E4T taster: time-saving materials to polish your English

E4T taster

English: an essential part of many interpreters’ language combinations.

And English is all around us, so it should be easy to maintain….right?

Well…maybe you’re so used to hearing Globish at work that you struggle when Irish, British, American, Indian, or Kenyan speakers take the floor.

Or maybe the multitude of different accents and variants of English you hear is stressful when you’re interpreting.

Or perhaps you can access plenty of suitable practice material, but you’re short of time and you’d like a shortcut.

A few months ago, I launched a new series of modules focusing on English, along with my colleagues Catriona Howard and Kirsten Coope.

We’ve had some great feedback about the materials (called E4T: English for Interpreters), which are intended to give you a helping hand with improving your English C (or B!); but we’ve also had questions about how to make the most of the materials, and what the content of the modules actually consists of.

I thought it might be nice to give you an E4T taster, with a peek behind the scenes of several modules, along with some tips on how you can make the most of the content.

What’s in each module?

Each module typically contains:

  • 3 tailor-made practice speeches, prepared by yours truly, Catriona, and Kirsten, on the topic of the month. Each video is captioned and comes with a full transcript. You’ll also find a short introduction and some terminology that you can choose to research before tackling the speech, or to ignore if you’d rather tackle it without preparation.
  • 3 carefully selected ‘real life’ speeches representing a variety of accents and viewpoints. These could be panel debates, TED talks, interviews, lectures, etc. Again, we give a brief introduction, some terminology, and often some guidance on how to tackle the speech – or a suggested focus.
  • a reading exercise (often, this is a reading comprehension), based on a relevant article or paper.
  • a listening exercise; this could be based on one of the practice speeches, or a podcast or lecture. The exercise might be a listening comprehension or some other exercise to practise analysis, for instance.
  • a note-taking exercise to practise note-taking technique or symbols.
  • a ‘resources’ section with more suggestions for audio or video practice material and further background reading.
  • an Excel glossary template containing key terminology, vocabulary that comes up in the speeches, and any relevant idioms.

We’ve tried hard to reflect a variety of viewpoints and accents in each module, and to cover the key terminology that you need to know in order to interpret successfully.

Oh, a very important point: if you decide to purchase one of the modules, you will have indefinite, on demand access.

This is not the kind of material that you can only access for 6 months or a year; you can dip in an out of the modules whenever you like – your access is permanent (as long as my website continues to exist!).

Now, what can you do with all of this? The answer will partly depend on whether your English is a C or a B language.

If your English is a C

Here are some ideas:

  • fill in the glossary templates with your A language equivalents and learn the vocabulary.
  • Use the caption function to check your understanding of a tricky speech.
  • If you struggled with sections of a speech, read the transcript afterwards.
  • Use all the consecutive speeches for note-taking practice.
  • Improve your background knowledge by going through the additional resources.
  • Prepare for an exam by going through all the materials, in the order they are given (roughly in order of difficulty).
  • Prepare for a mock conference, volunteer gig or assignment by practising with the simultaneous speeches.

Here’s a taster of a reading exercise, from the circular economy module.

Sample reading exercise – circular economy

“Read through the speech transcript provided and find different ways of expressing the words/ phrases listed below in the text. If you would like to take it a step further, or are working on an English B, why not come up with a third (or fourth!) option. I have provided some suggestions in the answer table below. As it is quite a long list, I have split the exercise in two. The first section takes you up to:  “Through an ambitious new biodiversity framework, under which commitments are made and actions taken by the whole of government, economy and society.”.

You may also like to spend some time producing a version of the speech in your mother tongue. Approach the task as if it were an interpretation (i.e. don’t produce a translation) but take the time to come up with idiomatic solutions in your mother tongue that really reflect the nuance of the original.

There is plenty of useful climate-related vocab in the text too, especially in the second half. Oh and finally, in case you spot it, the correct word is “disproportionately” not “disproportionally”!”

The speech transcript is here.

EXPRESSION USED IN TEXTYOUR SUGGESTIONS (in your mother tongue and/or in English)
Section 1
Moments which test us
Most people can’t help thinking of
is just one manifestation of
deteriorating state
completely reconfigure
main cause of
our only choice is to
are being implemented
speeding towards
the crux of the matter is
ambitious targers
crucial for
throw away
limited resources
modify our behaviour
Section 2
further developing
results effects
are ongoing
amounted to
is developing
a significant barrier
gradually eliminating
open up
be successful in the longer term
phase out their activities

EXPRESSION USED IN TEXTYOUR SUGGESTIONS (in your mother tongue and/or in English)
Section 1
Moments which test ustrying timesdifficult/tough periods
Most people can’t help thinking ofminds turn tomost people’s first thought is
shrunkcontractedgot smaller
is just one manifestation ofis but one symptom ofis only one sign of
deteriorating stateailing healthworsening condition
completely reconfigureradically altercompletely transform/drastically reshape/improve significantly
main cause ofcore driver
No good here here but I couldn’t help stick in “engine of change” as an expression/ collocation.)
our only choice is towe have no option but towe must
are being implemented are coming online (I particularly dislike this expression, though it’s very common!)are coming into force
speeding towardshurtling towardsheading at full speed/advancing or moving rapidly
the crux of the matter isthe bottom line isultimately/the upshot is
ambitious targerslofty ambitionsambitious/bold (?) goals
crucial forcritical toessential for/required by
productionoutputyield (?)
throw awaydiscardthrow out/reject?
limited resourcesfinite capacitylimited means
modify our behaviourchange our waysadapt our behaviour/operate or do things differently
Section 2
further developingscaling upincreasing/stepping up/intensifying/expanding
extractgougescoop out/violently remove
strainedstressedput pressure on
resulting effectsattendant impactsresultant/accompanying effects
are ongoingare underwaythere are currently efforts
amounted tostood ataccounted for
is developingis unfoldingis appearing
a significant barriermajor impedimentsubstantial obstacle
gradually eliminatingphasing outprogressively removing
open upunlockprovide
be successful in the longer termstickbe permanent/long-lasting
phase out their activitieswind downreduce their activities/gradually shut up shop

If your English is a B

Here are some ideas:

  • look out for the exercises that are specifically designed for English Bs in the module.
  • If your intonation and pronunciation need work, why not do a little bit of shadowing with one of the tailor-made speeches?
  • Use the reading exercises as an opportunity to pick up new idiomatic phrases in English.
  • Use the glossary as a shortcut to make sure you know the key terminology in a particular subject.
  • Use the tailor-made speeches as material for a reformulation exercise (EN>EN simultaneous). See how versatile your English B is by looking for alternatives and synonyms.
  • Take EN>EN notes and check that you have good symbols and abbreviations.

Here’s a taster of a simultaneous speech, from the module on taxation (available 1st October).

Sample tailor-made speech – tax module

If you’re a trainer

You are welcome to use E4T materials in the classroom as a teaching aid.

Please credit us, and don’t share your login details as this compromises the security of the site.

If you’d like a whole cohort of students or trainers to be able to access the materials in their own time, please contact us for pricing.

Here are some ideas for you:

  • If you have a topic of the week at your institution, your students could listen to some of the material in the Resources section to prepare.
  • Pick one of the exercises (reading or listening) for your students to do before class as preparation
  • Use one of the tailor-made consecutive speeches in class when you’re teaching consecutive.
  • Give your students one of the exercises or speeches to do as homework.
  • Use the speech transcript to help you when listening to students work in simultaneous.

Here’s a sample listening exercise, from our module on vaccination.

Sample listening exercise – vaccination module

The source material for this exercise is a podcast called ‘Science vs’. The episode I’ve chosen is called ‘Vaccines – are they safe?’, and I’ve chosen it for two reasons: the presenter has an Australian accent, and her presenting style is quite informal (click on the image to access the podcast).

Vocabulary and comprehension exercise

  1. Listen to the podcast between -23.35 and -8.21. This section begins with ‘There’s another idea about how vaccines could be causing autism: Mercury.  Mercury… is sometimes used as a preservative in vaccines… in a form called thimerosal.’
  2. Listen out for unknown or interesting words or phrases.
  3. Read the following list. For each word or phrase, consider a) if you could give a definition, b) how you would render this in your A language, c) whether you know any synonyms in English. Do they have the same register or connotations?

  • kooky
  • to comb through
  • a raft of studies
  • freaking out
  • a debate that won’t die
  • a whack-a-mole game
  • cut and dry
  • their assessments lined up

You can find a transcript of the podcast here.

An exercise for English Bs

The presenter’s style in this podcast is very conversational. In places, she uses informal register.

Try using the podcast as a reformulation exercise. Start in the same place, and go all the way to the end of the podcast. See if you can raise the register so it is more formal.

When you’ve finished, think about what phrases you changed.

You may have changed scary, a big deal, kooky, freaking out, whack-a-mole game, and ‘do they stack up?’. You may also have changed ‘a bunch of’ and ‘WAY more than’.

In British English, ‘kids’ is fairly informal as well, although it is much more common in American English. As a British English speaker, if I wanted to be more neutral or formal, I would have changed ‘kids’ into ‘children’.

Where to find E4T

Here are the modules we’ve published so far. Just click on the links to find out more or to purchase.


Fake news

The gig economy

The circular economy

We publish a new module on the 1st of each month. Our next module, on taxation, is due for publication on 1st October.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief E4T taster. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions, or if you’d like to suggest a topic for a forthcoming module!

The best way to develop your retour (and it’s not what you think)

develop your retour

‘What do you do to develop your retour?’

I sometimes ask my interpreting students this question. I’m curious to know what they do with their limited time outside of class. The calls on their time are so great (writing essays, researching the topic of the week, preparing speeches, practising interpreting into their A language, attending theory modules and other lectures, and having a life!) that I’m quite sure they want all their self-training to be productive.

In their shoes, I would want to wring every bit of juice from the exercises or activities I did to try to improve my retour. I certainly wouldn’t want to waste time on activities with a limited value.

Yet all too often, this is what they say in response to my question:

  • I listen to the radio in the background.
  • I watch the news on TV.
  • I read the Economist/the papers.
  • I’m flat-sharing with a native speaker, so I get some practice in.
  • I practise interpreting from A into B (but I don’t have anyone to listen to me).

Can you see what the problem is with these suggestions?

Practising interpreting from A into B is the end goal of a retourist. 

If your B language isn’t strong enough, you will produce unidiomatic English (or substitute whatever your B language is). If you don’t have a native speaker or someone with a strong English B to listen to you and make suggestions, you are unlikely to improve your performance next time (although there are ways to get around this – see my blog post for ideas).

In short, although there is definitely a place for practising your interpreting from A into B, it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. If you do nothing else, you will get very tired and you may limit your progress. Before you can interpret effectively into your B language, you must have sufficient mastery and flexibility in that language to produce it spontaneously and idiomatically when speaking on a variety of subjects.

Let’s turn to the other typical ‘homework’ activities mentioned by aspiring retourists: listening to the radio, reading widely, watching the news. All these activities are very passive (just think of the implications of ‘in the background’!). They may well improve your knowledge of current affairs and your comprehension of your B language, but you need to go a step further than that. To improve your retour, you need to activate your B language.

Develop your retour by activating your B language

Let’s take another look at those activities and see if we can tweak them so as to make them more active.

Listening to the radio/podcasts or watching TV

  • Try repeating key vocabulary out loud.
  • Take note of useful phrases (whole phrases, not just words, so you get the collocations right).
  • Prepare a short glossary based on the vocabulary used in the programme or podcast you have just heard.
  • After the programme, give a short summary out loud in your B language.
  • Jot down a few arguments (e.g. pros and cons) and prepare a short speech in your B language based on what you’ve heard.

Reading the Economist/the papers/classical literature

The good news about reading in this way is that it can improve your background knowledge and your understanding of cultural aspects of your B language. If you choose your reading matter carefully to address your weaknesses (for instance, if you know you tend to be too colloquial in your B language), you can also work on register while acquiring useful vocabulary. It’s always good to kill several birds with one stone!

  • Take note of useful phrases (whole phrases, not just words, so you get the collocations right).
  • Think carefully about register. What elements of the language make it more formal? Can you incorporate any of these phrases into your interpreting?

Chatting to housemates or friends

Speaking is certainly more active than reading or listening to the radio, and is a good opportunity to expand your vocabulary and speak your B language with greater fluency. It won’t, however, improve your retour significantly if a) the person you’re speaking to doesn’t correct you when you make mistakes, b) you are not aware of nuances of register when speaking to your friends, and you pick up bad habits or phrases that are inappropriate in the workplace, and c) you only ever talk about the same things.

Make sure you are alert to colloquialisms or vulgarity in everyday conversation, to avoid, for example, telling your tutor that you are ‘pissed off’ (as a student once said to me, not realising how rude it was, as her flatmates said it all the time). Be disciplined in everyday conversations; habits such as saying ‘I mean’, ‘you know’, or ‘like’ all the time are very hard to get rid of.

Consider opportunities to speak your B language in a different context, more relevant to your future career. You could join a debating society, for instance.

‘Pre-interpreting’ exercises to help develop your retour skills

I’m calling these pre-interpreting because they are not interpreting exercises per se, but activities you can do instead of, or before, practising interpreting a speech on a given topic. As I said earlier, production takes precedence over interpretation, and these are exercises that will force you to work on reformulation and expressing yourself naturally in your B

  • Preparing a speech on a subject of your choice. This is a great pre-interpreting exercise. Pick a topic, read a couple of articles, take note of a few phrases, and articulate your thoughts in a structured speech in your B language. Afterwards, you might like to try interpreting a speech from A into B on the same subject. You’ll be primed and ready to go!
  • Shadowing. To clarify: I don’t think shadowing in the literal sense of repeating everything you hear is necessarily useful, especially in an A language. However, if your B language is quite weak, shadowing a good speaker is an opportunity to get a feel for intonation patterns and to hear yourself say certain phrases out loud. If your B is stronger, you can use shadowing as a reformulation exercise (listen to the ideas, edit them, and reformulate them); this is a very advanced exercise, but excellent for working on versatility, concision and paraphrasing. Look out for a future blog post about shadowing.
  • Sight translation. Again, this is a challenging exercise, but a great opportunity to think about reformulation. Howe many ways can you think of to express the same idea? Sight translation is also good done in a group, because other members may come up with good ideas.

Develop your retour skills while having fun

It doesn’t all have to be hard work. There are plenty of opportunities for having fun with language and improving your retour skills almost without noticing

  • Don’t forget that basic grammar and vocabulary often need work. There are plenty of useful websites and apps for this. How about Memrise for learning vocab? And why not look for quizzes to help consolidate your understanding of aspects of grammar such as prepositions?
  • Play games. Articulate and Taboo are a lot of fun, and a great way to practise reformulation. A few glasses of wine will help things along! Or why not play your favourite video game, but in your B language?
  • Sneak your B language into your life in other ways. Change the settings on your browser or Facebook so they’re in your B language. If the Economist seems too heavy, read a cookery/cycling/photography magazine in your B language. Find a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks your B language (as well as the language of lurve).


It’s worth repeating: you can’t interpret well into your B language until you can speak your B language confidently and idiomatically in a variety of situations.

The way I see it, to develop a strong retour, you need to focus first on improving your active language skills in your B, then move on to interpreting. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t attempt interpreting for ten years, until your mastery of your B language is perfect (as if such a thing were possible!), but my feeling is that when you start trying to develop your retour, you need to focus more on expanding your repertoire (vocabulary, register), consolidating the language and producing it spontaneously or semi-spontaneously. When you do practise interpreting, make sure you have done plenty of preparatory work to smooth the way for a productive practice session and to boost your confidence, which is absolutely critical to working succesfully into a B language.

As your B language improves and you can use your B with greater flexibility and versatility, the balance can shift and you can spend more time on interpreting.

I hope this post has given you plenty of ideas for developing your retour in ways that are productive and sometimes even fun! What works best for you? Leave me a comment – and if you have friends or colleagues who might be interested, please share this post on Facebook or Twitter!

To your success,

Sophie signature transparent

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?

Football: love it, hate it, use it

Football idioms blog post

Unless you’ve been living in a parallel universe for the past few weeks, you will know what the big event is this Sunday: the World Cup Final between France and Croatia. Even I know it’s happening.

My Facebook feed has a sprinkling of updates from friends – enough for me to have a vague idea of what’s been going on. I was quite smug at the semi-final stage, knowing that I could happily support three of the four teams (being half English and half French, and having lived in Belgium). In our household, though, switching on the TV is a rare treat, and we’re not going to make an exception for the Beautiful Game.

That being said, everything is grist to the mill for a keen interpreter. When it comes to football, whether you love it or hate it, you can make use of it to improve your interpreting, with a plethora of football idioms. I’ll show you how in a minute, but first, I thought I should reach out to others like myself, who are less than keen on football*, with some sneaky tricks to help you be a football faker.

*otherwise known as pedaspheraphobes

If you’re clueless about footie but want to fit in

Here are some safe options for you to pull out of the hat when you’re watching a match with friends.

  • Before the match: ‘I think we’re in for a great game’.
  • In the first half, before things go horribly pear-shaped: ‘It’s early days’, or ‘There’s still everything to play for!’
  • Generic comments that will get you through most situations: ‘Go on!’, ‘Ooooohhh!’, ‘Referee!’, ‘Unlucky!’, and ‘Surely, that was a penalty!’
  • When one of your players is threatened with a tackle: ‘Man on!’
  • After a tackle: ‘Great tackle!’, or ‘Keep your knees to yourself, you idiot!’, depending which side was responsible for the tackle.
  • After a goal: ‘Back of the net!’ or ‘What a goal!’
  • After a save by your side: ‘What a save!’. I’m sure you’re beginning to discern a trend here. Sophisticated exclamations are unnecessary, when ‘What a…[insert appropriate manoeuvre]’ is so versatile, e.g. ‘what a header!’
  • If your side is England: ‘This can’t be happening!’
  • After the match: ‘We were robbed!’

If you’re clueless but aspire to being an armchair pundit*

*pundit: an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public. (Oxford Dictionary)

This is more dangerous ground, as you will need some football terminology and the ability to make what, on the surface, appear to be insightful observations.

Here are some of the basic terms you will need: kick-off, the pitch, the goalie (or keeper), formations (i.e. how you place your defenders, midfield and forwards), a striker (an attacking player), a free kick (when a player has been fouled), a throw in, offside (there’s no point even trying to explain this term, as the rules are incomprehensible), the group stage, the knockout stage, extra time, a penalty shoot-out, a goalless draw (also known these days as a boredraw) and a hat trick (scoring three goals in one match), although you’re unlikely to need this one if you’re watching England play.

To sound like a football guru, try some descriptive adjectives for the players, for example: ‘he’s very pacey/versatile/fiery’ and be free with the sweeping generalisations ‘France have got a lot of pace’ (i.e. they run fast!), ‘Italy are good at the back’ (i.e. in defence), ‘Croatia had a lot of possession in the first half, but they weren’t able to create opportunities’, and ‘Mourinho has no other option but to park the bus’ (i.e. focusing on defence and blocking the goal, because you fear losing).  Don’t forget to wheel out a few trite clichés, such as ‘some tired legs out there’, ‘that was schoolboy defending’, ‘this is an emotional rollercoaster’, or ‘it’s a game of two halves’ (the fortunes of each team can swing dramatically between the two halves).

If you’re actually after some useful football idioms to improve your work into English

No problem! There are stacks to choose from, and you may be surprised to find you are familiar with some of them already. No need to stick to a sports context, as these idioms are very versatile.

  • to kick off, to get the ball rolling: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, after that brief introduction from the chairman, the floor is open for your comments. Who would like to get the ball rolling?’. ‘I’d like to kick off the meeting with a brief Powerpoint presentation.’
  • to be on the ball: ‘Luckily, the Secretariat was on the ball, and noticed a typo in paragraph 2.’
  • to take your eye off the ball: ‘If we want these negotiations to succeed, we can’t take our eye off the ball for a second.’
  • to know the score: ‘You don’t need to explain the whole process to Mr. Adams. He knows the score.’
  • a game plan: ‘The meeting with our competitors went badly because we hadn’t worked out a game plan.’
  • a game changer: ‘The Ebola vaccine could be a game changer in the outbreak in the Congo.’
  • to watch from the sidelines: ‘So far, I’ve been watching from the sidelines, but I think it’s time I expressed my opinion in this debate.’
  • to score an own goal: ‘The European Union scored an own goal with this legislation, which is too restrictive and hampers exports.’
  • to move the goalposts: ‘I’m frustrated with this project; my boss keeps moving the goalposts, so I never feel as if I’m doing a good job.’
  • to blow the whistle on someone: ‘He was afraid to blow the whistle on his colleagues.’

So there you have it! A handy little toolkit of useful idioms that can be used in many interpreting contexts (sport, business, diplomacy), AND some useful phrases in case you want to feign interest in the World Cup.

I will leave you with a final little bit of British culture. Some years ago, an ‘iconic’ (I hope you can see my air quote marks here) song called Three Lions was released by rock band Lightning Seeds, and football-obsessed comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel. It’s called Three Lions and features the chorus ‘football’s coming home’. At the time, this referred to the fact that England was hosting its first major football tournament for thirty years. However, since then the phrase has evolved to refer to football’s most famous trophy, The World Cup, returning to England, where football was invented.

I will employ a little British understatement and say the song has been enjoying a LOT of airplay in recent weeks. But no more (for obvious reasons)! This is no loss to the musical scene. But just in case you feel you should understand this aspect of British culture, here it is:

And now… best go and practise shouting ‘Allez les bleus!’

To your success,

Sophie signature transparent

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?


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