A reformulation exercise for English retourists

The purpose of this exercise is to help you work on the versatility of your English B and on deducing meaning from context and applying background knowledge.

I have chosen a short excerpt from a Guardian article, and blanked out some of the words.

Your task is to read each paragraph carefully, and come up with possible solutions to fill in the gaps. See how many options you can find.

If you like, you can be more radical, and change the whole phrase around that word.

Think about the solutions you’ve come up with. Are some of them lower register, or more formal?

Spoiler alert: I’ve given you the solutions under the text of the article, so avert your eyes if you want to make this a real exercise.

Text of the article

“MPs have criticised a project by academics that involved sending emails from fictitious constituents claiming they were concerned about financial support during the coronavirus lockdown.

Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) and the London School of Economics (LSE) sent emails to every MP’s inbox from characters including a cleaner and lawyer.

Copies of messages seen by the Guardian showed the senders – who with names including Paul, Thomas and Maryam – wrote that they worked for large companies but were “ about the long term” and saw “people all around me who are jobs or pay cuts”.

All emails ended with the request: “I’d like to know what you and the Conservative party are going to do to this crisis in the best possible way.” Some added they were a “Conservative supporter”.

in different MPs’ offices discovered the connection only when they replied with a standard question, asking for the sender’s address so they could confirm they were the right person to help, and received no response.”

Solutions – don’t read until you’ve done the exercise!

Para 2: the missing word is invented. You could have used fictitious or even fake. If you found made-up, be aware that this is more informal.

Para 3: the missing words are purported, signed themselves off, worried, losing, experiencing. You could use supposed instead of purported. You have several options for worried, including concerned – you just need to watch out for the preposition, which limits you. For experiencing pay cuts, you could try being hit by, being affected by, suffering because of…

Para 4: the missing phrase is get us through. You could have used overcome, tackle, address, get us out of (which is more informal), etc.

Para 5: the missing word is staffers, and you could simply have used staff.


Interested in more material like this to help you boost your retour? Why not join my monthly membership site, Rock your Retour, with tailor-made written materials and weekly live group classes (online)?

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Sophie Llewellyn Smith, writing as The Interpreting Coach, is a coach, interpreter trainer, conference interpreter, designer of online teaching materials, and creator of Speechpool. Follow the blog to pick up tips on how to improve your interpreting skills.

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

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,

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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?

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,

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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,

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* 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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