What about B?

I got a question from a reader (thank you for asking, made me very happy and inspired a new post!)
Do you think that if you make a few mistakes during an entrance exam in your B language you will be turned away? 
My reader writes: I’m confused because I was under the impression that a B language is something you already have “perfect command” of, according to AIIC. Yet language enhancement classes is something that is often talked about in interpreting circles? That indicates to me that schools do accept students with B languages that are “less than perfect.” 

What’s my take on the issue, the reader asks. Well, I’ll try to give my take, but before going into the question of B-language, there is also the question of who should pass an entrance exam. What types of mistake are you allowed to do at an entrance exam and still get accepted? Do we accept “interpreting-ready” people who just need a few months on task, or do we accept people who we think we can train to become interpreters? I have no answers to these questions, but I think they are important to bear in mind when you sit in an entrance jury, since I believe that our task is to find people with a potential to become interpreter, not those who already are interpreters. Sadly, as all trainers know, not all of our students end up becoming interpreters, but on the other hand, not everyone who studies law ends up a lawyer either.
But, on to B-language, and what to expect from it. We often say that we cannot train you to become an interpreter unless your languages (especially your A) are “there”. You’re right that AIIC states that you must have perfect command of your B-language. But what is perfect command? Is accent OK? What about grammar mistakes? Do you have to master all domains in your B? And why do universities offer language enhancement classes if your B must be perfect?
Well, if a B is 100 % perfect, then it’s not a B anymore, right? Then we may actually have come across one of those rare species with a double A. So, just the fact that we call it a B indicates that there may be a qualitative difference between the two languages. I would say that context is crucial. When, where and how do you interpret into B?
The extremely interesting work by Collados Aìs and her research team in Granada, Spain showed that Spanish-speaking interpreting clients, when asked about what is important in interpreting, rank accuracy as one of the most important features and foreign accent as one of the least important. Yet, when asked to rank the exact same interpreting, one made by an interpreter with native accent and the other made by an interpreter with foreign accent, the interpreter with foreign accent gets a lower score for… accuracy. So components which we deem to be unimportant may still influence our judgement.
With this said there are so many parts of the context influencing whether a B is good enough or not. Grammar mistakes is always an issue, but depending on language, dialect or group belonging they may be more or less important. Swedish speakers for instance are (to a certain extent) more lenient toward grammar mistakes if the accent is either perfect Swedish or from a high status immigrant language (a.k.a English). Language used on TV is more scrutinised than that used in a social security office. On TV the interpreter may not get away with any oddities whereas both the client and the social security officer may just be happy the interpreter is a good communicator albeit with some grammar mistakes or an accent.
Personally I may have an English B. I say may, because it’s not as easy as “either you have it or you don’t”. I’m a certified PSI interpreter between English and Swedish, which means I work into English in hospitals, courts and similar contexts. I do occasionally also take on conference assignments into English, but it’s always tricky to decide whether something is OK to do or not. Just as for any interpreting assignment the clients perception of “easy” may not coincide with the interpreters idea of “easy”. My English is surely not perfect, but it works in most contexts though. I would not put it to test in a simultaneous booth at the European parliament though. On a side note, my French is (or at least was) probably both stronger and better than my English, but I have an unfortunate habit of making mistakes with the articles, and as this is absolutely unacceptable to the French, I had to give up my plans for a French retour.
Finally, on language enhancement classes, we don’t do that at our interpreting program. We have two types of programmes, one year-long, post-graduate, into A-only program focusing on conference interpreting at international institutions.  The other one is a PSI-program, where we have some language tutoring, but not really language enhancement, more focus on register, technical language in different context and so forth. We do encourage our all students to enhance their language skills though, both A-, B- and C- language, but I see that as more of a life long training task. If you are an active interpreter, language enhancement is sort of part of your constant work, right?!
Sorry, I couldn’t provide a straight forward answer, but I hope I’ve given some insight to at least what my take is on retour :-). The straight answer to the questions above (Do you think that if you make a few mistakes during an entrance exam in your B language you will be turned away?) is perhaps the very elusive answer – “it depends”, on the program, on the jury, on the context… But I hope I have elaborated a little bit on the different aspects.
Thank you again for getting in touch!
 Update: In August I took a great course for working into English B organized by Zoë Hewetson and Christine Adams. And I have to admit that I really appreciated the language enhancement classes. The reasons for this were the following:
1) training your muscles and muscle memory – sounds are not the same and therefore our muscles tricks us especially in simultaneous, so despite the best intentions we produce [s] instead of [z] or [t] instead of [ð]. With well flexed face muscles and a muscle memory up to date production becomes better.
2) collecting and mastering set phrases – no matter how much you work your second language you will never be as versed in set phrases as in your mother tongue, but with a solid collection of them it lightens your cognitive load and allows you to perform better.
3) getting to know your speaker – rhetoric is not random, but it is language specific, or even, country or culture specific, and it develops, people take after other great speakers. Therefore, studying the rhetoric of others, but also giving your own speeches is great.

3 thoughts on “What about B?

  1. Fascinating. About 80-85% of my booth work has been A->B, simply because of market conditions here. I do wonder if entrance exams are as much about being able to show the soft skills (summarising, confidence, understanding, recovery, intonation) than the harder linguistic skills. Just my two cents (plus or minus inflation).

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