I’ve spent twenty years helping interpreters improve their retour (at least I hope my techniques are helpful! 😉), but I’ll let you into a little secret: I’ve hardly used my own (French) retour in ten years.
When I was last in Brussels on a temporary contract with the European Commission, I added a French consecutive retour. I was assigned to a handful of high level meetings, usually involving Ministers and Commissioners, before turning freelance and going back to the UK. I stopped working into French with the exception of a mission in Manchester (about young people and contraception!) three years ago.
Reactivating my retour has been on my to-do list for a long time, but there’s always something else that’s a higher priority, and I’m much more valuable to the European institutions as an English booth interpreter with Greek and German in my combination, than as an English booth interpreter with a French retour – after all, they have a whole booth full of French A interpreters with English in their combination!
It seems the time has finally come for me to dust off my French, though, and I’ve spent the past month working hard on it.
I’ve done all the things you would expect: listening to French podcasts, shadowing, reading blog posts and articles, noting down vocabulary, interpreting practice speeches, etc. etc. [If you want to hear more about reactivating your retour, you can listen to my podcast on the subject.]
Times have changed since I last worked so intensively on my French (I think it was 2014), and I wanted to share a couple of fun activities I’ve been playing with. They didn’t exist back in the day, because the technology wasn’t there.
You may, of course, have discovered these tricks already, especially if you’re tech-savvy. 😉
1. Sight translation – with a secret weapon
I often suggest sight translation as an exercise to help with retour training. It’s an opportunity to come up with one or multiple ways of rendering a text in your A language, and it affords you more thinking time than interpreting a speech. [By the way, I do think the word ‘sight translation’ is a misnomer, and it should be called ‘sight interpretation’ to avoid giving the impression we’re looking for some sort of ‘perfect’ version.]
If you’re a retourist, perhaps you’ve had practice sessions where you pick a text, sight interpret into your B language, record yourself, listen back, try to identify awkward passages, and then try to come up with better solutions. This is not always easy to do, and we all sometimes wish we had a tame native speaker to hand to give us suggestions (there are ways to improve your chances of success even if you don’t have a native speaker helping; I explore these in this blog post).
Now you can – at least partially – compensate for the lack of a practice partner, trainer, or coach, by using the fruit of machine translation.
Don’t get me wrong, we all know Google Translate, Linguee et al aren’t perfect, and depending on the corpus they’ve been trained on, the results sometimes have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but they can produce useful results.
Here’s my new and improved version of sight translation.
- Choose a text in your A language.
- Read through the first paragraph.
- Switch on your recording device, and sight interpret this paragraph into your B language, aiming for a smooth and confident delivery.
- Copy paste paragraph 1 into e.g. Google Translate or DeepL.
- Review the output. Are there any useful terms or phrases that you can steal?
- Have a second attempt at sight interpreting this paragraph.
- Rinse and repeat with paras 2, 3, etc.
There are three obvious caveats:
- Make sure the material isn’t confidential.
- The quality of the output depends on the topic, because machine translation tools are dependent on a certain corpus of text. Some topics yield better quality results than others; for example, I recently worked on cattle farming and whisky distilling. One of these yielded markedly better results in Google Translate than the other.
- If your B language is fairly weak, you will find it difficult to discern whether the output in Google Translate or DeepL is overly literal, unnatural, or simply incorrect. This technique works best if your B language is already strong, i.e. if you can’t always come up with inspired solutions yourself, but you can recognise them when you see them.
Read on for a few examples of French>English and English>French translations. You can skip to the section about flashcards if you don’t have these languages in your combination.
2. Flash cards with a twist
Now let’s turn to my second technique, which is one you may very well have used when trying to add a new C language: flashcards.
Old-style flashcards (literally small rectangles of card on which you write with a pen) are as antiquated as the abacus, I suppose. Nowadays you can choose from a plethora of apps with flashy features to improve the efficiency of your revision (and make it more fun).
I’ve been familiar with some of these apps, e.g. Anki and Quizlet, for a long time, but haven’t really used them myself, since I haven’t added a C language in living memory.
However, I recently decided to help my daughter with revising biology, chemistry, and physics, and I thought electronic flashcards would be more fun than paper.
I tried Anki first, but I didn’t like the look or features. I wanted something very intuitive, quick to learn, and fun to use. So then I tried Quizlet, and loved how easy it was to add audio to the flashcards, or even images. You can even pick from a gallery of suggested images. When it comes to using the flashcards for revision, you can set them to play a matching game, or use them in a variety of different ways to learn or revise the material. The magic algorithms will ensure you spend more time on the cards you get wrong initially.
From there it was a small step to thinking “aha, I’ve been writing down vocabulary about cattle farming/barley production/distilling whisky, so I’ll create some flashcards with key words”.
Obviously if you’re working on a B language, the point isn’t to recognise and understand vocabulary in a passive language, but to be able to think of the equivalent in your B language as quickly as possible (i.e. to activate your vocabulary).
Here’s some vocabulary I was working on, related to salmon farming:
The basic version of Quizlet is free, and took me less than five minutes to set up.
You can go the DIY route and create your flashcards from scratch. Here’s an example. I’ve typed in my first two terms, finfish and halibut. You’ll see that once I typed in ‘halibut’, the system offered me suggestions for the French equivalent.
There’s an even faster way to create cards, though: use the ‘import’ function. Just copy/paste the Excel cells into the ‘import’ box:
Bob’s your uncle! The system creates 10 cards for you (or as many as you like) in one fell swoop!
Back in the day, to try to anchor this terminology in my mind and make it part of my active French, I would have reread my vocabulary lists several times (jotted down in a notebook, two decades ago, then typed into an Excel spreadsheet more recently).
My aim with the flashcards is to see the word on the front of the card and be able to come up with the French equivalent immediately, to help develop faster reflexes. Using an app is a targeted way of making improvements, since you can mark the flashcards you know well, so the algorithm only shows you the ones that still need work.
One more feature that might be helpful to retourists: you can add audio to the flashcard, to help you with pronouncing tricky words in your B language.
Now it may well be the case that everybody out there has been using these techniques for age already, and I’m behind the times. 😁 That’s OK…I’m increasingly aware that I am gradually becoming a technological dinosaur.
[By the way, if you’re interested in using AI to help you with your language learning, why not join the new AI Language Club, from the indefatigable Josh Goldsmith and Kerstin Cable? If you follow the link, you’ll find a free webinar to start you off.]
What are your fun techniques for improving your retour?