Short-term memory holds an important role in the interpreting process. Poor short-term memory may lead to what we might call “approximate interpreting”, in other words, the interpreter might remember what was said, but not the intensity with which it was said. For example, the interpreter might use the term “quite powerful” when the speaker actually meant to say “extremely powerful” or a neutral (and, in a sense, meaningless) connector could be chosen when the interpreter can’t remember if the connection between ideas was additive, oppositional or consequential. So, it is important that interpreters improve their short-term memory in all ways possible.

The exercises we suggest here may be used by an interpreter, a group of interpreters that work together or by a trainer that is leading a course in interpreting.

Exercise 1: Shadowing

The exercise of shadowing involves repeating what the speaker says, word for word, in the same language. Normally, the interpreter will be a word or two behind the speaker as one repeats what has been said. This delay may be increased as the interpreter becomes more comfortable. This exercise is often used in preparation for simultaneous interpreting, since it teaches the interpreter to listen and talk at the same time. It is also very good for memory development, since it forces the interpreter to store and recall small groups of sounds, words and chunks of information in a relatively short period of time.

For this exercise, the texts used should be relatively small, but may increase gradually in size. If you work alone, record a text or use a speech from the television or radio. If you work in a group, one may read the text while the other repeats it.

Exercise 2: Attentive listening for key elements

Careful listening is an important element for memory recall. If have not listened to something carefully, it will be impossible to remember later. First, attentive listening requires identifying a speech’s key points. For example, you should be capable of listening to a short narrative or a descriptive text and answer the key questions “Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?” While it might not always be possible to answer these questions in every case, the ability to answer most of them proves that you listened carefully to the key points.

In this exercise, any descriptive or narrative texts may be used and you may record the text, if you’re practicing alone, or you may ask a colleague to read it, if working in a group.

Exercise 3: Progressively expanding the capacity to recall

Good memory must be developed gradually. This exercise was created bearing this in mind and is based on a 50 to 60-word speech that involves recalling first the main ideas and then, during the second or third pass, recalling progressively more details.

First, the interpreter should listen to the text once and identify the main ideas. Hearing the text a second time, the interpreter should be able to add more details to the main ideas. By the last pass, the interpreter should be able to recall all the details.

By knowing that it won’t be necessary to recall all the details from the start, the interpreter will be more relaxed and will remember more details than if he or she were tense. As the interpreter becomes more proficient at recall, the number of times the text is heard may decrease to two and the size of the texts may increase. The ultimate goal is to be able to reproduce all the details in a speech of around 50 words, after hearing it just once.

In this exercise, any descriptive or narrative texts may be used and you may record the text, if you’re practicing alone, or you may ask a colleague to read it, if working in a group.

Exercise 4: Visualization

Most people are visual learners, this is, they remember things they see better than something they are told it or read on paper. Images remain in our minds much longer than abstract information. For this reason, mnemonics suggest one uses visualization to retain different types of information by creating mental images. However, given that this kind of image is artificial, it takes a while to be created and, so, is not useful for an interpreter.

In any case, there are speeches that invoke visualization naturally and the interpreter should be able to identify them and use visualization to retain and recall. For example, court interpreters often have to interpret descriptions that were described by a witness (a place, a suspect, etc.). These descriptions are ideal for the use of visualization to improve memory. Images should be visualized step by step and in sequential order, helping the interpreter recreate a whole scene.

Visualization exercises may be completed with oral recall or, in some cases, by drawing the images in involved. In other words, recalling memories does not always have to be done through words.

In this exercise, any descriptive or narrative texts may be used and you may record the text, if you’re practicing alone, or you may ask a colleague to read it, if working in a group.

Exercise 5: Segmentation

This exercise is based on the concept that it is easier to retain a number of limited chunks with information that just one or two larger dense chunks. Segmentation involves breaking a larger chunk of information into two or more smaller ones.

This exercise can be performed used both oral and written texts and the segmentation can also be both oral and written. You should be able to read the sentence only once and, then, segment it. The texts should contain long sentences and dense information.

Exercise 6: Recognizing incoherent or ambiguous messages

Speakers are, many times, unclear. In general, incoherent and ambiguous speeches are hard to remember. This exercise aims to help you recognize incoherence or ambiguity in a speech, which is, in itself, also a way to recall the speech. After hearing a relatively incoherent and ambiguous text, you should be able to identify what aspect is incoherent or ambiguous and explain what makes it so. For example, in the sentence “João asked Miguel to sit still. Then, he got angry,” we don’t know if “he” refers to João or Miguel. Once the incoherence or ambiguity has been identified, it may be recalled and dealt with at the production stage of interpreting.

In this exercise, ambiguous or incoherent sentences or passages will be needed, so you should collect any examples of these you might come across.

Exercise 7: Remembering messages you disagree with or find offensive

Confirmation bias describes the tendency to favor information that confirms one’s personal belief or hypothesis. People display this bias when they collect or recall information selectively or when they interpret information in a biased way. Even if someone tries to interpret evidence in a neutral manner, he or she may recall that information selectively. This effect is called “selective recall”, “confirmatory memory,” or “access-biased memory.” In short, it is harder to remember information that goes against what we believe in.

One way to deal with such information is to put yourself in the speaker’s place. In other words, take yourself out of the picture and identify with the speaker because, in doing so, you’ll be temporarily bypassing your personal beliefs and prejudices, and assuming those of the speaker. To practice this short-term memory exercise, start by summarizing a controversial text and, then, move on to the freer shadowing.


These exercises are only a few examples of what can be done to train short-term memory. However, every person is different, as are their minds, and these exercises may not all be effective for everyone. Besides, it is necessary to collect adequate material for the different exercises and to be very patient, as memory is something that is trained gradually. In addition, you can also register for Translating and Interpreting courses at the Journalism Foreign Language Center to receive instructions from expert interpreters and practice the above exercises with your friends to improve your level.




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