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The Application Of Schema Theory In Consecutive Interpretation

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Autor:  anton  04 June 2011
Tags:  Application,  Schema,  Theory,  Consecutive,  Interpretation
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Schema theory, since firstly proposed in 1932, initially originated in cognitive psychology. It lays foundation for human beings to apprehend the outside world. In the past two decades, many researches have been done in the L2 learning from the perspective of schema theory. Inspired by the previous studies, this author decided to penetrate into the topic of the application of schema theory in consecutive interpretation. The findings of this thesis demonstrate the importance of abundant background knowledge for a qualified interpreter. It is the author’s hope that this thesis can benefit herself and her peers in their interpretation learning as well as their field interpretation work.

Key Words: schema theory; background knowledge; comprehension; consecutive interpreting process


The history of interpretation activities can be traced back to several thousand years ago. However, it was not until the 20th century had interpretation had its “official debut” as a profession. There is a flourishing of interpretation studies in recent years and more and more scholars take interdisciplinary approaches to the interpretation study. With enlightenment of previous studies done by scholars such as Prof. Liu Jianfu and Prof. Wang Lidi, this author decided to adopt a cognitive approach to the study of consecutive interpretation. She took the schema theory into the interpretation research and found out how background knowledge influenced the consecutive interpretation in its process and its performance. Although many scholars have described their own pedagogy in this field so far, research contributed by trainees themselves has been so rare. It is the author’s hope that the findings of this thesis can benefit herself and her peers in their interpretation learning as well as their field interpretation work.

To reach the objective, the paper is structured with four parts, plus this introduction and a conclusion.

Part One starts with the basic concept of schema theory and the relationship between schema and comprehension.

Part Two gives the definition of consecutive interpretation and describes the process of consecutive interpretation in detail.

Part Three probes into the significance of background knowledge in consecutive interpretation.

Par Four penetrates into the discussion of the experiment conducted by Prof. Liu Jianfu and relates the achievement of experiment to the author’s own experiences

In the conclusion the author sums up the findings and the limitations of the paper.

Part One: Schema Theory

This part serves as a theoretical frame for this thesis. At the beginning it falls in the concept of schema and then the relationship between schema and comprehension.

1.1 The Concept of Schema Theory

The concept of schema theory was first proposed by the British psychologist F. C. Bartlett(Wang, 2001:19). But it was not until the 1970s that enough attention was paid to the significance of the schema theory. Since the 1970s, this notion has become a heat question among the psychologists. Nowadays, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and psycholinguists have used the concept of schema (plural: schemata) to understand the interaction of key factors affecting the comprehension process.

Schema theory, based on the psycholinguistic model of reading, views reading as an interaction between the readers' background knowledge and the reading text. As Pearson-Casanave (Wang, 2006:11) points out, the text itself does not carry meaning; it provides clues that enable readers to construct meaning from existing knowledge.

Simply put, schema theory states that knowledge is organized into units. Within these units of knowledge, or schemata, is stored information. A schema, then, is a generalized description or a conceptual system for understanding knowledge----how knowledge is represented and how it is used. According to this theory, schemata represent knowledge about concepts: objects and the relationships they have with other objects, situations, events, sequences of events, actions, and sequences of actions.

Generally there are three kinds of schemata, namely the formal schema, the content schema and the language schema. The formal schema includes the writing style, structure and logic etc. The content schema includes the concrete events. The language schema includes the dictions and the vocabulary.

Individuals have schemata for everything. Long before students come to school, they develop schemata (units of knowledge) about everything they experience.

A simple example is to think of your schema for an article about Chengdu. Within that schema you are most likely to have some general information about the structure of passage----it’s an informative article and it is written in the spatial order. And you have some specific knowledge about its content: location, population, history, food, climate of Chengdu. And probably some certain places are also introduced: Sichuan University, Jinsha Museum, Huanhuaxi Park, Wuhou Temple, Wenshu Monastery to name but a few. Depending on your personal experience, the knowledge of some restaurants which offer delicious food may also be included in your own content schema. The language schema of the article is your language familiarity with the passage.

1.2 Schema and Comprehension

Information that does not fit into these schemata may not be comprehended, or may not be comprehended correctly. This is the reason why interpreters have a difficult time comprehending a text on a subject they are not familiar with even if the person comprehends the meaning of the individual words in the passage. This happens a lot in the beginners’ interpretation learning in particular. For example, there was at one time an undergraduate student who went to apply for the job of escort interpreter for the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival. During the interview the interviewer asked the candidate to do the English-Chinese sight interpreting of the following paragraph:

“The First Extraordinary Session of UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage will be held from May 23rd to May 27th, at the Crown Plaza, Chengdu. It is an important part of the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival. More than 200 participants from all over the world will attend the conference. ”

Then the interviewee delivered her interpreted version like this:


During the rendition the student made two serious mistakes. One was that she mistook “intangible cultural heritage” as “无形文化遗产”. In fact there was a term “非物质文化遗产” which referred to the cultural heritage passed down in intangible forms. The other one was she mistook “crown plaza” as “皇冠广场”. In fact Crown Plaza referred to a five-star hotel which located on the Zongfu Road of Chengdu. The interviewee just took it for granted that “plaza” definitely meant “square”.

From the example above you can see that the interviewee failed to understand some parts of the source information correctly because something there didn’t fit her existing schema. She had no idea of “intangible cultural heritage” and “crown plaza” in her background knowledge.

The schema can influence someone’s comprehension a great deal. As far as interpretation is concerned, the background knowledge mainly refers to the interpreters’ topic familiarity.

Part Two: Definition and Process of Consecutive Interpretation

Interpretation originally emerged to achieve communication between peoples who didn’t speak the same language. This part will discuss the definition of interpretation, consecutive interpretation in particular, and the information process of consecutive interpretation.

2.1 Definition of Consecutive Interpretation

Interpretation is the oral translation of an orally delivered message from a source language to a target language, performed in the presence of the participants. Its aim is to bridge the language and cultural barriers in the intercultural communication.

Interpretation may have different classifications according to different criteria. For example, in terms of modes of working; it can be divided into consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting including sight interpreting.

It can also be classified into conference interpreting, court interpreting and negotiation interpreting etc, in terms of the settings.

Since this thesis aims at discussing the application of schema theory in consecutive interpretation, we may take a look at the definition of consecutive interpretation.

Danica Seleskovitch has defined consecutive interpreting like this:

“In the consecutive interpretation the interpreter does not start speaking until the original speaker has stopped. He therefore has time to analyze the message as a whole, which makes it easier for him to understanding its meaning. The fact is he is there in the room, and that the speaker stopped talking before he begins, means that he speaks to his speakers face to face and he actually becomes the speaker.” (Hu,2006:8)

Generally in the consecutive interpreting working mode, the primary speaker (the speaker of the source language) delivers his speech for a few minutes while the interpreter takes some necessary notes. Then the primary speaker stops, and the interpreter takes up the job and deliver the rendition in the target language. We can simply say that the interpreter interprets after the primary speaker finishes his segment.

When using this mode of interpreting, it may be necessary for the interpreter to signal a speaker to pause to permit a consecutive interpretation when the length of the utterance approaches the outer limits of the interpreter’s capacity for recall. During consecutive interpreting, the interpreter should take notes to assist her in rendering the interpretation.

Consecutive interpretation is applied in many occasions, such as banquets, opening and closing ceremonies, negotiations, lectures, interviews, diplomatic talks to name but a few.

2.2 The Process of Consecutive Interpretation

Oral interpretation is a dynamic process in which listening, memorizing, comprehending and speaking are all actively involved. The basic process is:


In terms of its content, the “input” is done in the source language, and the interpreter perceives the message. Then in the “analysis” period the interpreter processes the message. Finally she delivers the message in the target language form. According to Prof. Mei Deming, the basic process of interpreting can be further divided into 5 parts,

Perception Decoding Recording Encoding Expressing


All modes of interpretation go through the similar process. In the “perception” part, the interpreter receives the message, and then she analyzes it in the “decoding” phase. She does not only analyze the linguistic information but also the meaning conveyed in the message of the source language. In the “recording” part the analyzed information is stored in the interpreter’s short-term memory. If it is consecutive interpreting, a portion of the information can also be stored in the interpreter’s notes. Then the interpreter “encodes”. During this period the message of source language in translated into target language. Finally it comes to “expressing”, the last part of the interpretation process. The interpreter renders the encoded information in the target language form orally. That’s how interpretation is finished.

Apart from the general characteristics of oral interpretation, consecutive interpretation still has its own features in the process. Daniel Gile, the renowned practicing conference interpreter, has divided the consecutive interpretation process into 2 phases(Zhong, 2001:31):

Phase I: CI= L + N + M + C

Phase II: CI= Rem + Read + P

In Phase I, “L” means listening and analyzing, “N” means note-taking, “M” means memory, “C” means coordination.

In Phase II, “Rem” means remembering, “Read” means processing the notes and reading it, “P” means production.

Daniel Gile has also attached great importance to the role of comprehension during the consecutive interpreting process, a comprehension formula is proposed:

C= KL + ELK + A

It means that comprehension is the result of interactions between language knowledge, extra-linguistic knowledge and analysis.

The above formulas all offer graphical descriptions of the interpretation process and show clearly how the interpretation work is done. And this author makes a summary of the knowledge requirements for a qualified interpreter based on the previous evidence. To be a professional interpreter, she at least should have language competence and extensive knowledge. Language competence refers to her good listening and analyzing ability, a large vocabulary and eloquence. Extensive knowledge means extra-linguistic knowledge which includes cultural awareness, topic familiarity and common-sense knowledge.

Part Three: The Significance of Background Knowledge in Consecutive Interpretation

The previous parts have demonstrated that the most important implication of schema theory is the role of prior knowledge in processing. This part will discuss the significance of background knowledge in a more detailed way.

Background knowledge can affect the consecutive interpretation in many aspects. This part breaks the discussion into several areas. At the beginning it falls into the relationship between background knowledge and comprehension. As it has been mentioned in Part 1, according to the schema theory, when the interpreter receives a message, and her related schema is activated, she can understand it correctly. So if the source information is linked to the interpreter’s existing schema, she can understand it properly.

Then it probes into the impacts of background knowledge in short-term memory.

Short-tem memory is severely limited in size; it can hold approximately seven plus or minus two units of information (David W. Carroll, 2000:124). According to the process of interpretation, short-term memory plays an important role in the “recording” part, if the interpreter doesn’t utilize short-term memory well, she may miss some of the information. In addition, even though note-taking can be a third hand in consecutive interpretation, the interpreter still needs to rely on short-term memory mostly. It is obvious that short-term memory is of crucial importance, but it is by no means easy. However, the background knowledge can efficiently reduce the interpreter’s burden in short-term memory.

Since the size of short-term memory is so limited, it will be better if the interpreter has already stored something related to the topic in her long-term memory. Then she doesn’t need to memorize plenty of things within such a short time. For example, the renowned practicing conference interpreter Prof. Ren Wen once offered a vivid example of her own. She said every time when she heard “和平共处五项原则”, she would simply write “5和…” in her notes, and then she would interpret them into “five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, quality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence” in a very fluent and correct manner. She was able to do this because the content of the “five principles” were already rooted in her long-term memory.

Next it moves to the impact of background knowledge on the consecutive interpretation performance. Firstly, the interpreter can guess the meaning of the source information based on her common-sense knowledge even if she fails to understand it. For instance, this author herself once encountered a sentence including the following content: “farming, forestry, animal, husbandry, sideline occupations and fishery”. The primary speaker was speaking quite fast and the author failed to catch all the words. Having guessed the meaning of that part was “农、林、牧、副、渔” , this author just interpreted them into that which turned out to be quite correct. Secondly, abundant background knowledge can build up the interpreter’s confidence which helps her do an excellent job in interpreting. For example, many foreign participants of the UNESCO conference were deeply impressed by the interpreter Sarah’s fluency, expressiveness, faithfulness and quick response in her interpretation performance at the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Park. They appreciated her confidence, eloquence and excellent speaking manner. In an interview afterwards Sarah told the author that she had done sufficient preparations before the interpretation so she was extremely familiar with topic and she believed she could achieve success in her interpretation performance for she had accumulated plentiful background knowledge.

To sum up, background knowledge plays a positive and important role in oral interpretation. If the interpreter gives full scope to her background information, she can do a better job in the interpretation practice.

Part Four Case Study: An Experiment and Its Enlightenment

. The previous parts have demonstrated significance of background information in consecutive interpretation. In order for interpreters to be able to effectively process information, their existing schemas related to the new content need to be activated. Many scholars have devoted time and energy to the research of this field.

4.1 Prof. Liu Jianfu’s Experiment

Prof. Liu Jianfu, a scholar from Guangdong Foreign Studies University, conducted an experiment in order to verify his hypothesis of background knowledge’s positive role in interpretation performance.

In his experiment, he selected 44 English majors who were all juniors in Guangdong Foreign Studies University. And he equally divided the subjects into two groups in terms of their language proficiency. The TEM 4 and College Chinese Test results of the subjects were used as references. The subjects were asked to do an English-Chinese interpretation about Argentina Food. Since the two groups were almost equal in their language command, Prof. Liu could study the impacts of background knowledge in the interpretation practice. (Liu, 2001:72)

Then the two groups were put into two classrooms. Prof. Liu distributed some reading materials to the subjects. In order to guarantee the equality and validity, the researcher put under control all the variables that might affect the result of the experiment including a vocabulary list with two versions (Chinese and English) of new terms handed out to every subject in both groups. The only and main difference between the two groups was the given handout. In group A the handout they got was closely related to the upcoming topic in interpretation; while in group B the materials they got had nothing to do with the topic. Soon after 10-minute reading of the handouts, interpretation got to start. Each subject listened to a message recording with over 100 words twice, and afterwards gave an interpretation. Three experienced interpretation instructors were invited to be the judges to give scores to each subject of groups, taking faithfulness, fluency, and communication effect as unified assessment criteria. The result was as follows: Group A, the one with handouts related to the topic, got an average score of 74.86 in terms of the interpretation practice; Group B, the one with less topic familiarity, got an average score of 60.0. Therefore, Prof. Liu drew a conclusion that background knowledge might affect the interpretation performance significantly.

4.2 Analysis and Enlightenment of the Experiment

In Prof. Liu’s experiment, the average language proficiency of both two groups was almost at the same level. However, Group A with a handout of some pre-information concerning the interpretation topic got a much higher average score than another group with no relevant information before. That is to say, topic familiarity does influence interpretation performance. Having had read the material for ten minutes, subjects in the first group were able to form in mind a relevant schema of “Argentina food” which then become compatible with the input information, leading to easier understanding, memorizing, notes taking and finally better production. But for Group B, it was absolutely not the same case. Without topic familiarity, they fail to comprehend with the support of the predictive power generated from background knowledge, thus resulting in worse interpretation performance.

Inspired by the experiment, this author thinks of some examples she has witnessed in the interpretation class. According to her observation, many beginners of interpretation do make mistakes due to their lack of background knowledge. For example, the interpreting instructor once read a paragraph:

“In the 11th century B.C., Beijing was the capital of the small kingdom of Yan. In the 12th century A.D., it became the capital of the Jin Kingdom of the Nvzhen people of the North, and later of their Jin Dynasty. Afterwards, it served as capital for the Yuan(Mongol), Ming and the last feudalist dynasty Qing down to the 20th century. ”

Then a student was asked to interpret this paragraph from English into Chinese. And she interpreted like this:


The other students were almost shocked when hearing this rendition. There was an obvious error in the interpreter’s performance, she mistook Ming dynasty as the last feudalist dynasty in China. Perhaps she failed to catch the message when listening because of her nervousness. However, if she had the idea of “the last feudalist dynasty Qing” in her common-sense knowledge, she would have made that mistake. Another example was a sentence once appeared in the tape which Prof. Ren Wen played in class:

“Some large stadiums can accommodate from 40000 to 100000 spectators.”

Then a student interpreted it in this way:


She made a mistake in the figures. It’s reasonable that beginners find it hard to deal with figures as figure-switching is a difficult job. However, if the student knew that even the largest stadium in the world could accommodate no more than 100,000 spectators, this error could be avoidable.

In the final analysis, the background information affects the interpretation a great deal and it can fill the gap of the interpreter’s language ability. When two interpreters are equally competent in their language proficiency, the one with a higher degree of topic familiarity can do a better job.


Since the implementation of reform and opening-up in 1978, china’s global involvement in the international communities has increased a lot as well. To promote international cooperation and communication in further width and depth, China is in great need of qualified interpreters. And oral interpretation is made as a compulsory course for English majors in many universities.

Many famous scholars have attached great importance to the role of background knowledge in consecutive interpretation learning. Prof. Ren Wen has stressed repeatedly in her interpretation class “As an interpreter, you should know something about everything.” However, many interpretation learners today still pay much more attention to their language competence while almost neglect the importance of extra-linguistic knowledge. Based on the findings of this paper, this author proposes some suggestions to the present consecutive interpretation trainees, especially the Grade 3 undergraduates who have just taken the consecutive interpretation course for a semester.

First, keep abreast of current issues, like international political affairs, news about economy etc.

Second, expand your knowledge in other subjects as much as possible, such as history, international relations, tourism, politics, psychology to name but a few.

Third, join some English debate training programs if possible. For instance, the English majors of Grade 4 at Sichuan University can take an optional course “The Art of English Debate” instructed by Sarah. Parliamentary debate can broaden your horizon a great deal because the debate topics cover so many areas.

Hopefully the above suggestions can be helpful for the consecutive interpretation trainees’ future learning.

The paper has made achievements in some degree. However, with limited time and resource, the author finds it impossible to exhaust the topic, especially in the case study part. Hopefully some shortcomings can be overcome in her future academic studies. The author also hopes that the topic will be further studied by more and more researchers.


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任文,蒋莉华:《从话语分析的角度重识口译人员的角色》,《中国翻译》,2006, 第2期, 53-58






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