This is the story of how my classmate gave a spider an erection. For my graduate degree I learned, amongst other skills, how to interpret consecutively. It’s the process through which an interpreter listens to a speech in one language while taking notes and then renders that speech in another language. To break this process down, we learned about the difference between what is said, what you hear and what you remember. We did exercises to develop our memory and note- taking technique in order to learn to trust and jug our memory under pressure.

One of the tools that help you do that, both visually on paper and in your mind, are link words: additionally, because, therefore, after, before, as a result and so on. They help you structure your notes and trigger what you memorized.

On this particular day, I learned that you also need to make sure you know who you’re referring to when using words like which, that or whose. In everyday life, we often mix those up when we speak. It’s easy enough to correct ourselves and most likely, our interlocutors know what we mean by implication or inference.

When you’re interpreting consecutively, however, it’s not that simple for two reasons: the interpreting process itself and the fact that a small mistake can have enormous consequences.

Let’s begin with the interpreting process and its challenges. While the speaker is giving his or her speech, you need to take notes. This means that your attention is divided between listening and writing. Listen too much and the note-taking suffers, write too much and your listening suffers. In both cases, you might miss critical information and your speech might be incomplete. You have to find a balance and make sure you do both well. That’s why you need to develop both memory and note-taking skills. What do you write and how? Do you take notes in the language being spoken or the language you’re going to interpret into? How do you arrange your notes on paper so the logical flow of the speech is clear to you when it’s your turn to speak?

When the speaker is done, you combine memory and notes into a speech. Your attention is now divided between listening and reading. In addition to that, you need to control your performance: voice, tone, inflection. Remember to avoid natural fillers like ehm and uuh. You need to listen to and filter yourself in order to convey the message and intention of the original.

Divided attention means that at any given moment we might miss something when writing, reading or speaking – say a relationship between two elements of a speech. And that’s how in a speech about the effects of banana spider bites, my classmate – with an unintentionally well-placed “who” or “which” – gave spiders an erection instead of the men being bitten by them.

And with a tiny mistake like that, the only thing I remember is the mis-attributed erection, not the message of the speech.

Hi, I'm H.E, a TCK and the author of Culture Shock - A Practical Guide. Love the outdoors. Motto: onwards and forwards! In search of perspective. If you'd like to get to know me a little better, head on over to the menu and click "For readers".