Damage control in first year interpreting exams

Damage control in first year interpreting exams


Like many website owners, I have a set of terms and conditions that insist that my content is for information purposes only, and exhort readers not to rely on this information.

In case you’re wondering why I should go to such lengths to cover my back, let me just mention a student some years back, who told me (and I quote): ‘Sophie, if I don’t get an interpreting job straight after this course, I will hold you personally responsible.’ Personally responsible, seriously?

And that’s why I have a disclaimer. I’ll put it even more bluntly: the following article is based on many years’ experience as an interpreter trainer and examiner, but it is just my opinion. I make no representations, and certainly offer zero guarantees, that if you put these tips into practice, your exam marks will improve. Like with any other advice, it’s up to you to take it – or leave it.

Common problems in first year interpreting exams

I’ve been a trainer for fifteen years, and I’ve seen a lot of interpreting exams. Every year, quite a few students underperform in their first set of exams. In the UK, these typically take place in January, at the end of semester one, and they focus on consecutive. Elsewhere, they might take place at the end of the first year, but the principles are the same.

When I try to analyse what goes wrong during these performances, the first thing that springs to mind is nerves. This tallies with one of the main causes of failure at EU accreditation tests. Nerves and anxiety are the trigger, and they affect performance by interfering with one or more of the processes or skills that candidates need to demonstrate in order to interpret successfully.

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The mindset shift that improves exam grades & self-esteem and redefines success

Growth mindset blog post

Are you great at dealing with technical jargon in simultaneous? Are you bad with numbers? Are your notes sloppy? Do you have a bad memory?

These are the stories we tell ourselves about our interpreting skills and professional abilities, and some of these stories can be very damaging.

I often liken learning to be an interpreter to learning to drive a car. You need to master a distinct set of skills, apply them all at the same time (watching out for hazards, steering, using the pedals, signalling, reading the road conditions), and give your passengers a smooth ride. When you first learn to drive, you need to think hard about these things (e.g. ‘I’m approaching a sharp left turn; I’d better change down into second gear.’). Eventually, many of the processes become automatic, except in difficult driving conditions (heavy traffic, bad weather), and you don’t have to think so hard about what you’re doing. This seems to me to be a pretty good analogy for simultaneous interpreting, in particular.

Let me tell you a little story about driving.  For years, I didn’t drive. When asked about it, I explained that I ‘didn’t drive’ or that I was bad at it. I was definitely useless at parallel parking.

I learned to drive at 17. I took lots of driving lessons and passed my test first time, then didn’t drive for several years. My then boyfriend got bored of doing all the driving when we went on long trips, and pushed me to drive his car.

Picture this: my boyfriend’s white Citroen, a wooden post in a garage, a sickening crunch, and a bill for £982 (probably around £50,000 in today’s money. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like as a student).

The most interesting part of this story is not the severe dent in the bodywork that resulted, but what happened afterwards. I developed a driving phobia. It manifested in a very physical way. I felt anxious as a passenger in someone else’s car. My spatial awareness was shot to pieces: when cars came at us in the other direction, I thought they were going to run into us, even though they were in the other lane. My warped perception often led me to believe we were going to hit the kerb, even though there were inches of space between it and the tyres.

I stopped driving completely for 12 years.

The messages we absorb from our nearest and dearest in our first few years of life shape our whole personality and ability to deal with life’s challenges. Some of the biggest messages I subconsciously absorbed from my parents** were ‘it’s only worth doing something if you do it well’ (= you should aspire to perfection), ‘mistakes are disastrous and shameful’ and ‘what other people think of you really matters’. As a result, I grew up with very strong perfectionist tendencies. I felt I should be able to do things perfectly, straight away.

When I crashed my boyfriend’s car, my psychological makeup just couldn’t accept a) that I had done something badly, b) that I had made a terrible mistake, and c) that it was my boyfriend’s car and everyone knew about my embarrassing failure. I find it a fascinating proof of the power of the mind that the result was a phobia lasting 12 years. I was literally incapable of driving, for no other reason than my own limiting self-beliefs.

This is an excellent example of what’s known as a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset sees traits such as intelligence, creativity, character, interpreting skills, or in my case, driving ability, as being either fixed at birth or immutable, carved in stone. My unfortunate encounter with the garage post proved to me that I was a bad driver, so I defined myself as a bad driver.

I had no problem defining myself as good at some things (baking, dancing, writing thank you letters) and terrible at others (bicycle maintenance, driving, small talk). After all, how many times have you heard fellow linguists say ‘I’m useless at maths!’?

None of this struck me as particularly damaging, until I began to hear the same words in the mouth of my six year old daughter. ‘I’m useless,’ she would say. ‘I’m so stupid! I can’t do this!’ It struck me as worrying, and wrong, that such a young child should be so hard on herself when she couldn’t master a new or complex skill straight away, that she equated being a beginner with stupidity or failure, and that she had so little resilience that she didn’t believe she could continue to develop and improve, with effort and help.

That’s when I began to learn about growth mindsets.

Much research has been done on fixed mindsets vs. growth mindsets in the past twenty years (mostly on children). A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence (and other traits or skills) can be developed; that you can train your brain with hard work, effective strategies, and help from others when needed.

The origins of work on growth mindset

The early work on growth mindsets was led in 1998 by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Six studies looked at the effects of praise on students’ behaviour and performance following a test. Those students who were praised on their natural ability (e.g. ‘you did well, you’re very smart’), later chose activities that would make them look clever. They demonstrated less persistence than the other group, and their performance in subsequent tests was poorer. Students who were praised for being hard working, on the other hand, chose to learn new things and performed better subsequently.

Since then, several large scale studies (a 2013 meta-analysis of 113 studies, data from more than 160,000 children in Chile, data from 100,000 middle school pupils from California) have shown that a growth mindset predicts academic achievement, that growth mindset interventions can improve maths test scores, and that mindsets are a significant factor in working successfully towards a goal.

The benefits of having a growth mindset

In addition to being associated with higher academic achievement and working towards goals successfully, having a growth mindset can also help students

  • cope better with transitions,
  • develop grit and resilience,
  • develop pro-social behaviours (defined as behaviours that benefit other people or society as a whole).

A growth mindset may also offer mental health benefits, such as a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

Now, in case you’re wondering how this relates to you, if you’re reading this, the chances are you are a) an interpreting student, b) an interpreting trainer, or c) a person. Or possibly two out of three of these. And people, whether students or trainers (or professional interpreters) can benefit hugely from shifting their mindset to move away from a fixed view of ability to a growth mindset.

How? Change the way you think and talk to yourself (or your children, or your students) about your achievements or failures.

As a trainer, I see the effects of fixed mindsets every day in my work with interpreting students. More and more students suffer anxiety and stress during the academic year, and their exam performances are severely affected by nerves. Yet these students’ experience of their interpreting course, and the way they respond to challenges, setbacks and adversity (including exams), can be transformed with a mindset shift.

Let me make this more visual for you, and illustrate what happens in the classroom, or after an exam, when a student encounters adversity (e.g. ‘negative’ feedback on their interpreting, or a poor exam grade).


In a nutshell, to people with a fixed mindset, the classroom can be a threatening and stressful environment. This is because they believe their abilities and intelligence are immutable; thus, every class/performance/exam forces them to prove their ability and avoid looking stupid. Every lesson makes them question whether they will be accepted or rejected, whether they will come out the winner or loser, whether they will look intelligent or ignorant (many of the professional interpreters out there will recognise that they feel like this about their work assignments as well).

As a result, people with a fixed mindset tend to value good grades (= proof that they are intelligent) over learning. They have a tendency to avoid challenges (which might make them look stupid, i.e. call into question their perceived intelligence), and to give up when they struggle. Their inner dialogue goes like this: ‘If I have to try hard at learning to note-take/doing simultaneous/getting all the links right in the speech, I must not be very clever/talented.’ They view the struggle negatively, and they think they have discovered they are bad at something.

They have little resilience.

By contrast, students with a growth mindset perceive the classroom as an exciting place to grow and embrace challenges. The work that they do leads to mastery of their chosen subject. They tend to value learning (the process, not the results), and they view effort and struggle positively.

They are resilient.

When it’s explained in these terms, I think it’s difficult to object to the theory behind growth mindsets. What’s not to like in an approach that helps students enjoy learning and achieve more, that makes company employees feel more empowered and committed, and that helps old dogs learn new tricks (since, despite the age-related decline in our little grey cells, our brains are still malleable)?

Old dog, new tricks. See how literal my brain is? Literal, but still plastic.

As a result, the growth mindset approach has been adopted wholeheartedly by the British educational establishment. It’s not all that easy to teach in schools, though; and it is prone to distortions and misinterpretations, which can be quite dangerous in themselves. I’ll talk about those in a moment.

How to change your teaching with growth mindset principles

The first thing I want to convey to you is this: I firmly believe that if you have a growth mindset (most of the time), and you can encourage your students to do the same, the classroom will be more productive, less threatening, more positive, and more fun. In this environment, it’s easier to learn together.

First of all, trainers need to use their influence in a purposeful and explicit way, by modelling a growth mindset. Say what? Well, walk the walk.

When you’re in a meeting or a training session, speak up when you don’t understand. When someone makes a Powerpoint presentation, try saying ‘can you tell me more about that?’ instead of pretending you know it all already. Be curious. Don’t be the person with eyes facing the floor, who never asks questions. In the classroom, show that you’re not perfect or all-knowing, and that you are also still learning and growing. Show that you are someone to learn with, that your students can learn together with you. 

Does this sound risky? It definitely makes you vulnerable in a way I, at least, was told to avoid at all costs when I was training as an interpreter. ‘If you don’t know something, cover it up!’ was the mantra. I’m not telling you how to behave in front of your clients, though; I’m making a suggestion about how you relate to your students, if you’re a trainer. Admit your imperfections, so they can let go of the need to be perfect. Show, or say, that you’re still learning, so they can understand the importance of lifelong learning and personal growth (no need to go over the top and let out all your insecurities and self-criticism, though!). Some years ago I watched a fellow trainer, who happened to be an outstanding interpreter and a colleague for whom I had huge respect, demonstrate a consecutive in class. He sailed through it, with the exception of a short section, which he fluffed. Afterwards, he laughed about it, explained what had gone wrong in his technique, and suggested better ways of dealing with it. The students loved it! Instead of consecutive seeming to be an unattainable goal where only perfection was acceptable, his performance made it seem achievable; and more than that, the fact that a professional, highly regarded interpreter had made a (small) mistake also made the profession look more achievable to the students.

Alongside practising your own growth mindset, here are some tips for fostering the same in your students:

  • teach students about the evidence from neuroscience that the brain is malleable and that intelligence can continue to develop throughout your life.
  • Change the way you interact with your student. Focus on praising the process (their effort, strategy and results) rather than their ability.
  • Avoid comparing students. Give students the opportunity to reflect on their own performance, and to evaluate how hard they worked, what strategies they used, and how much progress they have made.
  • Understand the power of the word YET. If your students (or your children, or you) make absolute statements about their ability (‘I can’t listen and write at the same time’, ‘I’m bad with numbers’, ‘I can never remember the conclusion’), see what happens when you add the word….YET at the end of the sentence. That simple addition leaves room for growth, and shows that you are engaged in a process in which there is hope for improvement.
  • Remind your students that they are beginners, that they are learning new skills, and that it is normal to struggle.
  • Accept mistakes in your classroom. Mistakes, if you get the right feedback afterwards, help us learn. But it’s worth making the point that interpreters can’t afford to make the same mistake too many times.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the idea of praising the process rather than the ability:

Praising ability

‘Great! You’ve taken to note-taking really quickly. You’re a natural!’

‘You got a distinction in your first semester exams. You’re a really good interpreter!’

‘You picked up that idea straight away. Told you you were bright.’

‘You’re such a good student. Well done!’

Praising process

‘Great! You worked really hard on that essay.’

‘You’ve done a lot of practice on your symbols, and the result is a real improvement in your consecutive technique.’

‘It was good to see you rounding up the numbers when the speech got too hard. That was a new strategy for you, and it worked.’

‘Today was a challenging session. Your note-taking isn’t 100% reliable yet, but you can already get more detail in the speech than last week.’

In many ways, praising the process rather than the ability ties in with familiar principles of giving constructive feedback to interpreting students: don’t make it personal (‘you’re terrible at this!’), be specific, give examples, comment on the performance and not the person. In this sense, growth mindset theory tallies with and reinforces tried and tested principles of best practice in interpreter training.

Misconceptions about growth mindset

Funnily enough, the growth mindset theory is actually prone to polarised, all-or-nothing thinking, even though that is precisely what the theory frowns on (for instance, ‘let’s test school children on whether they have a growth mindset’, ‘let’s evaluate schools based on whether they manage to inculcate a growth mindset’, ‘if you think the theory doesn’t work, it’s probably because you have a false growth mindset’).

I’ll spare you the complex debate about how to apply growth mindset principles to education policy, and instead focus on three misconceptions I think are damaging.

‘Anyone can do anything.’

Growth mindset theory can come across as a defence of the idea that everyone has infinite potential. If you just try hard enough/are positive enough/embrace your mistakes and failures enough, anything is possible!

Hold on just a minute. Your mindset can get you a long way, but it can’t overcome any and every challenge you may face, or alter luck/opportunity/the way the world works. We’re not all going to be wildly successful multi-millionaires, or prima ballerinas, or the Prime Minister (guess which one I briefly toyed with as a child).*

When growth mindset theory is misinterpreted in this way and applied in the classroom, the risk is that it can lead to boundless optimism and ambition (and why not?), but also a whole lot of unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.

We all have different talents, aptitudes, interests and temperaments; I don’t believe in the idea that we can all do anything we want, as long as we believe we can; but we can definitely all change, grow and improve.

‘Growth mindset is all about effort. You should never praise ability.’

First of all, having a growth mindset doesn’t just mean working hard. Unproductive effort shouldn’t be a goal in itself. It’s important to keep a weather eye on what you’re trying to achieve, and make sure you are trying new strategies if you’re in a rut, or getting help from others.

As a parent, I sometimes find my children’s school overly politically correct in avoiding praise for ability at all costs. Report cards are so non-judgemental and politically correct that I find it difficult to assess whether my children are doing OK. All their reports are couched in terms like ‘has made good progress’, and ‘is working hard towards mastering multiplication tables.’ Huh? What does this mean, really? If you’re a teacher or a parent, focus on praising effort, by all means, but don’t forget that sometimes we need reassurance or a reality check in the form of a reference to achievement. It’s OK to say ‘Wow! What a fantastic result in your exam!’ – you might want to add ‘You put in so much effort, and this is your reward – you can be proud of yourself!’

‘Just adopt a growth mindset and good things will follow.’

Nope. It’s not enough to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk as well. Trainers need to model a growth mindset in their interactions with students. Companies need to have policies that reward behaviours based on growth mindsets, such as sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, and admitting mistakes. If we want our children to become more resilient and adopt a growth mindset, we need to demonstrate the same attitude, and value perseverance and problem-solving, rather than just educational or sporting achievements.

How you can adopt a growth mindset in your own life

Seriously, you have enough energy to read more about this? I’m definitely over my word limit. On the other hand, I’m also over thinking I’m a bad driver. After several lessons and a whole lot of ‘facing my fears and doing it anyway’, I started driving again a few years ago. I’m not brilliant at it: I hate going to new places, I despise multi-storey car parks, and I refuse to drive on the Continent.

But when I catch myself thinking ‘I’m terrible at parking!’, I reframe it (especially if my children are around) as ‘Driving isn’t my top skill, but I’m still working on it. I’ve practised parking and reversing, and I’ve definitely improved. I’m not perfect at it, but my driving is good enough.’

If you’re interested in applying growth mindset principles to your own life, look out for next week’s FREE mindset challenge.

I’ll be sending you 5 day’s worth of simple activities to get you thinking differently about learning.

*no, not Prime Minister. Definitely a poisoned chalice.

** Surely you know the saying ‘they f*ck you up, your mum and dad’? If not, here’s the poem by Philip Larkin. Those easily offended by four letter words should abstain from reading any further.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems. Copyright
© Estate of Philip Larkin. 
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

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?

Your trainers are only as good as you make them

Your trainers are only as good as you make them blog image

I hesitated about the title of this blog post for a long time. Not least because it sounds as if I’m writing about shoes.

At first, I wanted to write about what I have learned from my students over the years. And then I wanted to write about how students can help their trainers step up and do better, because that is what some of my students do for me. Really, I’m writing about the symbiosis between student and trainer that can lead to breakthroughs on one side and excellence in teaching on the other.

But all of this is difficult to encapsulate in a blog title. I reckon if you read on, you’ll see what I’m getting at. So please bear with me. *

What my students have taught me

Every so often, I hear a teacher/trainer/tutor say ‘I learn so much from my students’. And on my jaded days, I think: ‘Nope, I’ve learned diddly squat from my students today. And that’s because they have no life experience, they need a bit more get-up-and-go, and the education system has given them a sense of entitlement and little idea of what independent thought looks like. And now I’m old, they all look about 15.’

And then I give myself a good slap round the head.


Sometimes I just forget what it’s like to start out – not in all areas, because I’ve certainly taken up new activities and learned new skills as an adult (I’m a permanent beginner when it comes to driving and parking, for instance, and have only just begun a long journey in web building and marketing) – but it’s a long time since I was a postgrad student. Let’s face it, when I embarked on my interpreter training course at the tender age of 21, I was deeply ignorant about current affairs, had very little work experience, and was probably more sheltered and naive and certainly vastly less streetwise and tech-savvy than students today. This is, in fact, totally normal. It doesn’t mean I had nothing to contribute, and the same goes for my students today.

I don’t learn from all my students every day (and let’s be honest: they probably don’t learn something new from me every single day), but some of my most valuable lessons as a trainer have come from my students.

Grit and determination

Acquiring the skill set required to become a professional interpreter is hard. Attending an interpreting course where you receive feedback on your performance every day in front of all the other students is very hard, psychologically speaking.

I benefited (if you can call it that) from the bootcamp style of interpreter training: short, fairly brutal, and effective (if traumatic).

drill sergeant meme
* note that I’m not giving any hints about which of my esteemed colleagues at the European Commission had drill sergeant tendencies.

I was fortunate enough to pass the final exam, and start work straight away with a good employer. So all the hard stuff was done in six months, with a good outcome at the end. So all the hard stuff only appeared to last six months (but after that there was a massive learning curve which still hasn’t ended…).

It doesn’t happen like that for everyone. In fact, these days, what with the labour market in general and the interpreting market in particular being quite different from 25 years ago, students have to a) make it through their interpreting course successfully, and b) market themselves successfully in order to find any work in a sometimes saturated and ungrateful market. They need bucketloads of versatility, determination, professionalism, and skills I just didn’t need or have when I started out. And they need many more strings to their bow.

Every so often I come across a student who deeply impresses me with his or her ability to navigate the myriad challenges I’ve just mentioned with grace and enthusiasm, and who demonstrates maturity, resilience, and willingness to learn. A couple of years ago I had a student in my French interpreting class, E., who never gave up. She wasn’t in the top spot at the beginning of the year and it wasn’t all plain sailing. She had issues with her delivery and use of English that needed addressing. But she Never. Gave. Up. She listened to feedback, she applied feedback, she worked hard, she worked well with others, she welcomed advice but didn’t need hand-holding, and after graduating, she set herself some goals and went after them with passion and determination. Perhaps it had something to do with her hobby of weightlifting, and that mental attitude carried over into her interpreting, I don’t know. She certainly had exactly the right mindset to make progress. By the time she graduated, her skills had improved significantly, and she hasn’t rested on her laurels. She is now actively involved in organising collaborative practice groups for colleagues, as well as consolidating her interpreting skills, blogging, and working on a retour.

The reason I mention this student is because she was a great reminder to me of how much can be achieved with tenacity and dogged determination, even if you don’t start from the most comfortable position.

Sometimes there seems to be a feeling among trainers that interpreters are born, not made; that you need special talents to become an interpreter, and that if you lack innate talent, you will fail.

I love this reminder from E., and some of my other students, that you can achieve so much in life by just doing the work without excuses or procrastination, and that success doesn’t have to be immediate. It may take a few months or a few years longer, but it is success nonetheless (some of my former students passed accreditation tests at European Institutions or started work as professional interpreters several years after graduating). The lesson here for trainers is never to give up on students who are struggling or taking longer than expected to pick up skills.

It is a joy to watch students’ tenacity and enthusiasm in working towards and achieving their goals, and as someone who suffers from perfectionist tendencies (if I can’t get something right first time, I tend to give up), I really admire their attitude.

New technologies

I quite like new technologies. Here I am, writing a blog, organising webinars and running several websites. Nevertheless, I am not a digital native, and my son (aged 10) can already do far more than I can with the TV remote and iPad.

technologically challenged
Me, sometimes.

One of the great things about being a trainer is that the contact with students helps me keep up (a little) with new technologies.

Students have a completely different experience at university these days. When I was a student, email didn’t exist, and word processing was in its infancy. I handed in handwritten work and couldn’t consult google.

These days, students have virtual learning environments, timetable apps, access to lecture recordings, Facebook groups, and more. At the universities where I teach, they also have equipment that can record their performances in the booth, video conferencing equipment in the room, and a smart whiteboard.

If not for my students, I would be one of these:

dinosaur figurineThe fact that our students’ learning environment has evolved so much leads us, as trainers, to think about how we can tap into all these new possibilities; how we can use new technologies to enhance learning, improve productivity, save time, or connect with colleagues around the world.

My students’ familiarity with the Internet, file sharing, and Facebook, for example, led directly to the creation of Speechpool. The increasing use of blended learning has led me to create my new site, The Interpreting Coach. Initiatives such as ORCIT (online resources for conference interpreter training), the SCIC/EP speech repository, streaming of mock conference by many universities, and new apps for interpreters, are the direct result of a) the availability of new technologies, but above all b) the way students and early adopters use and want these new technologies.

It’s when students ask the questions (how can I find practice material/find a practice partner anywhere in the world/organise my glossaries?) that we trainers can look for answers and consider how we can do things better inside or outside the classroom.

Questions, questions

They say there is no such thing as a stupid question. And indeed, as a trainer, I welcome questions. Nobody likes to deliver a lecture and see glazed eyes and bored looks; at least questions from the floor suggest that the audience has been listening.

interpreter trainers

Sometimes my students or coaching clients ask questions – about interpreting technique or use of language – that are very difficult to answer. I struggle with these, because I don’t want to give a confusing or misleading answer; and because language is full of nuance and subjectivity, and I can’t always offer unambiguous or definitive answers.

These questions, though, are my lifeblood as a trainer. They force me to reflect on technique or use of English. They help me to look at my own language differently. They spur me on to give clearer explanations, or to develop teaching materials to explain the linguistic challenge in question.

Just this morning, a coaching client asked me to explain salami technique (also known as ‘chunking’). It was a great opportunity for me not only to explain the principle, but to find specific examples at the syntactic level to explain the advantages of the technique. When I’m asked to explain something I take for granted in my own interpreting, it’s a great opportunity to take a fresh look at it and see if there is a different or better illustration that will be easier for students to grasp.

Another example: in developing materials for my online membership site, Rock your Retour, for English retourists, I have been heavily inspired by my coaching clients’ questions, and also by their mistakes (why did they use a particular word or phrase? What would have sounded better?). If not for them and my students, my relationship with English, and with interpreting, would stagnate. Instead, my students give me an opportunity to grow, learn, and explain better, and I’m grateful for it.

Students, help your trainers rock!

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have understood, I hope, that when I’m not swamped by my workload and the odd bout of pessimism about the profession, I am both grateful to my students and inspired by them. They make me a better trainer. I don’t believe that training and coaching should take an entirely top-down approach; nor do I believe that 100% student-led learning is necessarily successful. Instead, I like to think of the interpreting student + trainer relationship as being closer to the relationship between a mentor and mentee. A mentor guides mentees to reach their full potential; but a mentor cannot teach every student the same thing, or in the same way. He or she must adapt and respond to the students’ needs and wants.

I didn’t want to end this post, therefore, without giving all the students out there some advice about how you can help your trainers help you. We trainers want to give the best of ourselves, and we want our teaching to be useful. And you can help us do that. How?

  1. Ask questions! Don’t be passive. Instead, take control of your learning. Ask (pertinent) questions (have I said that already?). Spur us on to think critically about language and technique and offer you clearer insights.
  2. Listen to feedback and advice. Try it out when you next interpret.
  3. Adopt a growth mindset. Don’t worry if you’re not perfect at first: you are a beginner. All the stages of your learning are building blocks towards success. This means perfectionism (in the negative sense of ‘all or nothing thinking’) has no place in your learning; instead, be determined and hard-working, and remember that mistakes help you learn.
  4. As a learner, be active, responsible and curious. Try to absorb the advice and insights that your trainers and fellow students can give you, and to use them to become an independent learner. You will spend a brief period of time with your trainers, and the rest of your life maintaining and improving your own skills with far less guidance, so remember that your goal is not to absorb knowledge but to acquire skills and the right mindset for success.

In short, be teachable!

I think it would be grossly unfair, though, to encourage students to be teachable without asking the same of trainers. We’ve all heard of lifelong learning, and anyone who is a professional interpreter knows that you have never finished learning a language or picked up every bit of terminology on a given subject. But I think it’s worth considering how trainers can keep learning and improving too.

With the right approach on both sides, it seems to me that students and trainers can push one another to give more and do better, and create a relationship that is genuinely mutually beneficial.

Trainers, what’s the most valuable lesson you have learned from your students?

*This is, in fact, a phrase I hate. But it is ubiquitous in the UK.


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  • guidance from an experienced interpreting coach who is a native speaker of English
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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?

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

Make English work for you image



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?

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.


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