Being concise in sim is a good thing. But how?

I’m sure you’ve been told at some point in your career as an interpreter (or when you were a student) that you should be more concise.

Working into English, being more concise than the original is often desirable because wordy, flowery, or convoluted structures sound very strange when converted into English more or less verbatim. For example, abstract French or verbose Italian both sound very unnatural if you don’t rework the original and turn it into something more English-sounding.

So being concise can be helpful for your audience and relay takers: it sounds more natural in English, it helps prevent linguistic interference, and it’s cognitively easier to cope with. Instead of masses of words that your listeners have to retain in their working memory, they are spoon fed something shorter, clearer, and more structured, which relieves the load on their cognitive processes.

Not only is a concise version easier for the audience and relay takers, it can help the interpreter do a better job.

Why? Because if you’re uttering fewer words, you have more time to listen, and therefore more time to analyse the message. In turn, this gives you more opportunity to take decisions about what and how to edit the material. Better analysis = more faithful rendition of the message, as well as a clearer output.

Another advantage of freeing up some of your processing capacity by speaking less is that you have a little more time to reformulate, so your output (linguistically) may benefit.

A final advantage is that if you’re more concise, you’re less likely to be sitting right on your speaker’s shoulder, following very closely – in décalage* terms – because you’re trying to say everything. You’re likely to find that your décalage varies a bit more if you’re deliberately being concise, giving you more breathing space in places, and helping to avoid the kamikaze technique of interpreting, where your EVS* is so short that you hit a brick wall if you misunderstand something in the original or encounter an unknown word (i.e. you may be left with no other option than to leave a sentence unfinished, which is less than ideal!).

I’ve already said a lot about being concise, but what does it mean? Is it simply a matter of using fewer words?

The Oxford Language Dictionary defines concise thusly:

“giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive”

This is interesting because it suggests that a) being concise isn’t just about editing out information (i.e. dropping it), but about conveying the same the information using fewer words, and b) clarity and concision go hand in hand (more on that in a separate blog post, perhaps).

Too many words

Remember this scene from the film Amadeus? Mozart wrote too many notes (according to the Emperor); sometimes interpreters are tempted to use too many words in simultaneous.

How can you prune the dead wood?

Well, there are some fairly uncontroversial approaches to reducing your word count [please bear in mind that this is written from the perspective of a conference interpreter, not a court interpreter, for example]:

  • leave out hesitations (‘um’, ‘er’)
  • eliminate fillers (e.g. if the speaker says ‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘basically’, etc.)
  • cut out repetition or redundancy
  • choose your words wisely; for instance, avoid unnecessarily long versions of words (like utilise instead of use, or transportation instead of transport)
  • avoid redundant pairs (a terrible tragedy)
  • use the active voice where possible
  • don’t ‘hedge’ if the speaker isn’t doing so (e.g. with phrases like ‘it seems that’, ‘if you like’, ‘it may be the case that’. This is something that interpreters often do when they are afraid to commit, especially if the speaker has said something that sounds controversial or implausible. If you make your output more concise, you’ll have more time to listen and analyse – and be clearer about the speaker’s message! 🙂

One caveat: it’s important to distinguish between source language features that are typical of a particular language (e.g. long-winded syntax in Italian), as opposed to features that are deliberate on the speaker’s part, because he or she is aiming for a particular effect. If the verbosity is a question of style or tone, you will have to decide whether it’s important to retain those features and potentially sacrifice some other information, or vice versa.

Now, you may think I’ve reached the end of this blog post. After all, I’ve gone over a list of ways to reduce your word count.

However, in my opinion, it’s not that simple.

If you have a few spare minutes, I invite you to listen to these two clips, in which I interpret a French speech about hydrogen from the SCIC Speech Repository in simultaneous. [Please note I did zero preparation for this, so I can’t claim to have been firing on all cylinders when it came to technical vocabulary.]

If you have French in your combination, please have a go at interpreting the first 2 or 3 minutes yourself, before listening to my version.

Can you hear the difference between these two versions? Does one of them sound clearer and more concise to you? Does one of them sound more rushed, and less natural in English?

In one of these clips, I tried to stick as closely to the speaker as possible, and to say everything, more or less in the same way that she had.

The other version is closer to my natural style. I devoted more effort to analysis and editing.

You may of course disagree with my opinion, but for me, the more concise version sounds calmer, more in control, and clearer.

I typed out a transcript of these two versions, and discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the ‘short’ version was only 62 words shorter than the ‘long’ version, which didn’t seem like a lot over a period of 2 1/2 minutes.

Perception is important

I’m going to use this example to argue that being concise isn’t just a matter of using fewer words.

It’s also a matter of the ‘digestibility’ of your output for the audience and relay takers, i.e. it’s about their perception of whether you are being concise. 😉

Here are some of the tricks I used in the audio clip to sound more concise:

  • Use ‘salami technique’, also known as ‘chunking’, to chop the source material into shorter pieces.
  • If the target language allows, use SVO word order (subject-verb-object).
  • Start the sentence with the subject, rather than with long adverbial phrases, so the audience immediately knows what you’re talking about.
  • Keep the subject close to the verb, thus avoiding conjugation errors, and reducing the load on everyone’s working memory (this includes yours!).
  • Make sure the links between ideas are clear, using logical connectors such as and, but, so, if.
  • Use active voice where possible.
  • Use intonation as a fantastic shortcut. Intonation is great for conveying meaning. For example, you can use your voice to show whether something is an important point, a digression, a question, a humorous interjection, etc. (show rather than telling!).

A similar caveat to the one I made earlier: if the speaker is using long and complicated sentences, passive voice, etc., you need to give some thought to why they are doing this. Is it just their normal way of speaking? Or are they doing this to try to sound intelligent or knowledgeable, or to sound more scientific and therefore more credible? Remember that as an interpreter, part of your job is to have the same effect on the audience as the speaker was aiming for. If the speaker is using long-winded platitudes for a reason, you’ll need to decide whether to do the same, or whether you can achieve the same effect in the target language while still remaining concise.


Being concise isn’t always desirable, I suppose. Alongside some of the reasons I’ve mentioned above (style, tone, the effect the speaker is aiming for), there’s also the fact that your target language may be one that values flowery and lengthy sentences as a sign of intelligence and erudition.

In English, though, I would argue that being concise and using salami technique won’t, as some interpreters fear, make them sound childish. The trick is to use simple syntax, but appropriate vocabulary – which may mean sophisticated, high register, or technical vocabulary.

I hope to have persuaded you in this blog post that being concise isn’t as simple as using fewer words.

Instead, it’s a lot to do with making shorter chunks, joining them up with clear links, inserting pauses in the right place, and shaping the chunks with intonation so the meaning is clear.

*décalage = Ear/Voice Span = the time lag between the original speaker’s words and the interpreters’ rendition.


For anyone who’s interested, here are the transcripts of my two attempts at the hydrogen speech.

Version 1 (366 words):

Ladies and Gentlemen, now that the end of the pandemic is almost here, we can go back to taking an interest in those subjects that were fascinating for us before the beginning of the pandemic, namely climate change and the environment, and that was the challenge that we needed to take up before the beginning of this crisis, and it is therefore essential that we return to taking an interest in this subject. There is some good news connected to our interest in the environment, and I know we’re all keen on hearing good news. For 2020, the share of renewables in energy production in Europe has now exceeded fossil fuels, and that is the case for the second year running, because it was already that way in 2019. Now solar power is cheaper than anywhere else in the world, and its production has increased by 20 % in Europe. And finally, the price of carbon has increased exponentially.  So much for the good news, but I know that you’re not naïve, and I know that you are aware that we are a long way from having achieved any significant change or reached our environmental objectives. Today, I’m going to talk about an element which is a sign of hope for some, an element that will allow us to reach our objectives, and that is hydrogen. Now before going into any more interesting details, let me just recap on a bit of chemistry. Hydrogen is a basic chemical element, H, which is present in the universe and on Earth. On Earth, it is present principally in the form of water. Hydrogen is associated to the molecule O, oxygen, and together they form H2O, water. In order to produce hydrogen, you need to break the bond between hydrogen and oxygen. In order to do that, we use a process called electrolysis, where we use an electrical current in order to break the bond between the two molecules and obtain hydrogen. Now, you might ask me why we would want to produce hydrogen, and the answer is because it has a number of applications. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel, it can also be stored and transported.

Version 2 (302 words):

Ladies and Gentlemen, the end of the pandemic is in sight, soo we can go back to those topics that gripped us before coronavirus: climate change and the environment. Those were the real challenges that we were facing before the crisis, and it’s crucial that we return to taking an interest in these subjects. There is some good news when it comes to the environment, and I know that at the moment we’re all keen to hear good news. In 2020, the share of renewable energies in electricity production in Europe was greater than the share of fossil fuels, for the second year running. Solar power is cheaper in Europe than anywhere else in the world, and its production increased by 20% in Europe. And the price of carbon has increased exponentially. That’s the good news. But you’re not naïve, and I’m sure you’re very aware that we are a long way from reaching our environmental goals and making  any significant changes. Today, I’m talking about an element which could help us to reach these objectives. It could be very promising. And that is hydrogen. Before I go into details, let me recap some chemistry. Hydrogen is a basic chemical element, represented by the letter H. It’s present in the universe and on Earth. On Earth, it generally takes the form of water. It is associated with the molecule O, oxygen, and that makes water, H2O. In order to produce hydrogen, you have to break the chemical bond between the two molecules. You do that through electrolysis, which is where you use an electrical current to separarate the two molecules, and obtain hydrogen. Now you might say: why produce hydrogen? Because it has a number of applications. You can use hydrogen as a fuel. You can store it, you can transport it.


CPD blog post cover

CPD = lifelong learning

So, you’ve just taken your final year interpreting exams, and you’re looking forward (hmm…) to entering the brave new world of post-coronavirus conference interpreting.

But your skills aren’t 100% up to scratch yet. Perhaps you need more practice in simultaneous. Or you’re thinking of adding another passive language. Or you’re totally stressed about your…stress management strategies. Or you need to learn more about Remote Simultaneous Interpreting platforms because…well, let’s not go down that rabbit hole.

Just imagine if one day interpreters all work from home…

The point is, all of this comes under the umbrella of CPD, or Continuing Professional Development.

Maybe you’re not a recent graduate. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already discovered that lifelong learning means just that. It. Never. Ends. There is always more to learn. And that is definitely the case for interpreters.

But what? How? When? And even: what for?

In this blog post, I aim to help you get more clarity about your CPD needs and how to achieve them. If you’d rather listen than read, click for my dulcet tones (ahem) in your ear.

I’ve also produced a workbook for you. If you take the time to go through it and fill it in, you’ll have a solid plan that will see you through years of CPD.

CPD is the intentional maintenance and development of the knowledge and skills needed to perform in a professional capacity.

CPD is sometimes a legal requirement in order to practise a particular profession or obtain insurance. In Italy, for example, a certain number of CPD hours per year is a compulsory requirement for interpreters.

Even if evidence of CPD is not a legal requirement, it may be a compulsory condition of membership of your local professional association.

And beyond that, CPD is also about being the best interpreter you can be and setting yourself the highest possible standards.

CPD – key points

The definition I’ve given above contains a number of key ideas.

  1. ‘intentional’: CPD is self-directed, i.e. it’s up to you to identify your needs. Unlike a university course with a set list of modules, when it comes to continuing professional development, you need to diagnose your weaknesses and lacunae and come up with a plan (perhaps with some help).
  2. ‘maintenance and development’: maintenance is a minimum, so you can keep doing your job properly. It would be nice to think that once you’re qualified, you’re done. But we all know that note-taking skills get rusty, and if you don’t do simultaneous for a few days or weeks, you’re no longer match fit. So the bare minimum when it comes to CPD is having a plan to keep your interpreting skills and relevant knowledge up to standard. Development is what will allow you to progress in your career: take on new assignments or work in new markets (because of new expertise, a new passive language, a ‘retour’), or get promoted.
  3. ‘knowledge and skills’, ‘perform in a professional capacity’: interpreting isn’t just about technical skills (sight translation, note-taking, salami technique…). To be a professional in this field, you need all sorts of other skills and expertise (for example, networking and marketing to help you find clients and stand out in a crowded market).

A final point: the great thing about CPD isn’t that it isn’t rigidly defined. There are all sorts of things you could do to enhance your development, some formal, others informal. Alongside courses, workshops, webinars, and communities of practice, you could also find a mentor, shadow a more experienced colleague at work, read blogs or research papers, watch videos online, play language games, join a debating society, and more.

Defining your goal

You can only define your CPD needs if you know what your goal is, so your goal should be your starting point.

Are you hoping to work as a freelance interpreter for the UN? For NATO? Are you biactive and hoping to break into a local private market? Your needs will be quite different. For UN work, you’ll need specific passive languages, a strong grasp of geopolitical realities, and the ability to deal with very fast simultaneous and simultaneous with text. For NATO, your B language will have to be nearly on a par with your A language. To work on certain local markets, you’ll need to be good at marketing yourself and networking.

Here’s what you need:

  1. A vision of where you want to be and why (what country – one where your A language is rare, hence an asset; or a country that will help you develop your B language, or improve a C language? What type of interpreting: conference, or public service interpreting? Private market, or international organisations? Translation and/or other work as well, e.g. teaching, subtitling?). Remember that the answers to these questions will change, which is why you need to review your goals every so often.
  2. A good understanding of the skills you need. Does your ideal interpreting job require consecutive or not? Do you need specific IT skills? Must you be able to use a certain type of software?
  3. A clear idea of the standard and how far you are from achieving that standard. Do you know what standard is required in order to pass an EU accreditation test, if that is your ambition? If not, you need to find out.
  4. A list of priorities. You can’t address all your weaknesses at once.

Take a few minutes to think about questions 1-3, and jot the answers down on a piece of paper – or use my workbook . Read on to find out more about defining, refining and prioritising your CPD needs.

Defining your CPD needs

The exercise I’ve just asked you to do was intended to help you identify what you’re aiming for, and what is required to fulfil that ambition.

Now you need to work out how much of a mismatch there is between those requirements and your existing skills and knowledge.

I like to think of all the elements that make up a top-notch interpreter in a very visual form, using a mind map (some of you may call it a spider diagram).

Here’s an example from the National Network for Interpreting website.

NNI interpreting skills map

I talk through the skills map in more detail in this video:

Time to get down to the nitty gritty!

Sharpen your pencil, get yourself a cup of tea (or a latte, or whatever floats your boat), and get your thinking cap on, because it’s time for a skills audit.

Skills audit

Have you heard of SWOT analysis? It’s an approach often used in business, to determine the a company’s strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities, and then to decide on a plan in the light of these insights.

A SWOT analysis, also known as a skills audit, is a very useful tool in your arsenal. It’s something I encourage interpreting students to do at the beginning of their interpreting course, and again a few weeks before their exams, so they can decide where to focus their efforts.

It’s also a very useful way of establishing your CPD needs.

Divide your page into four, and write down the four headings: strengths, weaknesses, threats, opportunities. Like this (or follow along in the workbook):

SWOT analysis

I’ve put some examples in the ‘strengths’ column, just to give you an idea. Obviously this is a very personal exercise.

Think about the interpreting skills mind map (which you can of course break down into even more detailed skills; for example, for public speaking, you could consider pronunciation, intonation, ‘ums’, fillers, eye contact, etc.), and try to classify these skills as strengths or weaknesses of yours, in the light of your ‘vision’ – i.e. where you want to work, for whom, and what standard is required.

Perhaps public speaking is one of your strengths, but stress management is not.

Perhaps you are a people person, and very good at networking, but you’re a bit chaotic and you need to work on business skills and being more organised.

Write it down!

Then think about those factors that are external to you: the threats to your development, and the opportunities. Again, these are very personal.

Your threats might include lack of money, or family obligations that mean you can’t travel, or lack of equipment (headphones, or a laptop), or Brexit.

Your opportunities might include willingness to travel, or a partner who speaks one of your passive language, or good contacts in the industry.

Make a note of everything.

Spend a few minutes thinking about how you can use your opportunities and how you can minimise your threats.

Now we’re going to focus on your weaknesses, because these are your CPD needs, i.e. these are the areas of skill or knowledge that are ripe for development.

Refining your needs

It’s one thing to know what you need to improve (i.e. your weaknesses), and it’s another to know how to improve them.

What course would best suit you? Should it be intensive or spread out? Would you be better off working alone or with a coach?

Sometimes the answer isn’t as straightforward as you think.

I’ll give you an example. My daughter is really good at maths, and she loves it. But when she sees a question type she’s never tackled before, she gives up immediately, wailing that she doesn’t know how to do it, and often bursting into tears. This is not a skills problem, it is a mindset problem. There is little point getting her extra maths tuition when she knows the answers already. What she needs is an approach that will boost her confidence and help her develop problem-solving abilities and a growth mindset.

So now that you’ve identified your weaknesses, you need to examine them in a way that will help you determine how to tackle them.

To do this, one approach I find useful is Dilt’s logical levels (from neuro-linguistic programming, if you’re interested).

Dilt's logical levels

If you want to make changes in your life (in this case, improving your skills or knowledge), you need to understand at what level you’re operating. Often, the way you talk about these challenges will give you hints.

For example, if you say ‘I don’t do enough interpreting practice, because my office is so cluttered and I keep getting interrupted’, this is an environment problem, and the environment is what you need to fix!

If you say things like ‘I don’t really have time to work on my retour’, or ‘I’m always meaning to listen to podcasts, but I have so many other things to do first’, this could be a sign that you are procrastinating, and you need to find strategies to address that behaviour.

Phrases like ‘I don’t know how to do this’, ‘I’ve never done simultaneous’, ‘I’ve just been asked to teach online and I’ve never done it before’, ‘I haven’t done consecutive for five years’, sound like a skills gap, which can be addressed at the level of competence – you can find a course, workshop, coaching opportunity, etc.

On the other hand, if you say something like ‘I find sight translation really difficult’, or ‘I hate dealing with numbers’, ‘or ‘I’m really bad at consecutive’, this could either be a skills gap or a mindset/confidence issue.

And if you’re saying things like ‘I can’t be bothered to do this’, or ‘I don’t see the point of this for me’, or ‘interpreters shouldn’t be asked to do this’, this is a reflection of your beliefs or values, and you will have to examine those before deciding whether you need further training.

Phew! Bet you didn’t realise that CPD would involve so much soul-searching, right?

You’re nearly there, though. And remember, you can use my workbook to guide you through this process.

OK, your final step is to prioritise your needs.

Prioritising your needs

This should be relatively quick, now that you have laid all the groundwork.

• Think about your lacunae in the light of Dilt’s logical levels, to help you understand how to tackle them.

• For each weakness, ask yourself: how important is this to me? How essential is it to develop this competence now? Remember, you can’t do everything at once. Some skills may need immediate attention because, say, you’re applying for a job right now.

• Distil your CPD needs to 4 or 5 key skills or areas of knowledge.

Planning your CPD

Reflect on how to get from A to B. You’ll need to a) do some research, to find out what’s available in terms of workshops, courses, practice groups etc. that might meet your needs, and b) consider how much time you have available.

Make a list for each of your 4 or 5 key areas.

There’s an increasing array of CPD options available for interpreters. I won’t list them all here, because they won’t all be relevant to you, but you can have a look at this free list if you happen to be a recent graduate with mainstream European languages, and your ambitions involve working on the conference or institutional market in Europe. I’ve listed various volunteering, internship, and networking opportunities, as well as online resources for conference interpreters, such as course and webinar providers.

Reflective practice

…but it’s not all over!

The value of reflective practice in an educational setting and in the workplace is increasingly recognised.

It’s also important to keep a record of your CPD efforts in case you ever need to provide an employer or professional association with evidence of your learning.

For this reason, I highly recommend keeping a combined learning journal and portfolio of your CPD work.

You can find an example – guess where? – in my workbook , but the idea is fairly simple: note down the date of any CPD activity you engage in, the provider, the type of activity (remember, this doesn’t have to be a formal course. It could be reading in your own time, or contributing an article to a publication, or doing outreach work). Write down what you found useful about this activity, how you will apply it in practice, or what you would do differently next time.

15-21.06.2020WISE workshoppeer group

To flesh this out into a portfolio, keep a note of your needs and goals on the first page, and review these regularly (say, every 6 months or annually). Also keep copies of any certificates you obtain after attending CPD courses.

Two key areas for development

I’ll wrap up with a couple of areas I think are increasingly important, given the situation on the interpreting market, and also the way the world has developed in the past twenty years or so. I’m venturing beyond the narrow limits of interpreting skills here, into other skills and areas of knowledge.

Business skills

Newcomers to the interpreting market need to be much more professional in how they present and market themselves these days, I think. More and more, language professionals are running a language business, and they need the right skills to allow them to do so.

I won’t go into detail here. Just think about where you are with regard to the following:

  • Administrative procedures for freelancers in your country, including health insurance, VAT, pension arrangements
  • Business skills such as accountancy, invoicing, client management
  • Making sure you have the right equipment, including a laptop or tablet, headphones, jacks, webcam, etc.
  • A solid and visible business presence, including a good, up-to-date CV, business cards, a permanent (professional looking!) email address, and possibly a website
  • ?Preparing for remote interpreting. Are you intending to go down this road? What extra skills do you need?
  • Marketing: in a crowded market where interpreters are often treated as commodities (and don’t get me started on working conditions during the COVID pandemic…), you need to understand your value as a skilled professional. You could consider a seminar such as Julia Poger’s Know your Worth.

Health and wellbeing

Interpreters have very specific needs when it comes to health and wellbeing. The very sedentary nature of our work, the increasing use of computers and screens, and the stressful aspects of interpreting, should lead you to try to establish good habits from the start.

Here are a few key areas to think about:

  • having an ergonomic office set-up (height of chair, distance from screen, etc.)
  • eye strain
  • hearing. Amid increasingly frequent reports of acoustic shock, it’s important to have regular hearing tests.
  • voice. Your greatest tool as an interpreter. Look after it!
  • general health (nutrition, exercise). Conference interpreters are prone to back problems: we spend too much time seated, and our position isn’t always ergonomic.
  • stress management. I could say all sorts of things about this (and I often do, in seminars and webinars), but I’ve already written thousands of words in this blog post, so I’ll keep it short. Different approaches to stress work for different people, so try to find what works for you. If you’re looking for a short course with a holistic approach, that covers the basics of relaxation, meditation, and nutrition, try Gabriela Bocanete’s course, which involves delightful Yoga Nidra sound baths.

Enjoy it!

OK, that’s enough! That’s it!

CPD can be fun: it’s satisfying, because you’re learning something and opening up new career opportunities, but it’s also a great way to meet new people, make friends, and feel connected to your ‘tribe’.

Good luck!

Learning through reflection: the critical role of reflection in work-based learning (WBL)

Ruth Helyer, Journal of Work-Applied Management, ISSN: 2205-2062.  Publication date: 6 October 2015

Interpreting Coach logo with strapline

Sophie 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?

Finding fifth gear: how to speed up your reaction time in simultaneous

Fifth gear blog post

I was teaching a class at the University of Manchester yesterday, and listening to the interpreting students tackle a piece of rapid, ‘real-life’ French reminded me of the days when I was a trainee on the SCIC stage, honing my own interpreting skills at the European Commission in Brussels.

At the time, I had three mentors – well, they were actually called godmothers and godfathers – and I vividly remember sitting in a dummy booth in the Borschette building, feeling totally inadequate as I tried to follow arcane customs negotiations and interpret into English under the watchful eye (and ears) of my vastly more experienced colleagues.

fairy godmother

One of my mentors, twinkly-eyed and bearded, reminded me of a genial brown bear. He would doze off gently in the back of the booth, while the delegates’ German reached parts of my brain other languages cannot reach.

slow reaction time
No wonder my mentor used to snooze when I worked from German.

One day, my mentor hit me with these words of wisdom: ‘The problem with your German, Sophie, is that you don’t have a fourth gear’. My internal reaction to this pronouncement was ‘Ha ha ha, I’d be happy if I could even find second gear!’, but by then I had already learned that it was a bad idea to show weakness, so I didn’t say it out loud. This was one of the few times in life that I managed to keep my mouth shut instead of blurting out my innermost thoughts and putting my foot squarely in my mouth.

not saying it out loud

In class yesterday, I found myself repeating those words to the students. ‘When you’re dealing with fast and furious French like this, you need to be firing on all cylinders. You need to find fifth gear. You need to be 100% on the ball.’ And other such imagery.

Image my consternation when one of the students pointed out that this isn’t a very helpful comment. What does it actually mean to move into a higher gear, and how do you do it?


It always rocks me back on my heels a little when I say something I think is fairly obvious, and it becomes apparent that it’s not that clear to everyone else. It’s a salutary reminder that our brains don’t all work the same. Or at least, that my brain doesn’t work like anyone else’s.

So I tried to unpack my own statement.

Shifting into a higher gear

What does it mean to shift into a higher gear?

To me, this phrase describes the difference between ambling along at 30 mph admiring the scenery out of the car window, versus zipping down the motorway at 70 mph (obviously, I’m so law-abiding I never break the speed limit…).

In the former case, you have plenty of time to react to hazards (dozy pedestrians, aggressive drivers, unexpected cyclists just around a bend, potholes, or where I live, hedgehogs). You can change course in time to avoid a collision. In interpreting terms, this equates to a reasonably slow, well structured speech, which allows you some time to think, adjust your décalage, tidy up the speaker, and reformulate into elegant English/Turkish/whatever your target language is.

When you’re driving much faster on the motorway, however, you have to react very quickly to anything new and/or dangerous and be hyper-aware of everything going on around you at all times (e.g. other drivers’ behaviour). In interpreting terms, this is where you have a crazy fast speaker throwing facts and figures at you (or quips, jokes, asides, interjections, examples…). If you take too long over your analysis or reformulating, there’s a good chance you’ll make a mistake or miss an idea (or possibly several sentences).

In other words, ‘fifth gear’ in simultaneous implies being able to deal successfully with fast, dense speech. And that, in turn, implies a faster reaction time.

So when I talk about fifth gear, firing on all cylinders, or being on the ball, I really mean that your reaction time needs to be super-sharp.

Knowing this is one thing. Doing it is another. How can you speed up your reaction time when interpreting in simultaneous mode?

Speeding up your reaction time

In order to react faster when faced with lots of information delivered quickly (possibly with the extra challenge of asides, in jokes, or cultural references thrown into the mix), you need to a) process and analyse the information faster, b) say it faster in your target language (i.e. get to the point), or c) both.

Spit it out

On the output side of the simultaneous equation, here are some techniques to try:

  • Don’t repeat information. Say it once, and move on. If the point the speaker is making has been covered already during the speech, or can legitimately be subsumed in a slightly more general point, leave it out.
  • Choose concise solutions in your target language. Good news for English As and retourists: English is generally a very concise language (see my blog post about making use of this feature, and others, to improve your interpreting).
  • Use intonation strategically to make up for being less explicit. You can do a huge amount with your voice alone: highlight a specific point, indicate that you’re mentioning a secondary item of information, introduce a digression, link to the next part of the speech…
  • Speak faster! I don’t generally advise my students to practise doing this, because it’s difficult to change your natural speech style, but I know other trainers who do.

Coincidentally, if you put all of this into practice, you will be saying less, and freeing up more space to listen to the speaker. If you think of your brain’s processing capacity during simultaneous interpreting as being a finite resource, freeing up some of that capacity by being more concise and streamlining your output should enable you to process what you hear better and faster.

Process faster

On the input side of the simultaneous equation (i.e. what you are hearing), there are also techniques you can apply to help you process (i.e. hear, understand, digest, edit) the information faster.

  • Keep working on your source language comprehension, especially if it’s one of your C languages and not a B. Just trying to understand the original, especially if the syntax is convoluted, can burn up a lot of brain juice, leaving you much less for incisive analysis and good expression in the target language. So work hard on your comprehension.
  • The same goes for cultural references in the source language. If you haven’t immersed yourself in the culture of the source language, you may completely miss some of the speaker’s references; or you may hear something, but not really understand what it relates to; or you may get it, or half-get it, but be unable to come up with a decent, brief explanation quickly enough.
  • Ditto background knowledge. If you have a solid understanding of the issues involved, so that much of the material is familiar to you from the news or your prior experience in this field, you won’t have to work so hard to decipher what the speaker is saying. If you’re interpreting a panel debate about Brexit, and you don’t know much about the workings of the EU, British politics, or previous referendums, your work will be very much harder.
  • Improve your reflexes. If you like sport, you will know how important muscle memory is to performance. Athletes, dancers and gymnasts (and professional musicians) go over the same movements over and over again, so that they can bypass their conscious brain in pressure situations and fall back on ingrained habits. Their body remembers what to do without having to think about it. When you’re interpreting, it’s really useful to have ready-made solutions for problems that come up again and again. In simple terms, this means practising frequently-occurring phrases – perhaps speech openings and closings, or typical comments from the Chairman of a meeting, especially in your B language – but also giving some thought to fragments and expressions that are characteristic of your source language. In French, for example, you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every time you encounter something like ‘langue de bois’, ‘sur la forme et sur le fond’, or ‘des pistes de réflexion’. So think about your options in advance, when you come across one of these ‘classics’ in a podcast or article, or when listening to the news.

Finally, when you’re dealing with a speaker who’s like greased lightning, it’s important to manage your décalage.

Although I usually urge my students not to stick too closely to the speaker (for fear of linguistic interference or of ending up facing a brick wall in simultaneous, leading to unfinished sentences or errors), most interpreters won’t be able to get all the information in if they leave a long décalage when dealing with very fast speech.

There is an argument, therefore, for not dilly-dallying, especially if the speaker is throwing out lots of figures. Your brain can’t retain them in the same way as it retains ideas, so stick close behind and get them out as quickly as possible (if the speech is very fast, writing down the figures and units will inevitably lead to a loss of other information). However, this is by no means an excuse for copying the syntax of the source language or slipping into ‘parrot’ mode, i.e. repeating what the speaker says without sufficient analysis. Even in a fast speech, there is room for analysis and reformulation. For me, the trick lies in hanging back a little when the next idea/sentence begins after a pause. If you don’t jump in straight away, you can decide which way you’re going to leap, and do some strategic shifting around of information. Elsewhere in the sentence, which may be very long, you may have less room for manoeuvre. This way, I have a better chance of beginning the sentence in an idiomatic way, and then I chop the rest of it up into manageable pieces (salami technique/chunking), so that I don’t get bogged down in long and complicated syntax.

A final point: if the speaker is very dense and factual, you really need to stay on top of him (or her). On the other hand, if the speaker delights in peppering the speech with asides, in jokes, cultural references, quotes, and the like, your priority must be, at all costs, to understand the main ideas. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, with a rapid flow of information, it’s easy to lose sight of this most basic of principles. If you don’t catch the main ideas, the next two or three sentences you hear may be completely meaningless without their context. So if the speaker is shooting off in all directions, focus heavily on understanding the his or her intentions, and sacrifice some of the other fluff if necessary. Summarise where you can. Use intonation to convey the speaker’s tone if you don’t have time to do it in words.

I hope this post has given you some ideas for tackling difficult material successfully. If it sounds a little abstract, that’s because it’s difficult to talk about this sort of thing without illustrating your approach using an actual speech + interpreting performance. And that’s precisely what I propose to do in my next blog post.

For those with French, I’ll be talking about Jean Quatremer’s contribution as moderator of a debate about the Brexit referendum. Here’s the clip, in case you’d like to have a go at interpreting Quatremer’s introduction (or indeed, Emmanuel Macron’s contribution).

What are your best tips for dealing with speakers who go like the clappers?

Stockpiling goods in case of a no-deal Brexit

This is a 10 minute simultaneous, containing a few figures, the names of several well-known brands (Lynx, Dove, Sure, Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum) and companies (Sainsbury’s, Asda, McDonald’s), and some vocabulary related to trade (disruption to the supply chain, ‘just in time’, tariffs, WTO rules, customs formalities, etc.). See if you can spot the moments of irony in the delivery.


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