lead to more automatic and less effortful processing. While the type of working memory processes required for interpretation could never be fully automatic, it is worthwhile to reduce the amount of effort required through meaningful practice.


Discussion questions:


  1. Why is memory important in the interpretation process?


  1. What happens when the interpreter does not remember what they heard correctly, but they think they have remembered correctly?


  1. Why is it unlikely that interpreters can accurately remember everything they interpret?


  1. Why do consecutive interpreters have a “recall advantage” over simultaneous interpreter?


  1. List the factors that affect how you store and retrieve information. How do these factors relate to the interpreting process?