Language enhancement


When you start an interpreting course one of the first things you that may strike you is how the language you thought you knew just fades away. Interpreting is an extremely complex exercise and your language skills have to be extremely solid. Whether we grew up bilingually or learnt languages later, most of us who are (or were) accepted into an interpreting program probably has the equivalent to a C2 level (mother tongue or near-native level according to the Council of Europe). But let’s face it, when we embark on our first consecutive – it feels like we just learnt our first words in that language.

So, although you are a skilled linguist, you will have to work on enhancing your language skills, and probably also the elusive concept of ‘culture générale’. But how do you do it? Since we’re not C3PO we cannot just add another hard drive or software, we just have to do it the good old way. And you probably already know it, but here’s a repetition.

First of all, listen, read, eat and sleep your language. You may have to do this both with your foreign language and your mother tongue. Unfortunately, there is now way around it – you need to listen to radio, read newspapers, listen to the news, both in your mother tongue and in your foreign language and with all the technical aid today this is not too hard. Log on to iTunes and see which pods suit you. I like NPR (the American National Public Radio), BBC, TV5 Monde, RFI (Radio France Internationale) just to mention a few. Many newspapers also have their own pod casts. And if you subscribe to different news apps you will get short flashes in you mobile.

When I brain stormed with my students someone also said “set your mobile, Facebook or web browser to your foreign language”. Translation is a good exercise too, when you translate shorter, idiomatic texts you get a feeling for expressions, idioms, prepositions and so forth. Attention to prepositions cannot be stressed enough, prepositions are probably one of the most difficult areas of language and preposition use has an unfortunate tendency to break down in stressful situations like interpreting. If you’re unsure about language in use, corpora is a good thing, in many multilingual text corpora, current texts are collected in order to compare language in use. Another way of mastering language in use as professor Harris pointed out in the comments is to learn poems or song lyrics by heart. As dull as it may seem it is a wonderful way of learning expressions and idiomatic language use.

Finally, and unfortunately, there is probably no way round vocabulary swotting. Flash cards is a good strategy here and one of my students mentioned Anki. I have not tried it – in my time we used cardboard and felt pen, but time changes :-). For my part I also joined an amateur theater group in English in order to immerse myself as much as I could without leaving Sweden. There are many other opportunities like that via Internet now, and thanks to different local groups you may also find opportunities to meet people IRL.

What’s your best language enhancement strategy? And do spare me of the pillow method, I’m far from sure it’s the best method.

Update: Just to be very clear – an interpreting course will enhance your language skills, but it is NOT a language course. All the basic language learning, including living and working abroad, will have to be done before the course. Otherwise there is little chance you will survive until your last exam.


Every word counts

I regularly write short columns for the Swedish journal “Språktidningen“. Recently, I wrote a column on how much every word counts, especially in asylum interviews and asylum hearings. I wrote:

Imagine that you are interpreting a first interview for an asylum seeker. The man says in French: Je suis allé au Port Nouveau” – you interpret: ‘I went to Port Nouveau’, since you have learned that the verb “aller” in French is equivalent to the Swedish term “go”. Later in the interview it becomes clear that the man has walked by foot to the Port Nouveau. The migrations officer becomes suspicious: “How exactly did you go to Port Nouveau? Before you just said that you went there, but now you say that you walked. What did you really do?” Immigration Services assesses whether people are telling the truth. It is important that you suddenly just change your story. With a bit of luck, this small incident is quickly solved, but what if it doesn’t? What if your interpreting is a contributing factor to that the man not assessed as credible.

A more light-hearted but not less clumsy example happened to me when I interpreted at a meeting where the English term “piracy” unexpectedly came up. Since piracy in the term of copying products and brands illegally was most in vogue at the time, I understood and interpreted it to its Swedish equivalent. Then “we” started discussing different ways of fighting this and I followed, until the speaker started talking about the use of different countries’ corvettes (small warship). Strange, to stop piracy with corvettes, I thought, before I realized that “we” talked about the Gulf of Aden and pirates at sea, a totally different term in Swedish.

The interpreter must therefore be alert to any ambiguous words. However, making a mistake is most likely not a question of life and death, as long as you clearly recognize that the mistake is yours and gives the correct translation.

My examples in the column is as I said definitely not an issue of life and death. But when I read this article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet I got a scary example of how important it may be. The article reads:

“The interpreter […] did not understand what I said,” says Ali Taleb. The statement that he had a cameraman with him when he filmed “Night of Baghdad”, is such a misunderstanding, because he often had camera man with him. But “Night of Baghdad”, he filmed himself. And the statement of a cameraman or not is now being used as evidence that Ali Taleb changed his story. The statement about the camera man gets completely out of proportion, says Clara Klintbo Skilje.

I couldn’t have given a better example myself of how important every word is.

What’s my contribution to the GDP?

Monday and Tuesday I participated in the compulsory Theory of Science course. All PhD students at my university have to take the course and produce a paper on a topic related to Theory of Science and their own topic. I like the course and I like Theory of Science. We were discussing the book the “The New Production of Knowledge” by Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow and Peter Scott. The authors claim that there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, the first one is the one going on in the traditional institutions among academics not interdisciplinary and only achievable for a few. The second mode is the one that has moved out of universities with research teams that are interdisciplinary and that also consists of people both with and without academic background. These teams are loosely set together to answer specific questions under a limited period of time.
Personally, I did not like the division into two modes (first of all because the authors made it sound as the OLD used-out mode and the NEW fresh appropriate mode), I would prefer to see it as a continuum, there are research going on at the university, and that research can be both within a single discipline and interdisciplinary, it can have a time limit or it can be very long term. And then there is research going on outside the university in different constellations.
But the most problematic issue for me here is what this tells us about funding. A lot of the important basic research goes on at universities, and most of that research may not be so very “salable” when it comes to getting funding. It’s more attractive to fund a a mode 2 team where you can commission the team to research a particular issue you are interested in (which may be a highly important issue of course such as climate change nowadays) for a set period of time.
I once interpreted Linda Buck (Nobel prize laureate for medicine in 2004), it was a public lecture so I’m not breaking any secrecy here. Her work on the olfactory system was very much unsexy basic research that was hard to get funding for and that didn’t interest many people. She spent many years looking into mouse brains to see how the odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She did not say it, but I guess she more than once got the question: “And what’s the good use of that?”. And then something happened and her research has allowed for the DNA-mapping of the olfactory system and she has discovered how the odor travels into the brain and apparently this can open all sorts of doors for the medicine industry. But what if she had been in a mode 2 team? And after four years of studying mouse brain nothing interesting had come up, no answers ready. Of course I do believe that we need both mode 1 and mode 2 research, my problem is that I do not want research to be done only in mode 2.
I mean honestly, what’s my contribution to the GDP? I do not find cures to diseases, I do not stop the climate change, I do not invent new renewable energy sources, I do not even come up with new economic models to make more money. So where is my right to existence in a research world dominated by market economy? I’m not alone in this dilemma, many researchers within Humanities struggle with the same questions. But nevertheless our science is important science too. We all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us, an understanding of those who came before us and documentation to those who will follow. Our community needs us, so we need to be part of the funding too, even if we are not producing immediate results in short term projects. Rome was not built in a day.

Update Jan 21st: I just noticed that the Overworked Translator had a blog post touching this topic, I like to believe that I’m more of a winner than a whiner, although I admit that this post touches upon whining.

Machine interpreting, will we ever get there?

For an interpreter, just as for a translator it is almost humiliating to suggest that a machine will ever be able to do your job, just as well as you do it. I guess many skilled worker have felt the same during the whole era of industrialization and digitalization. Computer Aided Interpreting is a different thing, it is already here. Bringing your computer and you internet key to the mission in order to use dictionaries or search the internet is a habit for many of my colleagues, both community and conference interpreters. But suggesting that you could actually put a computer in my place and that would be just as good is hard to swallow. Luckily, although many argue the difference, it will take some time before we get there. As Nataly Kelly says in an article in TCWorld: “Unfettered bidirectional speech-to-speech communication is still the Holy Grail in the automation space.”

A recent study made by Milam Aiken et. al. is reported in Translation Journal, an on line journal on translation. They claim that in their test between Korean and English there were a lot of errors but the result was still acceptable. The problem with their report is that they don’t qualify “acceptable”. Acceptable to whom, and does acceptable mean understandable?

The reason I believe that it will take some time to develop this is first of all the problems that machine translation tools has. I don’t deny that they are a very good tool, especially the ones you pay for (haven’t we all had a lot of fun with Google Translate?), but hardly as a human translator, especially when it comes to smaller or rarer languages.

Secondly, the problems with speech recognition software, OK, they are getting a lot better, especially for English, but just think about how difficult it is speaking to a speech recognition software over the phone: “Did you say “too”?”, “No, two”, “I don’t understand, did you mean “not”, and so forth. My own experience of these services is that in the end the computer decides for you and you get information that you do not want.

And finally, a gentleman points out on Proz that: “almost nobody, including most interpreters, really know how human interpretation functions. Thus, until now nobody has thought of modeling into a computer engine and replicate the mental processes applied and the information used by human interpreters (which, by the way, are only half-explored). This a huge task, but POSSIBLE.” I mean that this translator has not read the interpreting studies literature very well, there are not many interpreting researchers around but MANY of them have tried to model the mental process. Actually, the modeling of the mental process is the “shibboleth” of the interpreting studies research. See for instance, Moser-Mercer, Seleskovitch, Gile or Setton on that issue. The problem is that it is, just as the gentleman said, a huge task, but also a very difficult task.

So, I’m sure that people will continue to improve computer software and make wonderful tools for interpreters and translators, but I’m still not convinced that they will completely replace the interpreters.

How to choose your working languages

How many languages do you know and how/why do you know them? Do you recommend to concentrate on one language (other than your first language) or learn more languages which would give more work offers I guess.

I just got this question from a student wishing to pursue studies in interpreting. This is probably the most common question from students. And the answer is not as straightforward as the question (what else?). First of all you need to know your mother tongue very well. It seems obvious, but speaking a language and interpreting into a language are two very different things. When you interpret into a language you need to master all domains, all registers, and all nuances. It is so much more than just speaking your mother tongue or being fluent in a language.

How well you have to master your other languages and how many languages you “need” depend on where you aim to work. Interpreters can be “bi-active”, meaning that you master two languages equally well and work to and from both languages. In that case you have two mother tongues or you are very near native in your foreign language (an A or B-language for interpreters). Bi-active interpreters work for NATO, for courts, as conference interpreters or as community interpreters. It is more or less impossible to be bi-active in more than two languages.

Most interpreters who work for larger institutions such as EU or UN work only into their mother tongue and from at least two, but often three or more languages. The languages you work from are languages you comprehend fully, but which you do not master as mother tongue. In interpreting lingo these languages are called C-languages.

So, you cannot say that its better to focus only on one language or several. It depends on what you would like to focus on. And it also depends on whether you have a second mother tongue or a language in which you are near native. So more languages does not necessarily mean more work offers either. However, a language combination with very high demand in your region will most likely give you more work offers. Also, if you are the only one with two very rare languages you will probably have a stable market.

Personally, I work from English, French and Danish into Swedish. I work to and from English in court but not in conferences. The reason for my language combination is that I only have one first/ A/ mother tongue language and I work mostly for the EU. I am almost near native in English and therefore I work in court to and from English, I have not developed my English into conference use. You can read more about me and my languages here.

Day 04 Daily interpreting practice

What is exercise in interpreting? Can you get better if you practice? Are interpreters born or made? In cognitive psychology there is a concept called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice a common denominator for experts, it means that you not only practice dutifully, but that you actually have a specific goal with your practice. And the goal is not just: “I’m going to be a darn good interpreter”, but: “Today, I will practice to end my sentences”, or: “This time I’m going to make sure I don’t use any ‘euh'” and so forth.
As I have studied and interviewed very experienced interpreters I have realized that interpreting practice is not just something that has to do with the interpreting exercise. It is also things as, reading newspapers in different languages, listening to the news in different languages, getting to know your speakers, for instance.
Interpreters spend much time preparing, and I would argue that the preparation is also part of the deliberate practice (if you do it properly of course). All those different activities develop and increase the interpreter’s knowledge base and this in turn improves the interpreting performance. Any interpreting teacher will tell you that interpreting is not just translating verbatim from one language to another. And once you have mastered the interpreting skill the way to improve your interpreting is to broaden your knowledge base.
So, my exercise today was; reading the newspaper, listening to the news, using my foreign languages, and blog a little bit. Today I did not interpret, but I tried to increase my knowledge base in preparation of next interpreting mission

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.

Turn taking and interpreting

Turn taking in discourse governs who has the right to talk, when you are allowed to talk and who decides whose turn it is. A turn in a discourse is the period when one speaker has the exclusive right to talk. It is based on a common norm system, but the norm can of course differ from group to group or culture to culture. The turn can be taken by one speaker or can be given by the speaker to another listener. There are different ways to indicate a turn, you can do it linguistically (questions such as “What do you say?” or “You see?” and so forth, but also other cues) or para-linguistically (pause, glance, hem and so forth).

Turn taking can be more or less difficult for participants in a communicative event depending on whether you share the same norms or not. However, when we add an interpreter we add one more participant, but who are not participant on the same grounds as the other two. Particularly in dialogue interpreting, the interpreter has implications for the turn taking. The other participants in the dialogue cannot freely regulate the turn. However, the interpreter can use paralinguistic turn taking signals to take the turn (to interpret) or to give the turn (signal that it’s time for a new turn from one of the other participants). Cecilia Wadensjö has studied this and how interpreters manage this. In this paper for instance.

Communicative Conventions

Conventions in language is an unconcious or at least covert agreement between the speakers of a language of the links between words and morphemes and their meaningful contents. The links are mostly random (altough for instance onomatopeic words have a clear sound link to its meaning e.g. splash). This conventional connection between content and expression is called a sign. Linguistc signs can be combined into a system we call syntax.

However a communicative convention contains not only links between units in the linguistic system, it also contains links to the language users and to the communicative situation. The communicative convention is something we (all human language beings) master better or worse. But for interpreters it is vital, both that we master it but also that we can recognize it and explore it. Think about how, in principle, a language has means to create a common understanding among the speakers of that language. Yet, one language contains so many different registers, dialects, ideolects and sociolects so you can ask yourself whether there is a real possibility to create a common understanding between all speakers of the language. On a very general basis perhaps but when we move past general statements.

Interpreters master not only one language but it is their job to convey meaning from one language to the other (obviously…). In order to convey that meaning they need to be familiar with the communicative convention of both languages, but also of a multitude of different communicative conventions within the two languages. Knowing the convention is to know where it is valid, in which groups it is actively used and where it is perhaps not known at all.

I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig “Språklig Samhandling” and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of communicative conventions in general.

Communicative competence, generative grammar and Dan Everett

I would say that an interpreter has a very well developed communicative competence. The definition of communicative competence being that we create meaning in utterances in many different communication situations. Dell Hymes was the first one to coin communicative competence in 1966 with the meaning that a person knows how words and structures works in different communicative situations. Communicative competence was a sort of counter balance to Chomsky‘s theory of generative grammar. Chomsky is indeed interested in the competence of the language user, but only as a formal competence not how it is used in a communicative situation. The (in)famous theory of generative grammar defined as something all human beings are born with and without which we would not be able to produce language. The generative grammar would also be the reason for language universals. Features that are common to all or most of the world’s languages. The most interesting dispute of generative grammar, I believe, comes from Dan Everett in his book “Don’t sleep there are snakes”. In his book he gives an account of his life as a linguist and missionary (at first at least) in the Amazonian jungle. He lived with the Pirahã people and gradually learns their language and culture. He claims that there are no language universals to be found in the Pirahã language. Their language is quite simply totally different.

I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig “Språklig Samhandling” and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of communicative competence in general.