Sophie Llewellyn Smith is a conference interpreter with 15 years' experience of interpreter training. On her site theinterpretingcoach.com, you will find eBooks and eCourses to help you consolidate or update your interpreting skills in areas such as note-taking, research skills, analytical skills, and retour interpreting (working into a B language). Each course breaks the skills down into manageable sections and uses a mixture of text, audio and video to examine underlying principles and work on practical exercises. In this way, you can use self-study at your own pace to target your weaknesses, improve your performance and become more marketable.
If you enjoyed this exercise, you’ll find plenty more where that came from in my programme for English retourists, Rock your Retour.
The website contains hundreds of articles and exercises designed specifically for interpreters with an English B, and you can also join weekly live practice sessions, where I give members feedback on their interpreting into English.
You’ve probably heard of ‘salami technique’ (aka ‘chunking’ or ‘segmentation’).
This is a technique used in simultaneous to help the interpreter deal with the cognitive load of dense information and the differences in sentence structure between language pairs. Salami technique can also help you avoid linguistic interference, and it makes the message easier for the audience and relay-takers to digest.
It consists of breaking up long sentences (or rather, ideas) into smaller chunks in the target language, using ‘open syntax’ – by which I mean syntax that gives you many options for what to say next, rather than backing you into a corner. In practice, this means connecting ideas with coordinating conjunctions (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’ and their equivalents – ‘however’, ‘thus’, ‘in addition’), rather than connecting ideas with words like ‘despite’, ‘although’, or with relative clauses.
I don’t recall being taught specifically how to use salami technique. I think it was mentioned in passing: ‘break long sentences up into smaller ones’, but no-one broke it down into:
identify ‘units of meaning’
reformulate a unit of meaning into an independent utterance (in grammatical terms, this is usually a clause or sentence)
connect this to the next unit of meaning using coordinating conjunctions, making sure to preserve the logic of the original speech
I don’t want to turn this post into a very lengthy explanation of salami technique, so I’ll just make two important points:
people often worry that if they use salami technique, the output will sound childish. BUT a) you don’t have to use salami technique with every single sentence in the speech. It’s a coping strategy intended to help you deal with particular challenges, so you can use it judiciously. However, if you never practise it, you’ll find it hard to use. and b) salami technique relies on simple syntax (subject-verb-object with a few frills), but you can use technical, formal, or sophisticated vocabulary, and you can express complex ideas even if the grammar is straightforward.
people often imagine salami technique as being all about chopping long sentences into lots of short ones, but in fact, sometimes you don’t make a long sentence shorter at all; you just change the syntax to make it ‘open’, which makes your life as an interpreter much easier.
The first exercise (below) is intended to help you identify units of meaning, i.e. an idea, something that could stand alone as an utterance.
For example, in the sentence “Despite severe delays at Manchester airport this morning, most delegates have made it to today’s meeting.”:
“Despite” is not a unit of meaning.
“Despite severe” is not a unit of meaning.
“Despite severe delays” is not (quite) a unit of meaning – delays with what?
“Despite severe delays at Manchester airport this morning” IS a unit of meaning. You could turn it into “There have been severe delays at Manchester airport this morning”.
If you were ‘chunking’ the sentence, you could say:
“There have been severe delays at Manchester airport this morning, BUT most delegates have made it to today’s meeting.” (inserting BUT to preserve the meaning of ‘despite’).
Beginners tend to either wait too long (i.e. they don’t start their interpretation until they’ve heard the whole sentence, up to ‘today’s meeting’), or they launch into the sentence without knowing where they’re going (perhaps after ‘despite severe delays’). Neither technique is safe; if you systematically wait too long, you end up leaving out information. If you start too soon, you take unnecessary risks (what if an unknown word comes up?).
Exercise 1- text (basic level)
For this exercise, it’s best to have a paper copy of the text you’ll be working with. You can copy/paste it and print it off, download the article and print it, or whatever works for you!
The text is based on an article from The Guardian, but I added the first paragraph. It’s about racism in the UK.
What you need to do is read through the text, putting a forward slash wherever you identify a unit of meaning.
Here’s the first paragraph, but the whole text is in the PDF below.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, today I want to talk about the opinions of Diane Abbott, who is, or was, Britain’s first black Labour MP. In the papers at the weekend, she wrote an article in which she expressed the idea that the racism experienced by black people in the UK cannot be compared with, or is on a different scale than, the prejudice (as she called it) experienced by Jewish people in the UK, or Irish travellers, or other ethnic minority groups.
In other words, she was establishing a hierarchy of racism, where ‘my racism is worse than your racism’, and where she was almost minimising the significance of antisemitism, which is very much a sore point for the Labour party in the UK at the moment.
In fact, she actually likened the prejudice, as she called it – not ‘racism’- experienced by Jewish people and Travellers, with the same sort of thing experienced by people who have red hair.”
Here’s my version:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, / today I want to talk about the opinions of Diane Abbott, / who is, / or was, / Britain’s first black Labour MP. / In the papers at the weekend, she wrote an article / in which she expressed the idea that the racism experienced by black people in the UK / cannot be compared with, or is on a different scale than, the prejudice (as she called it) experienced by Jewish people in the UK, / or Irish travellers, / or other ethnic minority groups. /
In other words, she was establishing a hierarchy of racism, / where ‘my racism is worse than your racism’, / and where she was almost minimising the significance of antisemitism, / which is very much a sore point for the Labour party in the UK at the moment./
In fact, she actually likened the prejudice, as she called it / – not ‘racism’- / experienced by Jewish people and Travellers, with the same sort of thing experienced by people who have red hair.” /
A few notes:
I’m not sure ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ can be called an idea, but it’s certainly not dependent on anything else, so I’ve classed it as a unit of meaning (a form of address or greeting).
‘who is, or was, Britain’s first black Labour MP’. I’ve put a forward slash between who is / or was / Britains’ first…. Ideally, I would have used two colours, because in reality, ‘who is…Britain’s first black Labour MP’ is one unit of meaning, and ‘or was’ is another (stuck in the middle). In practice, when interpreting, you might choose to chunk the sentence by saying something like ‘Diane Abbott is Britain’s first black Labour MP, or rather…she was.’ By the way, I made a mistake at this point, because she was in fact Britain’s first black woman MP.
There’s a similar example in this passage: ‘cannot be compared with, or is on a different scale than, the prejudice (as she called it) experienced by Jewish people in the UK’. There are three units here, with one of them split into two by the phrase ‘or is on a different scale’: anti-black racism cannot be compared with the prejudice experienced by Jewish people in the UK. It’s on a different scale. And prejudice is the word chosen by Diane Abbott. You could interpret the three ideas very much as I’ve just listed them; or the end could be something like ‘and Diane Abbott deliberately uses two different words’ (you’ll convey the information more successfully with a bit of emphasis/intonation in the last part.)
‘she wrote an article / in which she expressed the idea that the racism experienced by black people in the UK’: you’re probably thinking that the second part of this is not a unit of meaning, because we don’t yet know what she says about the racism experienced by black people. However, this part of the sentence could be reformulated as something like ‘In her article, she talks about (or ‘she addresses’) the racism experienced by black people in the UK today’, and then you could continue with the next unit of meaning, for example, ‘and she claims it cannot be compared with….’
You could segment even further. For example, you could argue that ‘in the papers at the weekend’ is a unit of meaning, since you could say ‘some newspapers are published at the weekend. Diane Abbott wrote an article for a newspaper. In her article she says….’. But there comes a point where slicing the salami this thinly makes the output longer and less natural. 🙂
Please note the text below contains the ‘n’ word (in a quote), so please don’t continue reading if you find this offensive.
We’ll try this with a different section of the text, but you can of course go through the whole text in the same way.
Your task is, again, to go through and identify units of meaning. Then for each unit of meaning, see how you can reformulate it (out loud or in your head) to make an independent utterance (a sentence, or a clause that you connect to the next one as necessary).
Could you tackle the units of meaning in a different order?
*note: you can reformulate from English into English (if English is your A or B language), or from English into your A language.
“To counter her argument that the “prejudice” experienced by Irish, Jewish and Traveller people is not a patch on the “racism” suffered by black people, I cannot improve on the letter from someone whose family left a city in Poland where more than 99% of Jews were exterminated for their race and whose experiences of British antisemitism includes having Nazi insignia brandished in their face. As the anonymous writer says: “To compare those experiences to the struggles of redheads is incomprehensible.””
Here’s one possibility:
“Her argument is that Irish, Jewish people, and Travellers experience prejudice, but this prejudice is far less serious than the racism suffered by black people. The best way to counter this is a letter from someone whose family left Poland. They lived in a city where more than 99% of Jews were killed for their race. The author has experienced British antisemitism. For example they have had Nazi insignia brandished in their face. The anonymous writer says: “To compare those experiences to the struggles of redheads is incomprehensible.””
There are of course other ways of ‘chunking’ this text.
For example, you may notice that I have held ‘to counter [her argument]’ in my working memory until the second sentence. I’ve merged it with ‘I cannot improve on the letter….’.
Instead, you could say: ‘how can we counter this argument? The best response is a letter from….’.
Or: ‘how can we counter this argument? With a letter from….’ (here, we lose the idea of ‘best’).
You may also notice that I haven’t chunked every single unit of meaning. In theory, we could say “They lived in a city. In this city, more than 99% of Jews were killed. They were killed for their race.” Similarly, we could say “The writer is anonymous. The writer says:….” However, this is no more concise than the original, and is rather unnatural. This illustrates the fact that you don’t have to use salami technique 100% of the time, especially if it makes your output unnatural.
If you enjoyed this exercise, you’ll find plenty more where that came from in my programme for English retourists, Rock your Retour.
The website contains hundreds of articles and exercises designed specifically for interpreters with an English B, and you can also join weekly live practice sessions, where I give members feedback on their interpreting into English.
I’m sure you know the drill: your task is to fill in the blanks with words that are grammatically correct, of an appropriate register, and plausible in terms of meaning. The article I adapted is from the Guardian, and is about gene editing. Here are the headline and subheading:
One of greatest risks of gene editing tools ‘is that the people who would benefit most will not be able to access them’
The next generation of advanced genetic therapies raises______________ medical and ethical issues that must be _______________ to ensure the _______________ technology benefits patients and society, a group of world-leading experts has warned.
Medicines based on powerful gene editing tools will begin to _____________ the treatment of blood disorders, conditions affecting the heart, eyes and muscles, and potentially even neurodegenerative diseases before the end of the decade, but the cost will put them ______________ many patients.
Trials of gene editing in embryos will probably follow, researchers say, and while the procedure has limited clinical applications, some fear fertility clinics could ____________ the technology and offer gene editing services that _______ “a new kind of techno-eugenics”.
Professor Françoise Baylis, a philosopher at Dalhousie University in Canada, said the cost of the new therapies will be _________ high for much of the global population, a situation that could “seriously threaten” the __________ for all humans to be born equal.
The experts, who _____________ from geneticists and public health researchers to bioethicists and philosophers, expect a________ of gene editing therapies to reach clinics in the next five years or so. These will correct disease-causing mutations in patients’ tissues and organs and become more sophisticated as researchers work out how to make multiple edits at once and reach difficult areas such as parts of the brain affected by neurodegenerative disease.
The same technology ____________ for therapies to enhance healthy humans, to make them faster, smarter, stronger, or more ________ to disease, though enhancement is __________ than mending single faulty genes.
The previous summit, held in Hong Kong in 2018, was _________ by controversy when the Chinese scientist Jiankui He revealed that he had edited DNA in three embryos that developed into babies, including twin sisters named Lulu and Nana. He intended to make the children immune to HIV, but was ______ __________ as reckless by the scientific community.
At millions of dollars a shot, gene editing today is prohibitively expensive. But if costs fall ____________ in coming decades, there is a risk that IVF clinics could start offering services, whether the benefits are proven or not. __________ parents might feel _____________ to use it to give their child “the best life”, Baylis said, fuelling a “new kind of techno-eugenics”.
“The next generation of advanced genetic therapies raises profound medical and ethical issues that must be thrashed out to ensure the game-changing technology benefits patients and society, a group of world-leading experts has warned.”
for profound, how about serious, weighty, far-reaching, grave, or possibly acute?
you could replace thrashed out with resolved, discussed, settled.
for game-changing, you could use groundbreaking, or something like advanced, cutting-edge; or even new.
“Medicines based on powerful gene editing tools will begin to transform the treatment of blood disorders, conditions affecting the heart, eyes and muscles, and potentially even neurodegenerative diseases before the end of the decade, but the cost will put them out of the reach of many patients.”
instead of transform, you could say change, alter, improve, revolutionise, modernise.
there aren’t many other options for out of the reach of, since it’s preceded with ‘put them’; you could say will put them beyond the budget.
“Trials of gene editing in embryos will probably follow, researchers say, and while the procedure has limited clinical applications, some fear fertility clinics could embrace the technology and offer gene editing services that fuel “a new kind of techno-eugenics”.”
where the text says ‘fertility clinics could embrace the technology’, you could choose adopt, take up, take on board, or make use of.
Instead of fuel, you could say lead to, encourage, feed, create, or trigger.
“Professor Françoise Baylis, a philosopher at Dalhousie University in Canada, said the cost of the new therapies will be prohibitively high for much of the global population, a situation that could “seriously threaten” the aspiration for all humans to be born equal.”
prohibitively could be replaced with exorbitantly, excessively, extortionately, unacceptably, unrealistically.
aspiration is a difficult word to replace in this context. Words like principle, which express the idea rather well, don’t fit the grammar (with the preposition + infinitive for….to be born). I suppose you could say the desire for all humans…
“The experts, who range from geneticists and public health researchers to bioethicists and philosophers, expect a wave of gene editing therapies to reach clinics in the next five years or so. These will correct disease-causing mutations in patients’ tissues and organs and become more sophisticated as researchers work out how to make multiple edits at once and reach difficult areas such as parts of the brain affected by neurodegenerative disease.”
For range, vary from, run from, or go from would be grammatically correct, but I don’t any of them is superior to range from. If not for the ‘from….to’, you could simply say ‘who include geneticists etc… and….’.
Instead of a wave, you could refer to a range of or a series or variety of therapies.
“The same technology paves the way for therapies to enhance healthy humans, to make them faster, smarter, stronger, or more resistant to disease, though enhancement is trickier than mending single faulty genes.”
How about replacing paves the way with makes it possible, opens the way, or even sets the scene for or lays the foundation for. ‘Allows’ isn’t suitable, because the ‘for’ changes the meaning (see this RyR post).
Instead of trickier, you can say more difficult, more complex, more complicated, more delicate, more problematic.
“The previous summit, held in Hong Kong in 2018, was marred by controversy when the Chinese scientist Jiankui He revealed that he had edited DNA in three embryos that developed into babies, including twin sisters named Lulu and Nana. He intended to make the children immune to HIV, but was roundly denounced as reckless by the scientific community.”
For marred, you could use ruined, spoiled, or damaged.
denounced could be replaced with criticised, condemned, censured, vilified, rebuked, taken to task.Roundly, depending on context, means severely, bluntly, thoroughly, sharply, fiercely, violently, intensely,outspokenly, but these adverbs don’t all go with every verb. You could definitely say severely criticised or fiercely rebuked.
“At millions of dollars a shot, gene editing today is prohibitively expensive. But if costs fall substantially in coming decades, there is a risk that IVF clinics could start offering services, whether the benefits are proven or not. Prospective parents might feel obligated to use it to give their child “the best life”, Baylis said, fuelling a “new kind of techno-eugenics”.”
substantially is relatively easy to replace with significantly.
prospective parents could be soon-to-be parents or, perhaps, future parents. We talk about ‘expectant mothers’, but I’m not so sure about expectant parents.
obligated: forced, compelled, duty-bound
If you’re interested in this type of material, why not join my membership site for English retourists, Rock your Retour? I regularly publish articles and exercises to help you polish your English B.
In my last blog post, I attempted to convince you of the value of speech prep, especially if you are a retourist and you use speech preparation as an exercise to develop your retour.
I outlined the process I use to create well-structured speeches, and listed 3 simple structures: linear, pros/cons, and ‘logical argument’.
In this post, I want to get down to the nitty gritty and talk about some of the shortcuts you can use to make speech prep a painless and rapid process.
Use an interview, panel debate, TV report or podcast for inspiration
The great thing about interviews or podcasts is that they often present contrasting points of view.
In the UK, for instance, if I were to watch Question Time on TV, listen to Any Questions on Radio 4, or tune in to the Today programme for some of the interviews, I would be able to pick out several viewpoints, which I could then incorporate into a speech.
This is particularly useful when you yourself have a strong opinion on a subject, and you need inspiration for the opposing viewpoint.
Let’s say you listen to a programme an EU proposal relating to Member States’ obligations to report on the gender pay gap.
Right off the bat, I can think of two ways you could structure your speech:
Explain the EU proposal and why it’s being introduced (i.e. the European Commission’s point of view)
Explain other parties’ point of view or reaction (for example, some of the Member States, if they have concerns; and/or women’s groups; or the European Parliament position)
Come to a conclusion, and perhaps give your own opinion. Of course, you also need an introduction to lead into the subject.
Here’s a second option:
Briefly outline the proposal
Explain the benefits of such legislation.
Outline the pitfalls. Here, you could explain who is opposed: NGOs, certain countries?
Draw your conclusion. Again, you will also need an introduction.
It’s clear, I think, that both speeches would cover much the same material, but with a slightly different slant. The first version focuses more on different points of view; the second is more of a ‘pros and cons’ speech.
A third possibility would be for you to play the role of a particular individual or organisation (for example, an employers’ organisation, an anti-discrimination NGO, a representative of the European Commission, a Minister for Equality from a Member State, etc.) and speak in favour or against the proposal. Your speech might look something like this:
Background to the proposal
Your organisation’s view – list of reasons why you support or oppose the proposal
Call to action
Example (in English)
Let’s prepare a speech about asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats. The UK government is proposing that anyone entering the UK illegally via this route should be barred from receiving asylum.
DON’T START YET! Read through the next couple of paragraphs.
[If you’re reading this before 8th April 2023 and you have plenty of time to get more background, you can listen to quite a lengthy interview with the Home Secretary Suella Braverman on Radio 4’s Today programme, followed by some analysis by the political editor. The interview begins at 2:10:00.]
Alternatively, here’s a clip from Al-Jazeera which we’ll use for this exercise, looking at the issue from several different angles (the UK government position, the charities’ position, the asylum seeker position).
Now set a timer.
As you listen to the Al-Jazeera clip, note down the arguments on either side.
Add any of your own thoughts or background knowledge.
If your English is a B language, and you’re preparing your speech in English (see my previous posts for the many benefits of doing this to improve your retour), now is the time to list a few useful terms or phrases to include in your speech (just one example: ‘a totemic issue’).
Now think about your conclusion. Here are a few starting points; you can pick the one that speaks to you the most, or something else:
Do you think the proposal is shocking? Sensible?
Can you draw parallels with the approach taken in another country?
Do you want to say something about the potential consequences?
Do you think the proposal is unlawful and in violation of international law?
This is your chance to send out an unequivocal message to wrap up your speech, and to give your personal opinion.
Finally, now that you know the ‘destination’ of your speech, think about the starting point, which will form your introduction. Here are some possibilities:
you could simply mention hearing this interview on the radio or seeing images on tV, and finding it fascinating/shocking/revealing/depressing
you could do a quick bit of extra research to start your speech with a figure, for example the number of people making this dangerous crossing in 2022 compared to previous years
you could mention refugee crises elsewhere, to put this one into context (Ukraine, Syria)
you could use a different context, and talk about people trying to reach Lampedusa and drowning
you could begin with a reference to human rights, e.g. the right to safety and security, and international law on asylum
you could start with a personal anecdote, for instance if your parents or grandparents were refugees or immigrants
I’m sure you can think of many more.
OK, you’ve got your intro, conclusion, and the middle bit. 🙂
Now write out your speech outline in a more organised form, whether that be a mind map or a bullet point outline. As I said in my last post, some people write the whole thing out in longhand, but I think the result is generally much better if your speech is based on bullet points, which you (semi-)improvise around.
That’s it! Stop the timer. How long did it take you?
If you have time and you want to practise your speech (for example, if it’s in a B language), rehearse it now. Why not record it and listen back to your performance?
Here are my outline and my speech. Normally, I would just write keywords in bullet point form, but I fear that would be totally illegible, so I’ve written something a little longer to make sure you can follow my reasoning.
Intro: In 2022, 46,000 people attempted the dangerous Channel crossing in a small boat. Hundreds of people have drowned. This is an illegal route into the UK; the question is, is this a criminal issue that the government needs to crack down on, or a humanitarian crisis that needs solving?
Government point of view: this is a right wing government (i.e. generally anti-immigration), and the issue has become totemic. It’s costly (hotels cost £6 million per day); there is an illegal trade in people-smuggling that must be stopped. Drawing inspiration from Australia, the latest proposal is that if people enter the UK via an illegal route, they will NEVER be able to receive asylum, and will be detained and removed (to Rwanda). This is a necessary and proportional deterrent, and if people’s route into a country is blocked, the numbers attempted entry fall (Australian example).
Local charities: asylum seekers are treated like criminals. They are fleeing conflict and persecution. There should be a humanitarian route into the UK, e.g. with a visa scheme like the one in place for Ukrainians.
For the asylum seekers in Calais, the situation is dire. French police break up the camps every two days, there are no welcome centres to host them, and no legal way to enter the UK. They feel like they have no other choice. But this new legislation won’t stop them trying to cross the Channel.
Conclusion: intractable problem. In an astonishing piece of spin, the government is trying to present a crackdown as a humanitarian act, by suggesting that this is humanitarian deterrence (and if anyone manages to cross, they will be sent to a safe place, i.e. deported to Rwanda!). Will they succeed in presenting the issue in this way? Or in stopping the boats and deporting asylum seekers (no-one has gone to Rwanda so far; the proposal is mired in legal controversy). The problem for the government is their very clear slogan: “stop the boats”. There will be no fudge, as it will be very easy to judge whether this has been achieved or not.
This is a speech lasting nearly six minutes; it contains several points of vie, one or two figures, some important background knowledge (e.g. the names of the Home Secretary, the whole situation of asylum seekers in Calais), and a bit of logic in the conclusion.
In sum, I would class this as an exam-style speech, which took me less than 30 minutes to research, outline, and record.
In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about other shortcuts to help you prepare speeches quickly and easily.
I ran a webinar recently about improving your retour (i.e. interpreting into a B language – a language other than your mother tongue), and I asked participants to send me any questions in advance, so I could tailor the content to their needs.
This is a useful exercise, as it often provides inspiration or discussion points for the webinar, but it can also be a double edged sword, because it’s not unusual to receive questions that you really don’t want to address, for whatever reason – they’re too controversial, they would take up too much time, they’re too specific, they don’t match your knowledge, expertise, or niche, and the list goes on.
On this occasion, one of the participants said this:
I’ve been on retour courses before, and the trainer nearly always suggests preparing speeches in your B language as a good exercise for improving your retour. Who has time for that?!
I confess this stung a little, as I do indeed often suggest speech preparation as a great exercise, and I was going to do so on this occasion as well! So I had to give extra thought to alternative exercises I could suggest; but my first instinct was to defend speech prep, and above all, to stress the fact that it doesn’t have to be time-consuming, and it can be fun and creative as well as beneficial! You can prepare a consecutive speech from start to finish in less than 20 minutes.
In this post, I’d like to explain why I think speech prep is such a great exercise for retourists, and give you some time-saving tips to make it less of a chore (if that’s how you think of it), whether you’re preparing a speech in your mother tongue or in your B language.
How speech prep can boost your retour
The bottom line for a good retour, as I see it, is this: if you can’t speak spontaneously on a given subject in your B language, using appropriate terminology and correct grammar, how can you hope to interpret someone else’s thoughts convincingly?
Doing a decent job of interpreting is a corollary of speaking well on a given subject; hence the importance of language enhancement work when you’re trying to develop your retour, as opposed to focusing exclusively on interpreting practice.
[On a side note: this principle, which appears self-evident to me, is generally unpopular with interpreting students, who tend to feel that anything other than practising interpreting from A>B is a waste of time.]
Speech preparation is therefore an excellent way of expanding the range of subjects on which you’re able to speak with authority.
I think it’s probably fair to say that the weaker your retour is, the more beneficial speech prep will be. If you already have a very strong retour or near-native competence in your B language, you can pick up important vocab in other ways.
Benefits of speech prep
Here’s a breakdown of some of the benefits of preparing speeches in your B language:
it improves your general and subject knowledge because of the research you have to do.
it’s an opportunity to practise and improve your public speaking skills (eye contact, pace, intonation).
it’s a great way to ‘activate’ vocabulary, i.e. make it part of your active vocabulary, rather than vocabulary you understand passively but never use.
if you prepare your speech in the form of interpreters’ notes, rather than bullet points, it’s a good way to improve your ability to decipher your own notes, i.e. it can help improve your consecutive skills.
similarly, if you’re working on consecutive, it’s a great way to introduce or consolidate symbols.
it’s a good way to prepare for an assignment on a specific topic.
learning to prepare well-structured speeches is a good way of improving your analytical skills and recognising structure in other people’s speeches.
By the way, all of these points are true of preparing speech in your A language as well, although in this case there will be less emphasis on vocabulary acquisition or consolidation.
So far, I’ve covered benefits that are related to your language or interpreting skills, but there are others:
speech prep can be important if you’re a member of a practice group, or you work with a practice partner. You can give speeches to each other!
if you’re an interpreter trainer, there’s a good chance you will give speeches to your students at some point, either because you can’t find suitable source material, or because you want to be in control of the type of challenge or level of difficulty of the speech.
Preparing speeches is an excellent way of ‘giving back’ to the interpreting community, by contributing to practice groups or repositories such as Speechpool.
A method for rapid speech prep
There are many ways to prepare speeches. I can’t possibly cover all of them, nor produce a framework that suits everyone.
Here’s an important caveat, for starters: I’m giving your advice for preparing the type of speech that you would have to interpret at an EU accreditation or retour test, or at a final exam in interpreting school. You would need to follow a different method if you were preparing practice material for certain types of public service interpreting, say.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at a simple method for preparing practice speeches.
Often, the hardest thing is finding a good topic! Once something catches your interest (on a news programme or podcast, for instance), you’re off and running.
if you’re preparing a speech for as a ‘swap’ for a practice partner, or for an interpreting practice group, why not choose a topic that will help you improve your subject knowledge (e.g. if you’re weak on finance, pick a financial topic)?
if you’re preparing a speech in your B language, think about areas where your vocabulary is lacking.
Another option would be to prepare a speech in your B language to prepare for an assignment where you already know the topic.
If you regularly prepare speeches, it’s a good idea to keep a note of topics that inspire you. You could have a document on your computer (or use a Notes app) to keep track of links to interesting blog posts or newspaper articles. (Back in the day, interpreter trainers sometimes kept a file with newspaper clippings to turn to when they needed inspiration.)
Once you’ve found a topic or looked for one by browsing the news headlines, you can get to work designing your speech. I’ll give you a 4-step process for doing this,
Step 1: Researching your speech
The amount of research you do will depend on the purpose of your speech, and your existing background knowledge.
You may not need to do much (or indeed, any!) research if:
the speech is for interpreting students who are beginners. If they are just starting to pick up consecutive without notes, in particular, you may be able to give a speech based on your existing knowledge of a topic, or your opinions, since you won’t want to include many names, dates, or figures.
the speech is rather philosophical or based on your opinions or reactions to a film or book. You already have all the knowledge you need to outline this speech!
You will want to do more research if:
the speech is designed as a simultaneous (for an EU accreditation test, this would be 10-12 minutes long, instead of 5-6 minutes for a consecutive). That amount of material usually requires an outside source of information!
you’re preparing a speech in a B language, and you want to make sure you’re using appropriate vocabulary.
you’re preparing a speech on a technical subject or one that is unfamiliar to you.
In my next blog post, I’ll give you three shortcuts for researching a topic quickly and efficiently.
An exam-style speech typically contains a range of challenges, e.g. contrasting opinions (to check the interpreter is conveying them accurately), some facts and figures, a personal comment or opinion, and perhaps a reference to current affairs, to check the interpreter’s background knowledge.
So when you’re doing your research, you might want to look for:
a few facts and figures about your topic – you’ll only need a few for a consecutive, more for a simultaneous
a ‘hook’ from the newspapers, i.e. some event in the news that make this topic relevant and interesting
how different people or organisations feel about this topic
your own opinion!
You can find relevant information in all sorts of places: the news, an article you’ve read in a magazine, a podcast episode, a blog post, a conversation with a friend or colleague. Or you could build a speech based on your reflections about a film you’ve just seen, for example, or a book you’ve read.
When you’ve done the research, jot down your ideas, arguments, figures, dates, etc. on a piece of paper. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the material isn’t organised.
Step 2: Structuring your speech
Speakers organise their material in all sorts of ways. I’ll stick to three simple speeches structures:
linear. Typically, this would be a chronology, or a story that starts at point A and finishes at point B.
pros and cons. You can either list all the pros, then all the cons; or you could give one ‘pro’, then a matching ‘con’, and so on. This ‘opposites’ structure is particularly suited to consecutive without notes, because it’s very easy to remember.
an logical argument that leads the audience from a premise or hypothesis to a conclusion, using logical connectors like ‘and, ‘but’, ‘so’.
Realistically, most speeches contain a mixture of several structures: perhaps a more narrative introduction (linear), then the argument.
Think about your research: does your material lend itself to a pros and cons structure? Or is it a story (linear structure)? Do you want to make an argument that will persuade the audience or win them over to your opinion, in which case you’ll need to be very clear about cause and effect or other logical connections between your ideas, and have a strong conclusion?
Step 3: Create a detailed outline of your speech
People do this in different ways. Some people like to produce a spider diagram or mind map; others visualise their speerch as a tree with a trunk and branches; and still others write a bullet point outline. This is the most common way of organising material, I think, although something like a mind map can give a speaker more freedom when giving a simultaneous speech.
Now’s the time to organise your facts, figures, explanations, details, etc. into a legible outline. Make sure your bullet points are connected clearly with links.
Once you’ve organised your material, you can write a conclusion. This often follows on logically from the body of your speech.
Personally, I often add the introduction at the end of this process, because by that stage, I know where I’m going and what I want to say, and it’s easier to find a good ‘entry point’ into the speech. The introduction is a good place to say something personal to ease the audience into the speech quite gently, and to engage them and make your speech more relatable. Or you can use the introduction to mention an event in the news which makes your speech topic relevant.
Step 4: Rehearse your speech
How much you rehearse your speech will depend on its purpose.
If you’re an interpreter trainer giving a speech for an interpreting exam, you’ll obviously want to go through it several times to make sure the timing is right.
Be careful not to overrehearse: this removes all the spontaneity from a speech and makes it very dense, and often rather too fast.
And on that subject: I do know some colleagues who write out their entire speech in longhand, or type it out, rather than having a bullet point outline. While I understand that this makes them more confident, particularly when they’re giving an exam speech, personally I much prefer to speak (semi-)spontaneously from an outline. This produces something more conversational and closer to normal speech, rather than read-out material; it’s usually much more engaging, and means the speaker makes more eye contact with the audience.
Speech prep in a B language
If you’ve read this far, you’ll have realised that almost everything I’ve said applies to preparing speeches in your mother tongue or in a B language.
So what’s different or special about preparing speeches in your B language?
The process is exactly the same, but the emphasis is different.
If you’re preparing a speech in your B language, your primary aim is likely to be vocabulary acquisition or consolidation.
To this end, when you’re researching the topic (reading a couple of articles, or listening to a podcast), make sure you note down a few key words, phrases, or idioms that strike you as useful in other contexts.
Incorporate them into your speech. The more you say them out loud and hear yourself saying them, the more likely they are to become part of your active vocabulary.
I find when I’m preparing a speech in my B language that
I research it more (i.e. I read several articles, or listen to more material, rather than just working with the ideas that are already in my head).
I write down whole chunks, or sometimes whole sentences, to reuse in my speech.
I rehearse it more.
The risk, in your B language, is that you will end up reading out a speech that you’ve basically rehashed from a newspaper article, rather than ‘digesting’ the material and reformulating it.
Have I made it sound long and complicated? Probably! 🤣
In fact, it’s probably taken you longer to read this blog post than it would be outline a consecutive speech.
I’ll leave my examples and shortcuts to a second blog post, so that my word count doesn’t explode!
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