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Mustansiriyah University

College of Arts
Translation Department

Short-Term Memory in Consecutive Interpretation

A Mid-term Paper as Partial requirement of the Course of

Consecutive and Sight Interpretation

Submitted by:

Umnia Jamal Lateef


Course Tutor

Asst. Prof. Mohammed K. Ghafil, (Ph.D)


This research paper deals with one of the most important problems that usually hinders
all the interpreters, especially the sight and consecutive interpreters where the proper use of
memory and the way it is employed matters in defining the work done.

Human memory can be divided into 2 types, the first is the long-term- memory and the second is
the short-term memory. The long-term memory deals with storing events and actions and
whatever information that we need to preserve for a long time from weeks and up to a life time
as well.

Here, the memory that mostly effects the process of producing the translation is the short-term
memory which the translator must use it in accordance with his ability to keep data in a standby
mode until he recalls it for the rendition of the translation which is the final step of this process.

1.1 Consecutive interpretation

Practicing the consecutive interpretation involves the interpreter’s presence in the room
with the contributors of the meeting and rendering the interpretation in the target language at the
moment and immediately after the speaker completes his fragment or speech.
The interpreter becomes the speaker of the room due to the nature of this method of
interpreting, the interpreter must be present at the same room with both author and the audience
then he starts producing the interpretation to his audience only after the speaker of the source
language stops talking.

The lagging time between the speaker and the interpreter varies from one minute up to
several, or seven, minutes.

1.1.1 Short-term memory – Definition

Short – term memory is sometimes called the “active” or “primary” memory, it is the part
of the brain which saves a limited amount of information for a limited period of time, for a
maximum of 15-30 seconds (Zhong, 2001).
The studies of psychology demonstrated that the main concept of short-term memory is
in fact that the reader or the listener can hold information for a limited time without the need for
employing neural mechanism for a posterior recall.
Meaning that, short-term memory is the system responsible for storing information and
managing it temporarily as required to handle the cognitive memory and its complexity. The data
stored in short – term memory may be:

 Sensory input that is recently processed.

 Recently recovered items from the long-term memory.
 Recent mental processing results.

There are three basic processes as pointed out by (Mayer, 2003) that include:

 Selecting
 Organizing
 Integrating

From a linguistic point of view, the definition of short – term memory is limited in
duration; we can only memorize six or seven sections as far as we provide them with all of our
The interpreters as an example, when they try to memorize the form of a phrase or an
utterance, their short – term memory will be full in no time with lexical items separately, while if
they focus on finding the suitable equivalent of the source language in the target language they

will end up wasting time on the translation of these lexical items rather than using it for
delivering the message, that is why it is crucial for the consecutive interpreters to pause the
author every several spoken words in order to refresh their short – term memory and be prepared
for the next round and save new information.

1.2 The major characteristics of short – term memory

Short – term memory is in fact a category which obtains the mutual features of the
memory in general, as well as has its own particular characteristics.
Starting with the input of data, information reaches short – term memory due to the
attention applied to the stimulus, that is information is a result of that attention, which takes place
in almost a quarter of a second as mentioned by Crowder (1982).
The other thing is, short – term memory has a small and limited capacity. Atkinson and
Shiffrin (1968) pointed out that its capacity can take either six or seven items (plus minus two).
But Miller (1956) indicated that short – term memory can hold seven “chunks”
resembling one piece of information. While other researchers say that the limiting factor may not
be the storage of short – term memory but the process of its capacity.
And, in terms of modality, Information must be encoded to be stored in short – term
memory and there is diversity of assumptions referring to how this works. There are three basic
possibilities in Short – term memory:

 First possibility is called the acoustic (phonemic) coding which is repeating

sounds the sub-vocal sounds as mentioned by (Conrad, 1964 and Baddeley, 1966).

 Second possibility is the visual coding that is storing data as pictures instead of
sounds, used especially in memorizing nonverbal pieces. Precisely if these items were
unexpressed by means of words. According to (Posner and Keele, 1967).

 Final possibility is the semantic coding by which applying definition to data
relating it to an abstract thing (Baddeley, 1990 and Goodhead, 1999).

This process is followed up by a sensory memory where which the individual can store
information in her/his sensory memory for about less than a minute before it proceeds to short –
term memory that holds the information for a short period of time, from 15 up to 30 seconds.
This rehearsal process is where long-term memory may host a piece of information which retains
that data forever (Carroll, 2006).
The Fourth stage, parallel to other types of memory, the loss of data is unavoidable.
There are theories that represent us the reason we forget items from our short- term memory.
For that we will demonstrate the three main theories in the points below:
 Displacement: the data stored is replaced by the freshly received information
when the capacity of storage is full.
 Decay: over time, data will decay as shown by (Baddeley, Thompson and
Buchanan, 1975).
 Interference: other data stored in the same time in short – term memory distorts
the older information (Keppelk and Underwood, 1962).

In the final level of memorization, the crucial role is presented by retrieval which is
divided into the two models as shown below:

 The serial search – in which stored items in short – term memory are checked one
by one until the needed information is recovered. (Sternberg, 1966).

 The activation – this modal is operated by the activation dependence of the

specific item attaining to a serious point. (Monsell, 1979 and Goodhead, 1999)
Here, to gather the interactions happening among the characters and the various types of
memory are illustrated in the following figure:

1.3 The difference between short and long term memory

Biologically speaking, the long-term memory is activated when the neural pathway is
created to save data, therefore, mentioning time difference between each type of memory,
information can be retrieved after days, weeks, months or even years in long-term memory.

Which is not the case in short – term memory as the storage is active for up to 30 seconds only
for each piece of information.
There is difference in the usage of memory for each type, due to the time limit, short-
term-memory requires initial arrangement for information for immediate recall, while the long-
term memory needs the encoding of the information primarily to recall it later. Therefore, long-
term memory is sufficient for the process of learning in contrast to short-term memory that
functions as a process of noting.
Both types of memory play crucial role in interpreting. The long-term memory
participates in the interpreter’s knowledge acquisition of the general background that he needs in
commanding and conveying the content. In interpreting, the memory is more limited than normal
and shorter as well, a range from 6 -12 seconds. Just as the assignment is over, whether it was a
paragraph or a sentence, the interpreter shifts onto another, regularly with a different
topic/subject, context and maybe the speaker as well. Therefore, there will be no chance for the
interpreter to recover what was just spoken, that’s why the interpreter’s short – term memory
development must be taken seriously. As pointed out by several researchers as Atkinson and
Shiffrin (1968) and Peterson (1959).

1.4 Interpreting and short-term memory

1.4.1 An overview about interpretation
To obtain a clear perception, the definition of interpreting must be mentioned first,
regardless of the various viewpoints existed, one of them defines interpretation as the oral
rendition of a written text as it is given by (Shuttleworth and Cowie, 1997, p.32).
The core of interpretation is the presentation of the exact meaning of the spoken items
from the source language into the target language either consecutively or simultaneously,
keeping the speakers tone.
Therefore, the interpreting task is to render ideas and information from one language into
another by means of oral interpreting. Mahmoodzadeh (1992).
Depending on the language context feature in various interpreting conditions a
classification is made to list types of interpreting. There are two major types of interpreting
consecutive and simultaneous interpreting:

 Consecutive interpreting – in this mode the interpreter begins his work with
producing a full message after the author stops producing the sentence or the phrase. When the
interpretation is being rendered, the interpreter becomes the only one who is producing the
message at the environment of communication.

This style of interpreting demands a well-trained short – term memory. Some interpreters
may resort to note taking to keep the message physically present, while there are other
interpreters may not need to do so and rely basically on the functionality of their short – term

 Simultaneous interpreting – this mode of interpreting involves that the interpreter

produces the interpretation while the reception of the source items continues.
This can include two individuals speaking at the same moment. The task of the
interpreter here is not to wait the speaker to finish his speech or to express a full idea until he
proceeds to interpret, which makes this task easier for the latter, but, he start interpreting delayed
one thought to the speaker and finishes just few more seconds after the speaker does.

1.4.2 The role of short – term memory in the process of interpretation.

One of the essential parts in the interpreting process is the contribution of short – term
memory. It is said that interpretation is an activity centered by short – term memory, where
encoding of the information from the source language is involved in companionship by recall of
the information, saving data and decoding the data into the target language. This was indicated
by Gile’s Effort Model (a Processing Capacity Account).
Then, Gile put the emphasis on the efforts exerted while interpreting as well as the
difficulties encountered them. That is based on observations made on the interpreting failure.

The level where short – term memory contributes in the interpretation process actually differs in
each form of interpretation.

1.4.3 Consecutive interpreting

Short – term memory occurs in the first section of interpreting consecutively, while in the
second section it becomes prerequisite.

There are approximately 15 minutes in consecutive interpreting, depends on the segments

of the speaker, that allows the interpreter to encode the data then store it. This happens at the first
phase as pointed out by Gile’s Effot Model for consecutive interpreting, then the interpreter starts
to recover the information, decode it and produce it into the target language at the second phase,
which is not the case in simultaneous interpreting as the interpreter starts encoding and decoding
the data almost at the same time, that is the action of storing the information is very limited.

Therefore, short – term memory is roughly contributing in the simultaneous interpreting rather
than in the consecutive interpreting.
The bottom line, Gile focuses on the importance of short – term memory. Thus, among
all the techniques and skills that a good interpreter requires, the skill of memory is on the top,
which must be applied to the trainee interpreters.

1.4.4 The implications of short – term memory in the process of interpreting

The skills of memory, whether it is short – term memory or the long – term memory, are
on the top of the list of the requirements to be a good interpreter that does his work efficiently.
Also these are considered the first stage in the journey of being a professional one.
Due to the aforementioned feature of short – term memory in the process of interpreting,
short – term memory, actually, implied in other methods of interpreting. Again, short – term
memory assists the fluency of the interpretation indirectly.

1.4.5 Delay in response

When the difficulty of comprehension arises, it is allowed for the interpreter to delay
his/her response for a bit of time (parts of a second to new ones), in order to make some time for
employing short – term memory to revise information at the time of reception of more data from
the speaker of the source language.
Due to its nature, accumulation of data probably occurs in short – term memory,
especially during the method of simultaneous interpreting.

1.4.6 Segment reconstruction

The reconstruction of a segment is a tactic used by the interpreter when he did not
understand or hear a name, technical term, a number or other items of the produced speech in a

proper way that allows him to give its interpretation, therefore he/ she can attempt reconstructing
the vague information relying on the knowledge of language kept in their minds from the
situation or the subject.
Certainly, in order to achieve complete recovery of information, the tactics demand a
considerable amount of time and capacity of processing, which can be determined by the use of
short – term memory.

1.4.7 Preventative techniques Note - taking

There are number of elements that make the interpreter more concerned about forgetting
it and that he may not be able to immediately reformulate due to syntactic reasons, therefore he
considers putting it down in notes. Yet, if the interpreter attempts to write down every item said
by the speaker he will end up losing the time specified for receiving the information that follows
the one he is writing, in addition to processing capacity waste with filling insignificant data.
To prevent such consequence in taking notes, short – term memory here rules the
situation to expand the received information, then they are reactivated only in writing the main
ideas or the tough terms occurred during the speech. Ear – Voice Span change

There is a lag persist between reformulating and comprehending of an idea, which is

called the Ear – Voice Span. Therefore interpreters can control the requirements processing
capacity to a certain extent for an individual by changing the ear – voice span.
The requirements of short – term memory can be decreased if the lag is shortened, which
will cause a deprivation of potential expectations and arise the risk of misunderstanding a spoken
segment, and will lead the interpreter into the target language segments which will be
troublesome to achieve.
The further the interpreter lags behind the speaker, the more pressure is subjected to short
– term memory.

10 The segmenting tactic

This technique is used when the interpreter faces a potential memory overload, due to the
difference between the source language and target language in structure and syntax or with an
ambiguous sentence structure, in this case the interpreter may decide to reformulate the speech
segments sooner than normal.
By choosing segmentation as a tactic, short – term memory helps the interpreter to retain
the original structure in the mind and then rearrange the data at the same time. Varying the elements’ order in an enumeration

The enumeration are speech segments of a high-density, names in particular, that can be
retrieved from the echoic memory (the sound memory), or with the terms that can be transcoded
easily. In such conditions, the interpreter may adversely use his short – term memory in storing
data, means that, the last element is reformulated first to free some memory space from the data,
and then to proceed with other segments. The reformulation tactic

There are situations that encounter the interpreter where he cannot convey every spoken
segment at a time, since there are contents of some speeches are being repeated or familiar to the
listeners. The interpreter here tends to choose not to reformulate an item in the target language
speech (making sure that the information omitted do not affect the content).

11 Expanding the capacity of the memory

While the interpreter is in the reception phase of the process of interpreting, he has to
encode the data as well as prepare to receive the following piece of information. This can not be
done if the interpreter uses his long – term memory in storing the data as it will take a lot of time
to upload the data from the memory or employ the sensory memory which will lead to loss or
misleading in the interpretation of the target language. On the other hand, the interpreter uses his
short – term memory to quickly decode the information from the speaker, retain the information
then retrieve the data to decode it into the target language.
One of the features of short – term memory is that it limits the information digits volume
and expands the pace of capacity process, which results in guiding short – term memory
indirectly to filter the intake of material from the speaker and choose the elements must be
produced in interpreting into the target language. This influence of short – term memory may
help the brain to stop overloading and to rearrange the data aimed to convey the meaning (not
literal or structural conveyance). Managing the time limit in interpreting

The interpretation, simultaneous mode in particular, takes very little time in treating the
information, including in the process of encoding it, reformulating and recalling. Which is the
reason why it is crucial for the interpreter to use the techniques of his short – term memory to
the utmost to embrace the clue behind the speakers utterances by means of using the appropriate
techniques such as paraphrasing or note – taking.
On top of that, short – term memory stands only for a short period of time. Hence, after
achieving the interpretation into the target language, the interpreter is not required to remember
the previous information. In other words, short – term memory makes the interpreters mind-free
and assist him to concentrate more on the next step.


In all types of translations whether it is legal, medical, political or even literary translation, the
translator needs to employ his memory in general to achieve his work. If the translator does not
have the ability to develop or use his memory for his interest, it will be impossible to develop his
skills or be expert in his field.

For the translator, his memory is where all his language knowledge stored so if it is insufficient,
he is not a translator anymore.

Short-term memory in particular is a crucial tool in oral translation types especially consecutive
as it depends almost completely on it as there is no written or tangible matter to rely on for
repeating the original data again.

If the translator has a poor short-term memory he won’t be able to render his speech, how will
the work be done if he is not able to remember the original speech, it differs from other types of
translations as there is no other tool than the innate memory of the translator that aids him in the
process of translation and his note book in which he can only distill the rendered speech though
he cannot write everything produced by the author due to the lack of time.

The feature that works best for translators is that it needs little time for the process of storing
data, thus what is achieved may not be remembered after an hour or a week, the information
stored is available in the short-term memory for 30 minutes maximum which is enough time for
the translator.


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