Effortless Conference Interpreting: 7 Career-Making Memory Tips

Have you ever wished you had the ability to memorize information in real time?

Believe it or not, you can. Interpreters do it all the time. They listen, understand, memorize, translate and speak – all at the same time.

Impressive, right?

Conference interpreting is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

In fact, research shows that conference interpreting is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. One study put the stress levels experienced during interpreting on about the same level as those of an air traffic controller! Go figure.

How To Succeed In Conference Interpreting
Without All The Stress

However, people who wind up with great conference interpreting jobs were not born with these skills: they developed their abilities by learning and practicing specific techniques. If you’d like to do the same, pay attention because I’m about to show you exactly how it works.

1. How One Simple Test Will Strengthen
Your Memory And Boost Your Fluency

Here’s the single most important thing you can learn from conference interpreters:

They focus a lot on flexibility.

You see, no matter how good your memory is or how many words you know, sometimes you’re going to forget something or wind up stuck looking for words. It even happens in your mother tongue!

Interpreters know that if you want to boost your fluency, you need the flexibility to retrieve at least something to say from your memory in every situation.

The good news: this ability to remember is something that can be trained! Even better, if you’re already a conference interpreter, you can continue learning and potential boost your conference interpreting salary!

How To Hear The Future As A
Conference Interpreter Before It Happens

One way interpreters go about this is by making it a habit to guess what a speaker is going to say next. That buys them time to think of a good translation. Now you know why your interpreter friends are always finishing your sentences!

As annoying as that habit might be, exercises in which you anticipate words might be the key to increasing your flexibility.

The most important exercise used by interpreters to train this skill is the cloze test. This exercise is fantastic, and I use it all the time.

How To Close In On The Cloze Test
For Maximum Memory Results 

So how does the cloze test work? You get a sentence with certain words blanked out. It’s your job to fill in the blanks with an appropriate word (or word group). That word can be anything, as long as the sentence makes sense and is grammatically correct. An example:

David wants to ____ a table for 5 tonight.


David wants to book a table for 5 tonight.

David wants to reserve a table for 5 tonight.

David wants to make a reservation for a table for 5 tonight.

David wants to make a call to the restaurant for a table for 5 tonight.

David wants to ask if you’ve booked a table for 5 tonight.

… and so on …

You get the point.

Try to come up with as many appropriate answers as possible. The more you can find, the more flexible you are in speaking a language!

The Truth About What Really Improves Your Fluency

Here’s another reason I really like this exercise:

It builds flexibility by teaching you how to take advantage of context. In this regard, it relies a lot on your association powers. The better certain language patterns and structures are ingrained in your brain, the easier words to fill in will come to mind. That translates to improved fluency. And that’s wonderful given how much we now know about the benefits of bilingualism.

However, there’s more. What really makes the cloze test stand out for me is that it shows how context can be a mnemonic for learning words or expressions!

Context: The Ultimate Conference Interpreting Equipment
That Sits In Your Awareness (Priceless!)

To give you a basic example: whenever someone says “Thank you” to me, I’ll immediately, without even thinking about it, respond “You’re welcome!” Just hearing these words triggers my memory and gives me the appropriate response.

The association between those two phrases became so strong that they act as a mnemonic for each other.

If you’d like to take advantage of the cloze test to memorize vocabulary and use context as a mnemonic, I found that the easiest way to do that is by making flashcards (physically, or use an app like Anki (link)). Here are the steps:

1. Make a flashcard with sentences in the language you’re learning.
2. Blank out the words you want to memorize and add them at the back of the flashcard.
3. Review your flashcards and try to guess which word would fit in the sentence. Try to experience the situation described in the sentence as vividly as possible! Read it out loud, visualize it, feel it.
4. Every time you review the flashcard, the connection between the context and the word you’re learning will become stronger!

My experience is that learning vocabulary this way works wonders. Incorporate this in your language learning routine, and you’ll start seeing the benefits in no time.

2. Flexibility 2.0:
How These 4 Improvisation Techniques
Help Conference Interpreters Remember Translations

Ever started a sentence in a language you’re learning and gotten completely stuck because you couldn’t think of a certain word? You go blank, start stuttering. Maybe you even decide it’d be better to just shut up until you become more fluent.

Interpreters feel your pain. They’ll often hear words in a speech that they understand, but for which they don’t have a translation readily available. Shutting up because of a cognitive overload is no option, though: your audience is counting on you for an accurate translation!

Experienced interpreters have learned how to work around this and always remember a suitable translation. How? You guessed it: by working on their flexibility.

In this case, to increase flexibility, interpreters rely on improvisation. Let’s go through some of the tricks they use, that might come in handy for you as well!

• First of all, if you don’t know a word, just try to find a description with words you do know. For example, a ‘civil servant’ could be described as ‘someone who works for a state’s administration’.

• Second, you could also just use something opposite. Instead of a ‘civil servant’, you could say ‘someone who doesn’t work in the private sector’. Most of the time people will understand what you mean soon enough.

• Third, use a more general or more specific word. For example, if you can’t think of the word ‘car’ you could say ‘means of transport’ or ‘vehicle’. Or you could go more specific and say the brand of the car (‘Ferrari’).

• If nothing else works, assess how important the word really is to your story. If you want to say: ‘Yesterday, I went to the cinema by car. It was a great movie’, is ‘by car’ really important? If not, leave it out so you can continue the conversation.

There you go: 4 techniques to make sure you always remember an appropriate translation. Use them to never get stuck while speaking a foreign language!

Interpreter Memory Booster Bonus:

These techniques are extremely useful while learning vocabulary as well. Whenever you see a word, apply the techniques mentioned above. You’ll instantly make associations with synonyms, opposite words and examples which will make the words stick so much faster!

3. How Interpreters Use Their Memory to
Understand Words They’ve Never Even Heard Of Before

The previous point showed you how you could use improvisation if you understand the meaning a word but can’t remember the translation. Sometimes, though, you won’t even understand the word and have absolutely no clue about what it could mean.

So how do you react when you don’t understand a word during a conversation in a foreign language? Do you panic? Do you start looking so hard for the right translation that the rest of the conversation becomes background noise?

This isn’t an option when you’re interpreting. Your audience expects you to understand and remember everything about a conversation so you can make them understand as well!

So what do you do? A good interpreter will stay calm, keep listening and try to make sense of the word. How? By using two things: context, and their memory.

But wait, that doesn’t make sense, right? How can your memory help you understand a word you’ve never even heard before?

It’s possible, if you’ve already built a strong memory connection in your mother tongue between the meaning of this word and some other words in the sentence.

Tap The Mind Of A Panic-Free Conference Interpreter

Let me explain by telling a story.

I once had to interpret a German speech that dealt with the salt concentration in the Adriatic Sea. The speaker kept talking about the cycle of ‘kondensieren’ and ‘verdunsten’. Now, kondensieren (condensate) is self-explanatory, but I’d never heard from ‘verdunsten’ before. The pressure was high: after a few minutes I had to interpret the speech and I had never heard from one of the keywords of the speech!

However, I stayed calm and relied on the memory connections I’d already made with the word ‘condensation’. In high school, I’d learned (in my mother tongue) about the cycle of condensation and … evaporation, of course! That was indeed the meaning of the word verdunsten. I was saved!

What’s the moral of the story here? Your brain is smart and capable of making connections, if you don’t panic, keep listening and try to understand the context.

Rely on the memory connections you’ve already made in your mother tongue. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t understand every single word in a speech or conversation. Just dive in and try to understand the bigger picture. More often than not, the meaning of that one word you don’t understand will become clear automatically!

4. Why Conference Interpreters Memorize Everything
They Read or Hear, And How That Makes Them More Fluent

First of all, a word of warning: students of interpretation are usually rather skeptical about this in the beginning. I was, and you might be too.

Please hear me out! It’s more logical than you think!

Ask any professor of interpretation what makes a good interpreter, and most of them will give you the same answer. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not amazing memory skills!

It’s not even perfect fluency in a foreign language.

The Most Important Thing About
Conference Interpreting In The World

There’s something more important: a broad general knowledge.

A good interpreter needs to be an excellent public speaker, in his mother tongue. Granted, he or she needs to understand a foreign language, but most of all he has to be able to explain things in his mother tongue in a coherent way, without making mistakes. For that, you need to have general knowledge and know a lot of words.

There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, and you can’t know them all. You don’t need to, either. Yet, working on your mother tongue and on your general knowledge will bring you so many benefits, not in the least when learning foreign languages.

We’re coming back to context here: the more knowledge of the world you have, the more you’ll understand in other languages as well. If you know a thing or two about a topic, you’ll only need to understand a couple of words from a conversation in a foreign language to know what it’s about.

I’ll give you an example: I’m in Italy right now and the country has just held a referendum on a constitutional change. It’s quite a big thing: everyone seems to be talking about it. I’m not a lawyer, but I read some articles on the referendum (in my mother tongue; my Italian isn’t that good yet) and memorized the basic facts.

Now, every time I hear an Italian say the word ‘referendum,’ I know what he’s talking about. There will be many words I don’t understand, but everything will make much more sense because I can rely on the information I’ve memorized before.

Interpreters are masters at this. They need to be versatile and ‘know a little about a lot’ because you’ll never know what the people you’re interpreting for will talk about. That’s why interpreters always keep learning to improve comprehension in any language. You should do so, too.

Oh, and if you feel like your general knowledge is lacking and you can’t remember basic facts, I’m sure Anthony has a cure for that 😉

5. How Conference Interpreters Mimic Others to
Improve Their Memory And Get An Amazing Accent

Interpretation puts enormous stress on the brain’s working capacity. After all, you’re listening to what a speaker has to say in a foreign language, trying to understand, translating and speaking in your mother tongue – all at the same time. Most new interpreting students – and most people in general – are not trained to do so many things simultaneously. The obvious result is a cognitive overload, and, quite often, miserable failure.

So how do you cope with that? Interpreters use a technique to learn how to listen and speak at the same time. If you’re into geeky language learning techniques, you might have heard of it already. It’s called shadowing.

What’s this all about? You listen to someone speaking and you immediately – with a couple of seconds of delay, that is – repeat what’s been said in the same language.

Doesn’t seem too difficult, does it? Well, give it a try: it’ll surprise you how even such an easy task can confuse you. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can start reaping the benefits.

How To Use Shadowing To Become
A Better Conference Interpreter

First of all, you’re improving your memory and focus. Shadowing will train you to listen and speak at the same time, and it will improve your short-term memory. That’s some excellent brain training you’re doing there.

Second, you can also use shadowing to familiarize yourself with a foreign language. In fact, this is the first exercise I use myself when I start learning a language. It gives me a huge advantage when it comes to pronunciation and listening skills.

If you want to try this exercise yourself, here are the steps:

1. Find a speech, podcast or other media in the language you’re learning. Take a slow one if you’re not that proficient yet! You could also slow down the video a bit with an app like Audacity.

2. Use headphones, but only in one ear: you want to hear yourself talk!

3. Play the audio and repeat immediately what’s being said. If you want to focus on pronunciation, stay as close to the speaker as possible. If you want to train your memory, you increase the delay to a couple of seconds.

4. That’s it! You’re listening and speaking at the same time. Now marvel at your brain’s capacities and see your memory and pronunciation improve.

Start with slow conversations or speeches (find language learning podcasts for example, or Youtube videos), and slowly work up your way toward materials at normal speed.

Then amaze native speakers with your flawless accent and listening comprehension.

One last piece of advice: do the exercise with audio only, so without reading a transcript at the same time. Using a transcript might be temping, but you really want to focus on memory and sounds only.

6. How Interpreters Use Memory Palaces
And Mnemonics to Memorize Speeches on The Spot

Nowadays, conferences mainly use simultaneous interpretation (with the interpreters sitting in a booth and instantly translating), and even consecutive interpretation (with the interpreter standing next to the speaker, translating after the speaker has finished) is usually only done in 5-10 minute chunks.

Back in the early days of the profession, though, the world’s best interpreters were interpreting speeches of 30-60 minutes long in one go.

Yes! Conference interpreters memorised speeches of more than 30 minutes, in one listening. Now those are some impressive memory skills!

Of course, these geniuses were no stranger to nifty memory techniques, including our beloved Memory Palace.

One of the founding fathers of conference interpreting, Kaminker, reportedly said the following about his memorization strategies:

Kaminker assigned each speech to a district of Antwerp that he could recall, in his mind’s eye, in all its topographical detail. He assigned each idea of the speech to a shop and thus by walking down the streets of his childhood he was able to recreate the speech. Check out the book ‘Naissance d’une profession’ for more info.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The famous polyglot Luca Lampariello, who studied translation and interpretation, talked about this at length during an interview on the Magnetic Memory Podcast as well (among other topics people interested in conference interpreting will want to discover.

Using Memory Palaces to learn a speech by heart is nothing new, of course. Even the famous Roman orator Cicero did it. Anthony and many others have talked about it as well.

Still, for, me, how interpreters do it is an inspiring showcase of the power of the Memory Palace. Mind you, these interpreters heard a speech only once, and that was enough to place it firmly in a Memory Palace and reproduce the full speech in another language immediately.

What About The Crazy Names Of People
And Conference Interpreting?

The same goes for remembering names, numbers and dates. If you struggle with those, imagine how much worse it would be in a foreign language, when instead of a John Johnson, a German name like Gerhard Düsediekerbäumer might show up. Or you interpret for a speaker that mentions a date in every other sentence.

Impossible? Of course not. Interpreters usually try to jot names, numbers and dates down during a speech, but you don’t always have the time. Moreover, many interpreter students seem to have difficulties with writing down figures, dates or percentages. And it’s not only forgetting: I even noticed that, even though I remembered the figures, I often remembered (and even wrote down) wrong ones!

One of the ways interpreters deal with this is just leaving out unimportant numbers. But hey, that’s not really professional, is it? A much better way to deal with this is using some basic memory techniques. After I started using mnemonics and the Major Method, I noticed a dramatic improvement in how well I remembered dates and figures.

I’ve connected each number to an image, and whenever I hear a number or date I just instantly connect the images. That way, when I’m interpreting after the speech, I will have the images in mind and will always remember the correct numbers!

The same goes for names: by using imagery (read and listen to Anthony’s teaching on remembering names at events here). it became much easier to remember difficult names.

7. How Interpreters Achieve Laser-Like Focus
& Instant Memorization by Listening The Right Way

I’ve saved this one for last, as it’s a bit more abstract than the other tips. Let me explain.

In the previous points, I’ve shown you how interpreters take advantage of improvisation, context, shadowing techniques, Memory Palaces and mnemnoics. These skills will improve your concentration, but to achieve laser-like focus, you need more.

I, for one, often have difficulties paying full attention when someone speaks for longer than 5 minutes. I’m sure I’m not alone. When I’m interpreting, though, something changes. I think athletes would call it being ‘in the zone’. The beautiful thing? It’s actually possible to achieve this state, just by changing the way you listen.

The Core Secrets Of Analytic Listening For
Raw Conference Interpreting Power

First of all, you’ll need to learn to listen for ideas and for structure. In every sentence or paragraph, grasp the main idea (sometimes just one word) and you’ll be fine. Then go after the structure.

One of the first things you learn as an interpreter is to pay extreme attention to conjunctions (like AND, BUT, ALTHOUGH, HOWEVER,…). These mark events and twists in a text and are important for structure and for following the story.

Interpreters call this ‘analytic listening’. Write these structure words down along with one keyword per idea, and you’ll be amazed how much you remember after listening.

The Secrets Of Using Strong Imagery To
Make Even The Dullest Information Impossible To Forget

Second, you must make an extreme effort to imagine the speech you hear as vividly as possible. For me that includes mainly visualisation, others swear by auditory experiences or feelings. The more senses you use the better.

Anthony and other memory experts have been saying it for years:

To make ideas more memorable, exaggerate them to make them so absurd that you just can’t un-see them anymore.

Now, for interpreting, I find this a bit dangerous. After all, no matter the improvisation tricks you used to translate everything, you still need to convey the right message as the original speaker. When you start exaggerating or changing things in your mind, chances are you’re going to screw up and say things that are just wrong.

There’s another way, though. When I’m going to interpret a speech, I try to wonder all the time what’s going to happen, and I try to be genuinely surprised by the important facts. Yes, also if they’re super boring. Belgium’s GDP has increased by 0.2% last year?

Incredible! There was a local chess tournament yesterday, with 6 participants? What, chess, and 6 participants? I can’t believe it!

This works because you’re artificially adding emotion to what you’re hearing.

Good stories often use suspense and surprise to suck you in, right? And because you were so curious about what was going to happen next, you’re super focused and your brain absorbs everything you hear.

That’s why almost everyone can recount a fairytale like little red riding hood after hearing it only once.

This emotional connection is what you’re trying to emulate here. Getting in this state of curiosity makes your mind much more receptive and completely sucks you into a speech. When you’re in this state, you’ll get laser-like focus and memory so even the most boring facts will stick.

And emotions and story help with motivation when learning a language too.

Back To Basics?

So there you have it. 7 techniques that will give you conference interpreter superpowers and are all very applicable in everyday situations. Just try to incorporate some of the tips while learning languages, memorizing a speech or whenever you hear something you want to remember. You’ll never want to go back to a forgetful life again. Good luck, and let me know in the comments if these techniques were helpful to you!

Oh, and no matter where you’re at with your language learning journey, discover more about how I help language learners enjoy effortless conversations now. I’ll show you how to set up or improve your language learning routine. You’ll also discover how to track your progress based on a clear overview of your goal language learning goals.

Thanks for reading and hope to see you soon!

27 Responses

  1. Hi, Anthony. I just bumped into your amazing article by chance and I can’t believe my luck. I recently launched a tool for interpreters to train independently and for one of the sections I’m planning on adding in the future I wanted to find an expert in mnemotechnic and memory training. I believe I may have found him! Thank you very much for this great recollection of tricks explained in such a fresh and clear way. You’ll be for hearing from me in the future 🙂

    1. Hi Alba,

      What happened to the tool you were launching to help interpreters self-train? Did that get launched finally? Thanks, Hanna

  2. Great tips. Many years ago, I learned German quite quickly because our teacher insisted on us learning to translate chunks of text in both directions: German- English and English to German. She gave us a paragraph and then in class she would pick on someone to translate it one way – e.g. German to English, insisting that we had to speak fluently. Then the next person had to do it the other way, also speaking fluently. We had the text in front of us in the language from which we were translating, but it was one of the very quickest ways I found to learn new vocabulary.

    1. Thanks for sharing this experience, Rosemary.

      There’s actually something I wrote about long ago here on the blog often referred to as the Queen Elizabeth Technique.

      Apparently she became a polyglot precisely by performing these exercises. I did some experiments with this myself, but in combination with memory techniques. It is powerful because it uses two of The Big Five Of Language Learning in very immediate ways: reading and writing. And speaking and listening with memory into the mix and you can proceed quite quickly.

      Thanks again for sharing your experience and I look forward to your next contribution to the discussion! 🙂

  3. Very interesting! Lukas’ description of all the things an interpreter needs to be juggling in awareness, it sort of reminded me of “keeping an eye on 25 First Graders,” while also teaching the content of lessons! I need to generalize that type of multi-performance as a First Grade teacher, into my language learning! When I finish my rehearsal/recall of my latest vocabulary, I will check out the

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Peggy. Awareness and how to juggle it is really the biggest part of it all.

      Please do check out Lukas’ site and show him your support. He’s doing great things for language learners!

  4. Thanks for sharing the explanatory 7 tips with us, I completely agree with your all the 5 points about Great Conference Interpreter. Really this blog is very informative and advantageous for us. I will share this my interpreter friends.

  5. Anthony, yes, at first glance it seems to be amazing interpreter’s ability to switch languages in the head immediately, but from the other hand it’s his routine, like musician having perfect pitch or policeman protecting people from the criminal.

    Although, you’re right saying that “conference interpreting is one of the most stressful jobs in the world”. It’s really amazing person’s talent for multi-tasking, multi-thinking and multi-doing 🙂 Last year I was listening live simultaneous interpretation during TechDays and I was literally blown away by 2 reasons. First was the way of receiving translation for multi-national audience -an app that provided real-time interpretation to attendees mobile phones – so fast and easy, besides sound quality was ultimate. Second surprise was the interpretation itself, here I was wonder by mentioned multi-tasking, interpreter was so flexible that even got additional jokes inside of his translation. Total respect!

    And here thank you for your tips, as these could be useful for everybody who is learning any additional language or just wants to improve the memory.

    Regarding interpreters qualification – perhaps, you can advice some training, seminars or workshops available in the market? Maybe some additional blogs?

    1. Thanks for this, Kathryn.

      I like your analogies, and there is something about memory techniques that do challenge the idea that we can’t multi-task. Our memory is multi-taking all the time and can be trained to do it even better.

      I’ll put some thought into more content for interpreters. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

  6. Thanks Anthony for taking the time to share all this, that was really insightful!

    What I am finding hard is while I am trying to interpret, I lose track of what the speaker is saying (So I lose the listening while talking).

    1. Thanks for this post, Sam.

      I think some concentration and focus exercise will help you in this regard. There are many you can do, but meditation is the king of them all.

      Do you meditate?

  7. Hi Anthony, I would really like to thank you for sharing this amazing article with us.

    As I read the article the most informative point in the content is about focus. All interpreters would have this problem and these idea helped me. I’m sure they will help many others.

  8. I confess that was really a helpful presentation not only for interpreters but for all other professionals working with expertise in language. My current job involve analysis. Your point on stressing the main ideas and the structure helped me to do an idea-focused analysis.

  9. Thanks a lot for the tips! They are very usefull. I’m starting my journey as an interpreter so I really appreciate this information!

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

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