No native speaker? No problem! Go solo to improve your retour.

Self-training to improve your retour

In my last post, I talked about the benefits of having a native speaker of your B language listen to you when you’re practising your retour. Today, I want to focus on self-training to improve your retour.

Native speakers can pinpoint systematic errors of grammar and usage, point out where you’re not making enough sense (perhaps because the links between ideas aren’t clear enough in your interpretation), and offer alternative solutions in passages where you have struggled to express yourself idiomatically in your B.

However, it isn’t always possible – or, dare I say it, necessary – to work with a native speaker. Self-training (and please forgive me if I cringe every time I write that hateful word!) can get you a long way… on one condition.

Effective self-training to improve your retour

I want to dwell for a moment on why we assume native speaker feedback is a sine qua non for retour training. Our assumption is that native speakers know more than we do.

This assumption is based, in turn, on the fact that when we interpret into our B language, we ‘fail’. We make mistakes. We get genders and tenses wrong, we use the wrong word order, we don’t put the right verb with the right noun, we mispronounce words. Our helpful native speaker can identify those mistakes, point them out to us, and then we write them down, or research them further, and try to avoid making them in future.

When we practise by ourselves, by definition, we can’t do the same things a native speaker does. We might interpret a speech and record ourselves, then listen back to the interpretation and try to be alert to mistakes or clumsy use of language. We might go over tricky passages and see if we can think of better ways to express them. But trying to emulate a native speaker in this way, while worthwhile and a good intellectual exercise, is a lot more effort, and often less productive, than working with an actual native speaker.

Forgive me for a brief digression, but just as the Pavlovian sound of ‘self-training’ gets my hackles up (what can I say instead? Self-study? Homework? Follow-up? Practising by yourself?), after writing ‘native speaker’ ten times, I end up seeing this in my mind.

native speaker

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But back to the point. The reason self-training in retour is often less productive than working with a native speaker is because by looking for mistakes and attempting to correct them, you’re setting yourself up to fail. It’s an ex post sort of approach: you’re deliberately focusing on what you can’t do, rather than on what you can do.

For self-training to be an effective tool to improve your retour (and believe me, it can be incredibly effective), you need to flip this approach. You need to set yourself up to succeed.

Set yourself up for success when working on your retour

What does this mean in practice? It means that rather than picking up on one-off errors in an interpretation into B (which are errors you may never make again, relating to phrases you may never encounter again), you lay the groundwork before attempting to interpret a speech, so that you have activated the right vocabulary, understood the arguments, and built confidence in advance – rather than trying to do all that under pressure.

Are you still with me? I hope so. If you’re getting a little impatient for the ‘how?’, bear with me. I’m going to lay it out for you step by step.

A step by step session for improving your retour

    1. Step 1. Set aside an hour, switch off the phone, park the children in front of the TV make sure the children are engaged in a suitable educational activity.
    2. Step 2. Pick a topic you would like to work on in this particular session. For the sake of argument, I’m going to choose the environment; specifically, Earth Overshoot Day.
    3. Step 3. Select 3 or 4 sources in your B language, either short podcasts, videos, TEDtalks, or press articles, that cover the main points you need to know about Earth Overshoot Day. Don’t spend too long on searching for them; you want something that will cover the basics without being in-depth. Here’s what I’ve chosen on this topic, for someone working on an English retour. If your B language is something else, you will need pick a similar selection.
      • Good old Wikipedia. Yes, I know it’s not always reliable or authorative, but you can skim read it and get a good overview of a topic. The focus will be on facts and figures, so you can pick out any useful terminology.
      • The Earth Overshoot Day website. Always good to get information straight from the horse’s mouth.
      • An article from The Guardian. Press coverage will give you opinion as well as facts, which is useful a) for building up a repertoire of suitable stock phrases and idioms, and b) for getting a feel for the arguments that might come up in a speech on this topic.
      • A short video from Euronews.  It’s good to hear, not just to read, and Euronews is an authoritative source.
      • A short video from Aljazeera, covering the basics.
    4. Step 4. Read the articles, listen to the videos or podcasts, and note down any useful phrases and vocabulary. This is your ’emergency kit’, which you can pull out whenever you next have an assignment on this topic. Don’t make it too long! Below, you’ll find a link to the one I have just spent ten minutes producing. You can fill in the adjacent column with the vocab in your mother tongue, or in your B (if English is your A). You may find that you need or want to write down quite different things, for example words such as ‘grazing land’ or ‘cropland’; it depends on your existing knowledge. Note also that I have included a few individual words, but many whole phrases, and quite a few idioms. This is because collocations are a real challenge when working into a B, and so are idioms. It helps to have a stock of set phrases to use as a toolkit; refresh your memory by reading through them just before your next meeting or practice session on this topic. Earth Overshoot Day micro-glossary
    5. Step 5. Now it’s time to fine-tune your note-taking, so any symbols or abbreviations are rock solid, and to start activating the right terminology and register – with a little bit of help. Find a short speech or presentation in your B language about Earth Overshoot Day. Take notes. Deliver your interpretation. You’re doing a B>B exercise, so you’ll have plenty of inspiration from the speaker, plus from your preparatory work, to allow you to produce a fluent, idiomatic version. I’ve picked this from Sustainability Illustrated.
    6. Step 6. At last, you’re ready for the main event. Grab a suitable speech in your mother tongue. Remind yourself that you are now knowledgeable on the topic, confident, and armed with a plethora of appropriate and elegant phrases. Switch on your recording device and give the interpretation your best shot. In case you’re following along and actually want to try this, here are suitable speeches:
    7. Step 7. Give yourself a pat on the back for making it this far. Listen back to your interpretation, and see where there is room for improvement.
    8. Step 8. Have one more try, incorporating any corrections and improvements.
    9. Step 9. Heave a sigh of relief, and eat several squares of chocolate (optional).

Now, I’m the first to admit I have obsessive completer-finisher tendencies. The good news is: some of these steps are optional! Here’s how you can play around with the sequence:

  • if you are not working on consecutive, skip step 5.
  • if you’re pretty confident with the topic and your knowledge of it, shorten step 3 to just one or two sources.
  • if you’re satisfied with your interpretation, or you’re short of time, skip steps 7, 8 and 9.
  • and honestly: steps 1 and 9 take no time at all. And why would you miss out on the chocolate?

Of course, you can also spin it out a bit:

  • if you’re unfamiliar with the topic in general, read around it in your mother tongue as well as your B.
  • to activate your knowledge and vocabulary further, insert a step 4.5, where you prepare a short speech about Earth Overshoot Day in your B language.
  • do something that’ll give you a warm glow: share your own speech about Earth Overshoot Day on Speechpool.
  • postpone the chocolate step until you’ve interpreted another speech.
  • send your recording to a friend who is willing to give you some feedback.

Self-training to improve your retour: the benefits

I hope I have clearly outlined a sequence of steps that will allow you to have a very productive practice session. As you can see, there is some flexibility built in. Your Return on Investment will be huge, I promise. Here are just some of the advantages of working like this:

  • The time you invest in doing just a little research will pay off in the future: you’ll know a little more about the topic, which will help with anticipation when you’re interpreting, and improve your confidence.
  • Your ’emergency kit’ can be taken with you whenever you need it. You can add to it as you go along.
  • This type of exercise allows you to revise and consolidate your notes on this particular topic.
  • By the time you’ve finished this session, you will have expanded and activated your vocabulary. I use the word activate deliberately: many people seem to think that reading widely in your B or listening a lot (e.g. to the news on TV, or the radio) will help your retour. But never forget that what you’re trying to do is improve your active knowledge of the language, not your comprehension.
  • You’ll feel so virtuous after doing this. Trust me. And it definitely took me longer to write it out than it will take you to do it. The whole session will take you between an hour and an hour and a half, depending on how many elements you include.

I would hate you to get to the end of this post and leave with the mistaken impression  that I believe working with native speakers to be unproductive or unnecessary. On the contrary, I think feedback from a native speaker is essential for developing a strong retour – if it’s the right native speaker (see my previous post for reasons why). 

However, not everyone has the luxury of working with a native speaker all the time, for reasons to do with time, money, or availability of the same. If that’s the position you’re in, never fear! Working through my step by step sequence will allow you to build up your skills from the bottom up, with a rock solid foundation.

To your success,

p.s. if you try out the approach I’ve just shared with you, do let me know how you get on. How did you feel afterwards? Leave a comment after this post.

p.p.s perhaps you have classmates or colleagues who are working on a retour. Why not share this post with them? You can use the Facebook button below.

Interpreting Coach logoSophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning.

Improve your retour with help from a native speaker

Improve your retour with a native speaker

It is a truth universally acknowledged (as Jane Austen might say) that improving your retour is a lifelong task.

Like any other interpreting skill – only more so – it obeys the maxim ‘use it or lose it’.

Most interpreters would also take it as a given that the best way to maintain or improve your retour is to interpret a speech into their B language, and get feedback from a native speaker of their B about the overall coherence of their interpretation, as well as infelicities in the use of language.

Native speakers can give you something that other retourists cannot, and that you often can’t provide for yourself:

  • they can spot errors of syntax, register and vocabulary.
  • they can point out when your interpretation isn’t clear enough (perhaps because you haven’t been sufficiently explicit in explaining a cultural reference).
  • above all, they can offer alternative solutions, thus enriching your active vocabulary and allowing you to do better next time.

Sounds great!

The thing is…sometimes you don’t have access to a tame native speaker to give you a hand. You may just have finished a Master’s or other course in interpreting studies, for example, and once you’re no longer attending classes, you don’t have a tutor or classmates giving you tailored feedback every day.

How can you keep practising productively? As I see it, there are two possible approaches: find yourself a tame native speaker who is willing to practise with you or coach you, or go solo. In this blog post, I’ll be focusing on the former approach; look out for Part 2, where I’ll be talking about how you can self-train (oh, how I hate that word!) productively, even in the absence of a native speaker.

Approach 1: track down the elusive native speaker

You’re wondering: why elusive? After all, let’s say your B language is Italian and you’re living in Italy, you’re surrounded by native speakers, right?

Well, yes. But not all native speakers are equal. They can’t all give you what you need.

Most non-interpreters, if asked for feedback on your use of language, will be able to pick up on glaring errors (problems with conjugations, declensions, words that don’t exist, pronunciation that makes you impossible to understand). They are reacting as clients, and identifying aspects of your interpretation that make it difficult for them to follow, or errors so noticeable that they may lose confidence in your ability and skills as an interpreter. This feedback is useful, because it gives you an insight into how you are perceived by your client.

In order to improve your retour, however, you need something more than this. You need a native speaker who can:

  • identify recurrent, structural problems in your use of language (for example, word order when asking a question).
  • identify issues with register and nuance, and explain why one solution is appropriate when another is not.
  • prompt you to find alternative solutions in tricky places, or offer solutions themselves.

The more linguistically aware your practice partner is, the more useful their feedback is likely to be. My feeling, though, is that your best bet for improving your retour is to work with someone who is not just reacting as a client, but as an interpreter, or (best of all) a coach.

Improve your retour with a seasoned coach

  1. If you have time and money and can travel, try a short course that focuses specifically on retour. Your trainers will be specialists who can give you constructive feedback. Where can you find out about short courses?
      • keep an eye on AIIC’s (the International Association of Conference Interpreters) Events page, for a list of training events. AIIC runs short retour courses all over the world, and they are not only aimed at those with an English retour.AIIC training events


    • if your B language is English and you’d like further training in the UK, there are a couple of highly regarded summer courses: a summer course organised by Zoe Hewetson and Christine Adams, and the Cambridge Course, run by Christopher Guichot de Fortis, staff Senior Interpreter at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and Julia Poger, freelance interpreter. This is not specifically a retour course, but >EN and >FR are just two of the (many) language combinations covered.
    • You could also consider attending part of a university interpreting course. Manchester University runs a four week post-exam session (in June/July) focusing on simultaneous interpreting and advanced skills. If you are already a professional interpreter and wish to turn an English C into a B, this is a plausible option – especially as it involves a period of immersion living in the UK.


  2. If you have less time and money, and/or can’t travel, find an online coach.  Word of mouth is the best way to get a good recommendation. You are welcome to contact me if you are looking for English B coaching.

Improve your retour with a fellow interpreter

This is a good solution if you enjoy working with your peers, and don’t have a big budget to invest in further training.

  1. Find a practice group. These are not always easy to track down. A good place to start is Facebook; see if there are any interpreters’ groups near you.
        • If you’re in Brussels, get in touch with the IBPG (Interpreters in Brussels Practice Group), which is friendly, well-run and professional. They used to run specific French-English retour sessions, and the regular weekly sessions cover several language combinations. Even if you can’t work into your B at one of the practice sessions, it’s a great place to meet fellow interpreters and organise to meet up with a partner.IBPG


        • WISE workshops are a roaring success, and run in Valencia and Brussels every summer. The idea is of a mutually beneficial exchange between participants, who are not paid; you give speeches for others to interpret, and you interpret others’ speeches. Retour tends to be a big component of the workshops, and you can expect English, French, German, Spanish and Italian to be covered.WISE workshops


        • Run along similar lines to the WISE workshops, the Leeds ENIT initiative is an opportunity for interpreters with English and Italian to practise their skills.Leeds ENIT initiative


  2. Find a practice partner. Again, this is not always straightforward.
      • You may be able to stay in touch with a fellow interpreting student, if you’ve just finished an interpreting course, and organise regular practice sessions.
      • If your course has an alumni network, this is also an opportunity to connect with someone who has the skills and language combination to help you.
      • Online platforms can be useful as well. Try Interpretimebank, based on the time-bank principle; you give feedback to another member, ‘bank’ the time involved, and organise to receive feedback from someone else with the right language combination.Interpretimebank
      • In a few weeks, the revamped version of Speechpool will allow you to search for a practice partner.

I hope these suggestions have given you some good leads for finding someone suitable to help you improve your retour.

I’ll leave you with a suggestion that could make your practice sessions more fruitful, if you’re working with a peer rather than an experienced coach. Ask the person listening to you to structure their feedback as follows:

  1. Was there anything that the audience would find difficult or impossible to understand? If so, what was the problem (poor explanations, inappropriate vocabulary, lack of logic, pronunciation, or poor use of the target language)? This is the bottom line for your credibility and reliability as an interpreter, so it’s the first thing the feedback should focus on.
  2. Were there any recurrent issues with use of language? What you’re trying to do here is identify patterns in the way you use your B language, so you can go away and do some tailored exercises to remedy the problems (which might be with morphology or word order, say, or the way you express numbers).
  3. If you are looking for detailed feedback on every little mistake you made, make sure you ask the listener to try to categorise your errors rather than just listing them all higgledy-piggledy. See if you/they can classify the errors (for example: difficulties with the use of articles or prepositions). Again, this gives you a specific problem to work on systematically, rather than a long list of one-off mistakes. Bear in mind, though, that it is much more interesting to think about your interpreting strategy and systematic errors thank about trivial one-offs that may never occur again in a different speech.
  4. If your listener identifies particular phrases that sounded unidiomatic, see if you can come up with an alternative. Ask if it sounds right. Ask if your listener has a better alternative. The aim of the exercise, after all, is not just to know what you did wrong, but how you can improve next time.

Do you have any tips to share about finding native speakers to help you improve your retour? Leave a comment below the blog post – I’d love to hear from you!

Good luck with your practice!

p.s. look out for Part 2 of this blog post, in which I’ll discuss how you can work productively on your retour skills in the absence of a native speaker.

Interpreting Coach logoSophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills, and check out the website for digital material to complement your face-to-face learning and empower you to take control of your learning.

3 of the most useful websites for boosting your interpreting skills

The Interpreting Coach portrait

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think. – Socrates

I’ve been an interpreter trainer for fifteen years, and I can pass on plenty of tips and tricks for improving interpreting skills, as well as teaching technique. But learning to interpret is a process of learning by doing, so I see my role far more as that of a guide and mentor than a teacher.

My real goal is to help students and trainees become independent learners. Interpreting, like so many skills (from playing a musical instrument to cooking, from driving a car to Argentinian tango), requires a huge amount of practice. Classroom time is not enough; to improve your skills, you need to do a lot self-study. And by that, I don’t mean navel-gazing! I don’t know who coined the term ‘self-study’, which sounds horribly narcissistic; call it what you will, self-study, self-learning, independent learning, or homework, it’s a must.

Luckily, modern technology means you can practise your interpreting skills and improve your knowledge of your chosen field in the comfort of your own home.

Today, I wanted to share with you my top 3 websites for boosting your skills.

1. ORCIT (online resources for conference interpreter training)

ORCIT screenshot


ORCIT is a collaborative project which aims to address the five core skills any successful conference interpreter needs: listening and analysis, public speaking, consecutive interpretation, simultaneous, and research skills.

The interface is quite visual, as the material is organised in books on a virtual bookshelf. You can click on book titles such as ‘note-taking introduction’, and be taken to a theoretical introduction, as well as practical exercises that you can work through at home.

What I like about it: the ‘theory’ is not at all heavy-going. It’s more a collection of tried and tested principles that are clearly laid out in a pedagogical framework that makes sense. The exercises follow a step-by-step approach, and recap all the sub-skills you need to acquire in a very structured way.

I also like the fact ORCIT is available in several languages! Apart from English, you’ll find German, Greek, Czech, Spanish, Lithuanian and Slovenian on the site.

What’s lacking: more practice material! It’s rather unfair to fault the site for this, because it’s not designed as a repository of speeches. But once you’ve worked your way through the theory and exercises, you’ll need to look elsewhere for video clips that you can use for practice.

2. SCICtrain

SCICtrain screenshot

SCICtrain is the European Commission Directorate-General for Interpretation’s attempt to bring together decades of knowledge and experience relating to conference interpreter training in one place.

The website is structured as a series of modules: SCICtrain, what is interpretation, learning to interpret, working as an interpreter, consecutive interpretation, simultaneous interpretation, retour interpretation, and accreditation test. The content of these modules is essentially a virtual library of video clips, some of them covering ‘theory’ (such as note-taking technique), and some being demos, where you can listen to a speech in a particular language (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese), then watch a professional interpreter tackle it, and finally listen to a discussion between the interpreter and the speaker.

What I like about it: it’s based on sound pedagogical principles, and the material is split up in categories that make sense. I also like the fact you can watch real EU interpreters doing consecutive and simultaneous – a fantastic learning opportunity!

What I don’t like about it: the interface. I don’t find it visually appealing, and above all, it’s more or less a series of links to video clips, with nothing more than a title to let you know what you’ll be watching. It’s quite difficult to find what you need. There’s no text to read, and no ‘framing’ of the clips to explain what you can do with them, or where they fit in the pedagogical framework of an interpreting course, for instance.  It’s not user-friendly enough for me, and I can’t find any supporting material or anything downloadable – streaming only!

3. SCIC Repository

Speech Repository screenshot

The SCIC speech repository is a vast virtual library of practice material for conference interpreters and students. As well as ‘pedagogical material’ (i.e. speeches designed specifically for practising interpreting skills), it houses recordings of parliamentary debates, press conferences and interviews, in all the EU languages and more (e.g. Chinese), and in large quantities.

What I like about it: the interface, while not the most beautiful, is simple to use. You can search by language, level, use (e.g. consecutive or simultaneous), domain (e.g. agriculture, transport), and speech type. This is particularly useful for those who are preparing for an accreditation exam, as it allows them to search for test-type speeches. The sound and image quality are excellent. If you’re on the private version of the site, available only to students at universities with which SCIC cooperates, you can use a special app to record your performance, allowing you to listen back to it and analyse your performance, as well as sharing it with others (your tutor, or other students).

SCICtrain’s weaknesses: for me, the biggest weakness is the slow turnover. Some of the speeches are excellent exercises, but nearly 10 years out of date, which renders them almost useless for interpreting practice. The grading of some speeches is still problematic, despite considerable efforts by the SCIC team to have them regraded in a more consistent fashion. And in some languages, there is hardly any pedagogical material available (for instance, in Greek). Finally, while the ability to search by type and difficulty is essential, there are other search filters that could be very useful – for example, the ability to search for a speech containing numbers.

4. Bonus website: an honourable mention for Speechpool

Speechpool screenshot

Disclaimer: for those of you who may not know, Speechpool is my site, so I could wax lyrical about its strengths…and also its weaknesses!

What’s great about Speechpool: it’s a collaborative effort. The idea is that interpreting students can watch the video clips, but also upload their own. It covers many languages and the turnover on the English page is very rapid. There are more than 800 video clips on the English page – a wealth of practice material, contributed by interpreters (or aspiring interpreters) from all over the globe, so you can expect a variety of accents.

What needs improvement: it’s a popular site, but it could be more professional. The sound quality isn’t always ideal, and there isn’t a great deal of practice material for the smaller languages.

The good news: Speechpool is being overhauled. I’ve already had a sneak preview of the new, bigger and better version. You can expect a whole host of new features to make your practice even more productive, and to allow you to network with other interpreters!

There are plenty of other interpreting-related sites and blogs, but these are the ones I consider most likely to help you improve your interpreting skills.

What are some of your favourites? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment below!


Introducing The Interpreting Coach

Announcing The Interpreting Coach

How can I serve you?

For some years now, I’ve been thinking:

Wouldn’t it be great if there were more digital content to help aspiring interpreters?

How can I reach more interpreting students and help them boost their skills and stand out from the crowd?

What can I offer professional interpreters to help them refine and refresh their existing skills?

How can I harness my knowledge and experience as an interpreter trainer and produce practical, useful, engaging training materials?

How can I connect with learners around the world?

Gradually, the answer came to me. I’ve thought it through, polished and amended it, and it still isn’t a finished product, but here it is.

The Interpreting Coach

I am very excited to introduce you to my new venture: The Interpreting Coach. On the website ( I’ll be offering webinars on topics such as stress management for interpreters, exam preparation and note-taking. Individual and group coaching will be available (depending on language combination), and you will gradually see the site being populated with ecourses.

Some of you may know me from my website Speechpool, which hosts practice material for trainee and professional interpreters. Like Speechpool, I wanted The Interpreting Coach to be a place where all interpreters can connect and learn from each other. That’s why I have created a community, which you can join by heading over to the website. Membership is free! You will receive exclusive access to practice speeches in English, guided exercises, a members’ forum where you can ask questions and chat to other interpreters, and the newsletter with special offers.

I’m really excited to finally be launching The Interpreting Coach. Look out for the first webinar in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’m interested in how I can be of use to you! Please leave a comment to let me know what your biggest challenge is as an interpreting student. Which skill is hardest to learn? What do you find difficult? Is there a course or webinar that would make your life easier?

Warm wishes for success in your studies,



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