Cognitive load in simultaneous interpreting: Measures and methods

Kilian G. Seeber
University of Geneva, Switserland

The mental effort required to perform a simultaneous interpreting task or the cognitive load generated by it has attracted the interest of many a researcher in the field. To date, however, there is little agreement on the most suitable method to measure this phenomenon. In this contribution, I set out to discuss four of the most common methods of measuring cognitive load and the way in which they have been applied in interpreting research, providing examples for each and highlighting their respective advantages and disadvantages. The main focus of the contribution will be on pupillometry, a psycho-physiological method I deem to be among the most promising approaches to objectively measure cognitive load during simultaneous interpreting in real time.

Table of contents

Among interpreting scholars, the list of those who consider simultaneous interpreting a cognitively tasking activity (e.g., Gile 1995; Hyönä et al. 1995; Massaro and Shlesinger 1997; Moser-Mercer 1997; De Groot 2000) seems to extend beyond that of those who consider such statements as nothing but “primitives or clichés” (Setton 2003, 37). Indeed, Setton argues that concurrent sub-tasks during simultaneous interpreting can be performed “comfortably if they are all sharing the same representation” (2001, 5). Over the years, the notion of cognitive load generated by the interpreting task, or the amount of cognitive effort necessary to perform it, has generated a substantial amount of interest and has been addressed by scholars from within and outside the paradigm who believe that such investigation might be very fruitful (de Groot 1997). The amount of empirical evidence gathered to [ p. 19 ]corroborate theories and claims about the amount of cognitive load generated by the task, however, would appear to be inversely proportional to the strength of the assertions put forward. As the following discussion will show, this imbalance may partially be explained by the difficulty of finding an appropriate paradigm within which to test hypotheses, coupled with a methodology capable of identifying, isolating and measuring the phenomenon as directly as possible. The purpose of this article is to provide an analysis of the potential and limitations of some of the most widely used methods for investigating cognitive load in simultaneous interpreting and the metrics (or measures) they employ, with a special focus on pupillometry.

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