How to make English work for you when you’re working into English



In any situation in life where you want to excel, it makes sense to work to your strengths and find ways to compensate for your weaknesses. Interpreting is no exception. Adapting to the situation you find yourself in, and using your advantages strategically means making the most of your own strengths and talents (the way you express yourself in your mother tongue, or the fact you’re not afraid of numbers).

However, your personal skills as an interpreter are only one side of the coin. The other side is the tools at your disposal. The right tools can help you do a good job. Maybe you use glossary tools or a tablet in the booth to improve your performance, or you own a particular headset which offers excellent sound quality.

I have in mind something else, though. Rather than tools such as the equipment, the headset, your notepad or glossary, I’m thinking of the language itself, and how you use it. After all, language is your primary tool when you’re working as an interpreter: language is what you wield, mould and shape to your purpose, in order to convey the speaker’s message. Much of the joy of interpreting, in fact, lies in manipulating language.

Not all languages are born equal, though. In the same way that you’re better off making grilled vegetable kebabs than soufflé if you’re cooking on a barbecue, if you’re working into English, you need a particular mindset. Don’t try to work into English in the same way as you would work into Italian, Japanese or Russian. Make English work for you, not against you.

Today I want to focus on how you can turn the very features of your target language, English, to your advantage.

When interpreters have an English B and are working from their mother tongue into English, they may enjoy it for reasons no more complicated than a) they understand everything that is being said by the speaker, and b) their English is pretty strong, and they feel comfortable using it.

I think it’s worth giving a little more thought to why English can be such a great language to work into, whether it is your B language or your A. With a deliberate awareness of the useful features of English, from an interpreting perspective, you can think strategically and improve your interpreting performance.

The joys of working into English

If you’re multilingual, you may feel, as I do, that languages have personalities. Just as an individual can be romantic, surly, crisply practical, informal or abrupt, so can a language (if you’re willing to entertain a few clichés, and a healthy dose of subjectivity).

Greek is quite good at sounding hectoring, but also redolent with layers of history. French can sound impressively abstracto-intellectual. German can be blunt and punctilious. And every language has to be manipulated differently for the speaker (and the interpreter) to sound intelligent, which is generally what he or she is aiming for.

So what is English good at (or good for)?

Well, as it’s a global language, listeners tend to be rather forgiving. After all, most people these days are accustomed to hearing several varieties of English, including American English, and probably Globish as well. I won’t get sidetracked into a rant about the evils of Globish, since this is supposed to be a relentlessly positive post. Instead, I want you to think about how fortunate you are to be working into English, instead of a language that, say, has an Académie, and frowns on any loan words whatsoever. So you can generally be confident that your audience will have a more flexible view of what constitutes ‘correct’ usage than if you were working into French, say. On the whole, people listening to the English booth are not overly pedantic, unlike some members of the booth itself (believe me, I’m one of them); and let’s not forget, many listeners are not native speakers of English themselves, so they are hardly likely to quibble over a split infinitive. That leaves you free to relish the fact that you can use all the buzzwords and neologisms making the headlines, that are so often difficult to translate (‘upskirting’ was a topic of debate in the British media last week, for example), and enjoy not having to do mental gymnastics to translate acronyms.

A further advantage of English is that there is such a wealth of material, both in print and online, that you can easily research any topic under the sun, and pick up all sorts of useful phrases to inform your interpreting. This is very helpful when preparing for assignments and working on your English retour.

Make English work for you

Research and preparation are not interpreting skills per se, and your audience’s benevolent disregard of any infelicities of language may be an advantage, but is also beyond your control.

There are, however, many intrinsic features of English that you can control in order to improve your interpreting performance. Here are a few of them:

    • informality. No need to worry about tu, vous, Sie, usted or εσείς. The days of thee and thou are long gone, and English tolerates a generous degree of informality. Don’t bother with ‘one’, unless you want to sound stilted and old-fashioned, or you are the Queen; go for ‘you’ instead. Obviously, some circumstances will require you to be excessively ritualistic and to use honorific titles, such as when you are addressing ‘my right honourable friend’ in Parliament. So do bone up on forms of address, just in case; but you’ll generally only need them at the beginning of a formal speech.  The rest of the time, you don’t need to fret too much about the speakers’ relative seniority or hierarchy, and you certainly don’t need to learn polite forms of certain nouns, verbs or phrases, as you would in Japanese, for instance.


    • flexibility in the register that is considered acceptable. In some languages, such as French, there is a huge gulf between the spoken language (especially when used by young people) and the sort of language that is considered acceptable at a conference, for example. If you learn French by living in the country and chatting to people, you’ll know plenty of slang, but you will never pick up the sort of formal vocabulary you need when you’re interpreting. In English, the gap between everyday language and conference-speak is much smaller. Abrupt shifts in register will certainly have conference delegates pricking up their ears, and there is a baseline of informality beneath which it is inadvisable to venture, unless you want to risk sounding less than authoritative (or unless it’s appropriate, in a public service setting such as a police interview, for instance). Nevertheless, you can get away with relatively colloquial expressions in English in a way that you can’t in some other languages. English speakers rarely wield language in that ‘poker up the backside’ way that speakers of, say, French do – with apologies for picking on the language of Molière again (but as it’s one of my mother tongues, I don’t feel too guilty).


    • short words. This may sound trivial, but when you’re under pressure in the booth, it’s not. English is generously endowed with short words, often of Anglo-Saxon origin. Much of the time, there is also a word equivalent in meaning, of Latin, Greek or French origin. A few randomly chosen examples: enough (or sufficient), clap (or applaud), ban (or prohibit), and hence (or consequently). When you’re dealing with fast, dense source material in simultaneous, or trying to keep it snappy in consecutive, go for the short version, rather than the long one. One caveat (or warning, to use an old English word): using longer words of Latin or Greek origin usually boosts the register of your speech, making it sound more formal. If you’re going for short and snappy, give some thought to register. You may have to compensate by adding a touch of formality elsewhere.


    • short sentences. You can construct short sentences in any language, I imagine. The problem is that in some languages, it can make you sound stupid or childish. Luckily, this is not the case in English. There is no reason why you cannot make a sophisticated argument using simple syntax, i.e. sentences with a SVO (subject verb object) structure. After all, you can use sophisticated vocabulary and link the sentences in such a way as to present a subtle argument. All of this means that you can chunk (or salami, depending how food-oriented you are) to your heart’s content. Chop up long and complicated sentences in the original, reinvent them as SVO, make them more digestible, and get them out of the way. If you’re in the booth, this will lighten the load on your working memory, and allow you to concentrate on what comes next, unencumbered by having to remember the subject of a very lengthy sentence with two relative clauses. An added bonus is that you will be spoon-feeding the content to your (grateful) audience, and making life a lot easier for anyone taking you on relay.


    • versatility. English is essentially a mixture of Saxon and Norman French, with a liberal sprinkling of Latin and Greek vocabulary, and loan words from other languages.  That doesn’t mean that it has more words than other languages; just think of how German can coin words like Weltmarktführer (world market leader) and Turkish can apparently say ‘Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?’ in one word. There’s no denying, though, that English is a rich language, with enough flexibility in its register, word order and grammar to make it very versatile. More versatility = more choices for you when you’re interpreting.


    • Intonation. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, appropriate intonation is worth…well, not a thousand words, but it can certainly save you a few in the booth. You can use intonation instead of, or as well as, words to show that you are beginning a sentence, finishing an idea, mentioning an aside, or enumerating examples; to show that you’re bored, excited, amused, sceptical, or irritated with the chairman’s proposal; to emphasise an idea or dismiss it; to let your audience know you can accept a proposal wholeheartedly or reluctantly; to express gratitude or to poke fun. When you’re a bit short of linguistic resources because you’re working into your B, intonation can help you gloss over a lack of terminology. Above all, intonation can help you mark transitions in a speech, and highlight what is most important. In short, intonation is your friend. It’s a shame it’s underused by interpreting students, particularly those with an English retour. While difficult to master, especially if your mother tongue has very different intonation patterns (e.g. Mandarin), authentic intonation is a shortcut. Instead of saying ‘and now I’m going to move on to the next point of my presentation, which is an analysis of the balance sheet’, you could simply say ‘now’, or ‘moving on’, or ‘now, turning to the balance sheet’, with the right intonation, and save yourself a lot of time – time better spent concentrating on the next thing the speaker is saying, which is far more important. Sometimes, intonation is less of a shortcut, and more of a lifesaver. Many years ago, I was in a meeting where the Greek delegate uttered a string of incomprehensible words. My interpretation went something like this: ‘Chairman, we can accept the proposal. But…well…we can go along with the proposal. But…we can accept.’ Gibberish, except for my intonation, which clearly conveyed the message that the Greek delegation was willing to go along with the proposal, but only with great reluctance. Sadly, that was the best I could do with the combination of an unknown idiom and the Ancient Greek phrase Ὦ ξεῖν᾿, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε // κείμεθα τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι. I have been waiting twenty years for the same quote to come up in a meeting, so I can glibly say ‘go tell the Spartans that here, obedient to their laws, we lie’. And watch the people taking me on relay tear their hair out.

I see I’m beginning to drift off course, so let me get back to the point. English is irritating in many ways. For example, what idiot invented the spelling system? *


English spelling


But it’s also packed with features that are useful to interpreters. Make the most of them! Play to the strengths of the language. And by that I mean, when you’re practising interpreting into English, give some conscious thought to how you can use voice, exploit the versatility of the language, and above all, be concise. This approach will release some of your ‘processing capacity’, freeing up mental space so you can concentrate on the message you’re trying to interpret. If necessary, write a little reminder on a Post-It note and have it in front of you in the booth (‘Be concise!’, or ‘Intonation’).

To my mind, there is no better evidence of the importance of these aspects of English than the fact that the hallmark of a good speech is often humour. Even a politician’s speech on a formal occasion such as a Party Conference will be rated highly if it combines gravitas and authority with wit and self-deprecation. And what does humour rely on, if not a degree of informality, idiomatic English, and intonation to build rapport with the audience and highlight the punchline?

Look out for my next blog post, when I will have more to say about conciseness (or concision, if you want to up the register).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What features of English help you interpret better? Leave a comment below the blog post!

To your success,

Sophie signature transparent


* A poem about spelling

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

Attributed to T S Watt, 1954

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. If you’re interested in personal coaching, why not book a free discovery call?

2 thoughts on “How to make English work for you when you’re working into English”

  1. Hi Sophie,

    Thanks very much for what you’ve written (and to Cathy Pearson for sharing it on Facebook).

    I just got back from a second 3-month stint teaching interpreting at the Shanghai International Studies University – I fully agree! I’ll pass the link on to my students there, which they will find very helpful.



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