Resetting our ways


Resetting our ways

The video accompanying this text was recorded some time ago and on reviewing it I realised that it contained questions but few answers. Interpreting is changing but what can we do about it?

This article is an attempt to answer that question. It is well nigh impossible to produce a single solution because no two interpreters have quite the same work pattern, or the same active and passive languages, or split between private and institutional clients and what is more we live in different places.

Work well

This may sound blindingly obvious but bears repeating.  Prepare the meeting you’ve been hired for. How you do so will depend on whether it’s the first time you’ve worked for a given client or whether you’re an old hand, but it is vital to recognise that the interpreter begins every meeting with an information deficit in that we know less about it and have less background than those listening to us.  We can make up for it by preparing the meeting documents and speeches, by reading around the subject and by listening actively at the meeting.


This is really the continuation of preparation. Jot things down, from the name of the association’s officers to the international instrument just mentioned, grasp the main arguments and – if you can – get some idea of the political intricacies. You’ll notice that interpreters of a certain age work holding a pen or pencil – there is a reason it was drummed into them at interpreting school. You may every so often come across someone from the old school who derides preparation by claiming they work best when relying on the flow of adrenalin – don’t listen to this delusional myth. Listening continues during your half-hour off; clearly you can leave the booth and get a coffee but it is not a good idea to systematically disappear for 28 minutes for every hour – you won’t keep up and it makes a bad impression on clients who are paying for two interpreters and getting one.  So have writing materials to hand and be not only physically but also mentally present.

A changing market

Having a degree will of itself not bring you work.  Your career entry and progression will depend on what your local market requires, and that increasingly seems to be the national language plus English, meaning you’ll be expected to work both ways, a move away from the multilingual markets of the past. An English B is a tall order but if you are prepared to put in the necessary effort then do it properly. English Bs are acquired in Anglophone countries and through hard work and concentration.  The first lesson is not to buy into the myth that English is an easy language: verb forms, phrasal verbs and prepositions. Need I say more?

Passive languages

There are still markets that require interpreters to work from several passive languages into their own. The market’s requirements will change by location but I would suggest learning Russian or German or Portuguese, at least in my markets. Inevitably Chinese will increase in importance so there is bound to be a buoyant market, at the moment it is covered by people working both ways but if there were people able to provide the service there is no reason why it should not be interpreted into European languages that could provide relay – say Chinese into English, French or Spanish. To maintain your employability my advice is have two or three mainstream languages (E, F, D, Esp, It, Port, R) and an exotic that might appeal to the organisations or to niche markets (Scandinavian, Latvian, Hungarian…).


With the best will in the world chief interpreters cannot predict what their language needs will be in five or ten years from now.  They can make an intelligent guess but are subject to the dictates of their political masters. A language might be all the rage this year and then a new government decides it’s not that important, and such policy swerves skew the market. At the moment we are all wondering what the effect of Brexit will be.  I would guess within the EU English will only be provided at meetings attended by Ireland and Malta, thus cutting demand (NB: I did say guess).

On your side

Every meeting is important to the person organising it, it is therefore also important to us, and we must convey that. In the past there were interpreters who had something of a “them and us” attitude towards delegates, priding themselves on never attending receptions and disdaining attempts at humour in the meeting.  The profession has grown up (such attitudes sprang from insecurity) but it is important to show our clients we share a community of interest with them, that we are there to help them bring their business to a successful conclusion or boost their membership or launch their new product.  Take the example of a product launch, we are part of the whole event from stage design, lighting, show callers and it is important to act as such. And if the client at a product launch wants the interpreters on site at 09:00 for an event at 13:00 turn up with good grace and bring a book.

Easy listening

Think about your voice and how you project it.  Enunciate clearly and aim for a smooth performance with a pleasant and well-modulated voice.  The use of voice is covered in interpreting school but we do well to remember that delegates have to listen to us all day so we need to make it easy on them.  I have seen interpreters move away from the mic to scrabble in their case, or blether away miles from the mic with nary a thought about how it sounds.

Update your skills

We need to work on the languages we already have, taking courses and visiting the countries.  AIIC has come a very long way since I joined and there are now many courses organised around the world, some on language and politics and culture, others where you can work in the booth and receive some useful critique of your work. Such courses are offered for people working into their B and to those wanting to add or boost a C by keeping  up with political and social changes and evolving language. Perhaps you’ll learn how to render “snowflake” in your language.

Walk away

We’re constantly hearing at international meetings that the world of work is changing and that applies to interpreting as well. Gone are the fat cows of yesteryear and even at the time their days were clearly numbered. I remember in the 1980s being flown week in week out to Brussels and saying to myself that it couldn’t last, a commercial company would give you six months or so to move – it took the EU some 30 years but it was clear to all that it would happen one day.

In the modern world people cannot expect to stay in a single job throughout their working life – they are more likely to work at different jobs for different employers and it seems likely that in future few will be able to live from interpreting alone. So if you’re not able to get a foothold cut your losses and do something else, opt for an expanding not a contracting sector.


It is worth considering what we mean when we talk about professional quality. We may ask: how solid are the interpreter’s passive languages; what is the rendition into the target language like, does it inspire confidence in the listener; does the interpreter keep up with the speaker or lag a long way behind; has the interpreter prepared the meeting; is he helpful in the booth?

In a perfect world interpreters would be recruited only on the basis of their professional quality, but as everyone want to keep their costs down the place of residence is probably the most important consideration, so live where the work is.


Sometimes colleagues arrive at work, take out their laptop and start checking their emails – a trap we can all fall into.  We should resist the siren call of email because it can remove us from the room. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is great for looking up ideas, concepts and background but it should not distract us from the job in hand. Remind me of these words when you next catch me on Candy Crush.


If you find yourself under stress, worry about documents and hyperventilating every time you turn on the mic then you’re probably in the wrong job.  Don’t torture yourself, your colleagues and most of all your listeners by insisting this is your calling when it clearly isn’t.

Starting out

Tell people you are now on the market, but tread lightly in your early days. You are moving onto a mature market so manage your expectations about the amount of work in your first year or two, all depending on what your languages are and where you are based. Do not put all your eggs in once basket, in other words try to work for many different clients so you are less vulnerable to the situation in a single organisation or with a single private market client. The pattern of work is changing in all sectors (the gig economy, cloud working) so we can no longer think in terms of entering a career in our twenties and retiring in our sixties. You may find that interpreting is no more than one service among many that you offer. Give yourself some time to get a foothold on the market but if the work is simply not coming, cut your losses and do something else.

Phil SMITH is a professional interpreter and member of AIIC


Symbols: dos and don’ts

When note-taking for consecutive interpreting is mentioned the first thing that student interpreters ask about are symbols. And although it is true that knowing a reasonable number of very useful symbols can make our lives much easier, please don’t forget that symbols are relatively unimportant and certainly not a panacea for consecutive interpreting problems. If you don’t have a structured, consistent and meaningful note-taking system then no amount of symbols is going to help you.

This film explains why we use symbols in the first place; what you might want to replaces with symbols; and how to use symbols effectively.

Andrew GILLIES is interpreter trainer, coordinator of AIIC Training and author of Conference Interpreting – a Student’s Practice book.




Language enhancement exercises for conference interpreters

“At advanced levels, where grammar has been more or less mastered, the main difference between foreign students and native speakers is that the latter have been exposed to their language for many years, over thousands and thousands of hours. As a result they have a wider cultural and contextual understanding of the language, a wider vocabulary and a commands of a wider range of registers. Constant contact with the language and the subjects that are discussed in that language mean that native-speakers have a huge head start on foreign learners.” (From Conference Interpreting – a Student’s Practice book, Andrew Gillies)

Interpreting students therefore have to make a continued effort (over and above the long periods of time spent in the countries where their foreign languages are spoken) to expand their knowledge of their languages, not just in terms of technical vocabulary but also in terms of register and cultural knowledge. In this film Andy Gillies presents 3 exercises, which, if done regularly, can help you to catch up with native-speakers.


Intonation in simultaneous interpreting


“Intonation is not a luxury. It’s a crucial part of communicating well. Getting it wrong in languages with little or no verb conjugation or noun declension (like English) can lead to being understood less well.  The moral of the story… make an effort to speak normally and with normal intonation patterns when in the booth. Record yourself onto a dictaphone to check how you’re doing”.                                                                                                                                                     Andrew GILLIES

The extract below is taken from: Intonation in the production of and perception of simultaneous interpretation. Shlesinger, Miriam. In Lambert and Moser-Mercer (Eds.). Bridging the Gap. Empirical Research in Simultaneous Interpretation. 1994 Benjamins.

2. Procedure and Apparatus

Ten excerpts were taken at random from the recorded, real-time output of professional interpreters in actual conference settings. Each excerpt was approximately 90 seconds long (15-20 typed lines). Six were in Hebrew (interpreted from English); four were in English (interpreted from Hebrew). Two of the English excerpts were the output of non-native speakers, whose Hebrew (native-language) interpreting output is also included in the corpus; i.e., the ten passages were the output of eight professional interpreters.

2.1. Production: Isolating the Salient Features

Repeated listening to the interpreted output revealed a set of features which seemed to differ markedly from those of spontaneous discourse. To validate the intuitive judgements on intonation in the interpreted passages, elicitation of the same passage by the same speakers in a non-interpreting setting was called for; i.e., ideally, it would have been useful to obtain the same texts from the same informants. Since it was not feasible to elicit these in the form of spontaneous speech, a second-best option was chosen: the passages were transcribed, and each interpreter was asked to read “his/her” passage aloud. It should be noted that a minimum of three years had elapsed between the actual interpretation and the experiment in Question; only two of the ten interpreters recognized the passage – and this only as a result of marked lexical cues. Thus, it may safely be assumed that that the reading, for all intents and purposes, was prima vista, was in no way expected to reveal those features which typify intonational interpretation.

2.2. Perception: Effect of Interpretational Intonation on Comprehension and on Recall

Once the features characteristic of simultaneous interpreting production had been pinpointed, their effect on perception could be assessed. Towards this end, recordings of three passages were played to two groups of subjects (eight in Group A and seven in Group B), matched for fluency in the languages concerned, and for familiarity with interpreting.

Both groups of judges listened to recordings of the same three passages. Group A listened to the interpreted version, whereas Group B heard the read­aloud one. Since the text, the speaker (interpreter/reader) and the format (a recording) were identical for each passage, it was assumed that the sole distinguishing factor would be the intonation, and that by comparing the test results of the two groups, it would be possible to establish the differential effect of interpretational intonation.

After each recording had been played, three questions on each of the three passages were presented in written form to each of the two groups of judges. (The same nine questions were presented to both groups.) The nine questions were meant to determine the effect of the mode of delivery. The passages did not lend themselves to inferential questions, but rather to a straightforward test of recall and comprehension, given that they averaged no more than fifteen lines and were presented out of context.

3. Results

3.1. Production

The salient features of interpretational intonation, described in the analysis below, have been grouped into four broad categories: (1) tonality – the distribution of an utterance into distinctive contours, or information units; (2) tonicity – which syllable carries maximum pitch prominence in the tone group; (3) tone – the means of marking the opposition between certain and uncertain polarity. If polarity is certain, the pitch of the tonic falls; if uncertain, it rises (Halliday 1967); (4) prosody – duration and speed.

All but one of the features described below – acceleration – was found in the output of at least four different interpreters; i.e., only one of the three features was possibly idiosyncratic. Moreover, although languages (and: even dialects) do differ in various aspects of intonation (Ladd 1990; Cutler 1987; Rameh > 1985), the features which came to the fore in the present study’ seemed to cut across (at least these two) languages.

The data below refer to occurrences of the given feature in the interpreted passage only; i.e., whenever the feature appeared in the read-aloud mode as well, it was not counted. It should be noted that each of the interpreted texts in the corpus was longer in duration than its read-aloud counterpart; i.e., the interpretation was slower (took more time) than the reading.

Passage 2 and passage 6 were produced by interpreters who, although working into English, are native speakers of Hebrew. The same two interpreters also produced the Hebrew passages 1 and 7, respectively. The data below do not reveal a significant pattern of differences between the two passages in the case of either interpreter, though further study is needed to determine whether directionality does in fact play a role in interpretational intonation.

3.1.1. Tonality (Chunking, Pauses, Division into Tone Groups). The range of grammatical structures which pauses tend to separate is relatively small and constant (Crystal 1969). Functional pauses serve to divide discourse into tone groups and organize it into information units (Halliday 1985; El-Menoufy 1988). Nonfunctional pauses caused by hesitations, on the other hand, tend to lower the congruence between chunking and syntax, since the ensuing junctures are nongrammatical.

The data below would seem to indicate that pauses within grammatical structures are by far the most salient feature of tonality in interpretation; i.e., interpreters are prone to introduce a disproportionate number of pauses in “unnatural” positions, which are liable to impede understanding (Alexieva 1987).

As for pauses at the clause or sentence boundary, while the interpreted passages did generally include pauses at sentence boundaries (in conformity with the original), these tended to be tentative rather than final, and were often coextensive with a low-rise intonation (pitch movement 3). Tentative pauses are frequently used in the middle of a primary contour, usually serving a parenthetic function (Ladd 1975; Pike 1945); thus, a high incidence of such pauses in nonparenthetical position is anomalous. Moreover, since the tentative pause correlates with an attitude of uncertainty, the cumulative pragmatic effect is bound to be altered. As in other instances of introducing an element which runs counter to the listener’s expectations, understanding is likely to be affected.

3.2. Perception

A test was devised to determine the extent of comprehension and recall by each of the two groups of subjects. The same test was administered to both groups. It consisted of three questions on each of three passages (a total of nine questions). The total number of correct answers in Group A (8 subjects) was 17 out of a possible 72 (21 %) and in Group B (7 subjects) 26 out of a possible 63 (41 %). The difference between the proportions of correct answers in the sample was 20%; i.e., the proportion of correct answers in the second group was approximately double that of the first.”

Analysis exercises for consecutive interpreting

‘Analysis’ is often cited as one of the most important skills in consecutive interpreting but it’s one that is less often practised in isolation. In this film Andrew Gillies suggests 3 exercises aimed at practising your analysis skills. The first exercise, based on newspaper headlines, will train you to look beyond what is said explicitly and bring to the forefront of your mind all of the implicit information on a given subject. This will help you put what is being said in any speech into some context and better understand it.

The other two exercises train a different type of analysis, namely that of breaking speech down into it’s component parts. Students can often see a speech as an indivisible mass of words and that can be very daunting. In actual facts speeches are usually made up of small manageable (and inter-related) sections that can be portrayed on paper, or in your minds-eye.

For an interesting blog post about analysis seeJust what is analysis anyway?” 

To find out more about Andy Gillies click here

Andy Gillies is interpreter trainer and coordinator of AIIC training.


Pues así, sin darnos cuenta, había llegado la semana de la visita a Bruselas. La semana que todos (yo desde luego sí) imaginábamos mientras enviábamos nuestros documentos de inscripción para la prueba de acceso al MIC. Ya estábamos allí, con nuestros trajes y nuestras libretas. Con la señal de “novato, aprendiz de intérprete” en la frente.

Yo desde el primer momento ya iba con nervios, la semana imponía. Ya me imaginaba toda la situación: intérpretes estirados, preparados para tirar de látigo y mandarnos de vuelta a casa. Nada más lejos de la realidad. Lo que más me sorprendió y lo que más quiero destacar de la visita fue la cercanía y la simpatía con la que nos recibieron. Uno puede pensar que personas con tanto talento como los intérpretes que conocimos, que son el reflejo de nuestras propias metas como estudiantes, se lo van a tener un poco más creído. Y de nuevo, nada más lejos de la realidad. La humildad de todos ellos era aplastante.

El primer día fue el más intenso, nos recibieron Natalia Sánchez, jefa de cabina española del SCIC y Alicia Lázaro. Alicia nos hizo una presentación general del trabajo del SCIC con la Comisión y con las diferentes instituciones. Fue especialmente interesante el tema del futuro de la interpretación en las instituciones y las nuevas tecnologías.

También nos hablaron de las pruebas de acreditación de intérpretes del SCIC y José Iturri nos dio una pequeña charla sobre comunicación especialmente divertida. Podéis encontrar una similar en el canal de Youtube de la DG Interpretación (How to Speak in Public).

Esta primera jornada dio para mucho. Por la tarde hicimos un simulacro de examen de acreditación. Pudimos ser testigos directos de la deliberación del jurado, ver cómo evalúa las prestaciones, a qué le da más importancia y todo ese tipo de cuestiones que normalmente se debaten entre bambalinas.

Los dos siguientes días, que pasamos interpretando en cabina muda en el Consejo, fueron los días más emocionantes. Tuvimos la suerte de que nos acompañara Carlos Hoyos, que nos atendió de maravilla y se aseguró de que todo saliese a la perfección. Al llevar poco tiempo practicando simultánea, nos vimos un poco verdes en las cabinas, pero fue una experiencia sin igual de la que pudimos aprender muchísimo, tanto del feedback que nos iban proporcionando los intérpretes que nos escuchaban, como de aquellos que trabajan en las demás cabinas. Por primera vez veíamos de primera mano el impacto del trabajo de los intérpretes en la comunicación. Los delegados españoles, por ejemplo, dependían por completo de la cabina española.

La parte más agridulce llegó con la visita al Parlamento. Desde nuestra llegada habíamos podido ver cómo el ambiente alrededor de las instituciones estaba un tanto cargado y cómo se había extremado la seguridad. Esto quedó especialmente claro en el Parlamento, donde la visita fue demasiado escueta.

Por último, visitamos el Tribunal de Justicia en Luxemburgo. Fue la parte más sorprendente del viaje, tanto por la institución en sí como por la ciudad, que supuso todo un descubrimiento. Una pena que no pudiéramos ver en directo las vistas orales del Tribunal, pero sí que pudimos andar a nuestras anchas (vigilados de cerca) por las elegantes instalaciones de la institución más temida por los intérpretes.

En todo momento quedó patente la buena disposición de quienes nos recibieron. Se volcaron en responder nuestras preguntas y en intentar que nos quedáramos con buen sabor de boca.

Y así llegó el final de nuestra visita. Volvimos a Tenerife con los pies en la tierra y la cabeza en las nubes. Me quedo con una cosa y es que la perfección es imposible. Eso sí, aquí, en La Laguna seguimos trabajando para estar un poco más cerca, si no de la perfección, de la apasionante profesión del intérprete.

Muchas gracias, de parte de todos los alumnos que pudimos disfrutar de la experiencia este año, a Julia, a Marlene y a Lourdes por organizarlo todo y por asegurarse de que aprovecháramos la visita al máximo.

Ana Venzal Cantavella es alumna del Máster de Interpretación de Conferencias, MIC, de la Universidad de La Laguna, promoción 2014-2015.

CONSEC DEMO EN-FR: Plaisir du soleil?

Hi Felix.

First of all, congratulations for accepting to take part in this public exercise. This is certainly good practice for stress management and an excellent preparation for exams or tests !

Then a few comments about the speech. It is relatively long (over 6 minutes) and relatively easy : the speaker – who is a native- is clear; the structure of her speech is pretty straight forward and  the pace not too fast (although not as slow as you would think just listening to her..)

As far as your note-taking is concerned, I was struck by the considerable time-lag with which you note. It’s good because it helps you grasp what the speaker’s intentions are and pre-process the information before you actually note it down. Beware however of being too far behind the speaker, especially in case of enumerations. There are such enumerations a couple of times during the speech and each time you left out part of the items. Your time lag should be more elastic (just like your ear-to-voice span in simultaneous). In other words, you should be able to adapt it according to needs.

Otherwise I haven’t much to say about your notes, it took me some time to decipher them but that’s not an issue. Your notes are for you and you only and what matters is that you can read them easily. As for this last point, I would recommend that you anticipate more than you currently do. In other words, your eyes should always be an idea further down on your note pad than the passage you’re interpreting. This would help you get rid of hesitations, pauses…Remember, your performance should always be shorter than that of the speaker !

This speech is also a good example of how important general knowledge is even when the topic is as general as the one here. Ovid was not a problem for you, nor was Coco Chanel or Josephine Baker. You could therefore use abbreviations (C. Chanel; Joseph Baker for instance)and expand your notes when you interpreted (Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker). Ceruse was more of a problem although the message came across.

A last comment on your body language : the eye contact was OK (when you will know how to anticipate reading back your notes – see above – it will further  improve) but you should be careful with your left hand which you tend to use a little too often to emphasize what you are saying.

I hope this helps and wish you all the best



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