Saturday, August 16, 2014


From August 23 to 29 I'll be attending the COLING conference in Dublin.

COLING is the leading international conference in its speciality, which is computational linguistics. Its sponsor is the International Committee on Computational Linguistics (ICCL), which is already half a century old. It's held every two years in a different part of the world. The founders were some of the pioneers in machine translation and COLING 2014 will still contain three sessions on MT. However, the scope of computational linguistics has expanded, and there are areas like speech recognition, terminology extraction and translation memories that nowadays rival MT in importance for Expert Translators. To accompany the occasion, I've resurrected an article of mine about translation memories, written in the days when they were still a novelty. The title is Translation Memories: Beyond the Dictionaries and you can find it at or by clicking here.

If any of you are going to be at COLING, I'd be delighted to meet you. I'll be staying in the Hampstead Residence of Dublin City University under my real name of Brian Harris. My cellphone number is 638099029.

A current Ryanair ad urges, "Escape the Irish summer!" and pictures a miserable looking Irishman in a raincoat. But I'm looking forward to it after the heat of Valencia, where the temperature is routinely ten degrees higher.

The COLING website is at

There's a Wikipedia article on the ICCL at or click here.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Interpreter's Accent

The interest shown in the recent post about interpreters' voices encourages me to write about a related topic: their accents.

In the case of Natural Interpreters, the matter can be dealt with summarily. Natural interpreters speak with their natural accent, that is to say their normal conversational accent. For one thing, they are probably unaware that it's an issue. And for another, they work in ad hoc circumstances where they wouldn't have the time or the ability to change it.

For Expert Interpreters, however, it may have far more impact.

Some years ago, when Queen Elizabeth of England, who's also head of state of Canada, visited Montreal, she tried to please her French Canadian subjects by making a short speech in their language. It was broadcast nationally. So it was accompanied by simultaneous interpretation because only a minority of English Canadians understand French. The broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, took care to engage a female interpreter with a mature voice. Nevertheless, they overlooked something else. Hardly had the broadcast started when the CBC began to receive phone calls of complaint – this was before the internet – from listeners who objected to hearing Her Majesty 'speak' English with an unmistakably Canadian accent. Let's call this effect of incompatible accents accent shock, by analogy with culture shock.

I myself felt it. When I emigrated from London to Montreal, I carried with me in my baggage my British accent. For a long while I didn't see it as a disadvantage. The standard BBC-type accent is well respected in Canada and in North America generally, so nobody suggested I change mine. Indeed I was approached by an eminent Polish economist to coach him in it, because he was a consultant to the United Nations, and the UNO bureaucracy – so he told me – preferred a British accent to an American one. So we swapped a veneer of British accent for the elements of cost benefit analysis. But when I took up conference interpreting I decided I had to modify it. It's a process, sometimes conscious but often not, called linguistic accommodation. I did it because it distracted listeners from giving their full attention to the speakers, and that shouldn't happen.

My awakening came at a three-day meeting of the Council of Ministers of Education, where I was the sole interpreter from French to English. Canada has no national ministry of education because, by its Constitution, education is an area to which each constituent province retains exclusive rights; nevertheless the provincial ministers meet several times a year to coordinate. The discussions take place in English except when the ministers from Quebec are speaking. Even if the latter do know English, politics require that they speak only in French, and only a minority of the other ministers understand French. So I had an attentive audience. At the last session of those meetings it was the custom for one of the ministers to say a few words of thanks to the interpreters. But on this occasion the minister added something unexpected. He said (paraphrase):
We thank the interpreters. But I must say I found it very odd to listen to my colleague from Quebec speaking English for these last three days with a perfect British accent.
And everybody laughed, so I knew he wasn't alone.

What other principles can we lay down for Experts besides avoiding accent shock of the above kind?

The great divide in English is between British, or British derived (eg Australian), and North American. As Oscar Wilde famously said, "The English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language." Furthermore, on the British side, accent is particularly indicative socially and disapprovals are strong. The Guardian Unlimited recently asked readers if they had encountered prejudice because of their accent. The conclusion from their responses was that approved accents include those inculcated by a 'public school' plus Oxbridge university education and the so-called 'liberal' professions like law. Disapproved include 'working class' ones like those current in industrial cities like Glasgow or Manchester. The two last are also strongly marked geographically.
Your accent still goes to the heart of who you are. It locates you not just geographically, but economically and socially too.
Upwardly mobile people often 'iron out' their accent accordingly. Non-native TESOL teachers often remain blissfully ignorant of all this. But Expert Interpreters are supposed to be highly educated, well paid people working in national and international settings. They should sound like that and, once again, their trainers should pay attention to it.

To be continued. The continuation will touch on French and Spanish.

Press Association. Lincoln: Walking Dead accent shock. The Argus (UK), 4 October 2013. It's the only other occurrence Google could find of the term accent shock.
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.
Lucy Mangan. The language barrier. Guardian Unlimited, 24 August 2013.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Footnote to The Interpreter's Voice(s)

The first post earlier this month about The Interpreter's Voice(s) has come as close to 'going viral' as any post on this blog is ever likely to get. Well over a thousand page views. (A page view is Google's unit of measurement for its statistics of visitors to blog posts.) Apparently, though, most of its readers were disappointed, because only 200 of them went on to read the continuation post. What were they expecting?

Never mind. It received approval from places as far apart as Japan and Uruguay.

From the latter, a Professional Expert Interpreter writes to say that she too is blessed with a pleasing speaking voice. She also provides me with a quotation from Leonard Cohen that I particularly like:
As Leonard Cohen so humbly puts it in his Tower of Song: "What can I do? I had no choice... I was born with the gift of a golden voice."
Thank you Lionel. Thank you Trini.

Leonard Cohen. The Tower of Song. From his album I'm Your Man, 1988. It's on YouTube: click here.

Leonard Cohen. Source:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Choosing a Thesis Topic

This week a student, faced with a dilemma over choosing her thesis topic, wrote to me as follows for advice.
I've been reading your posts for a period of time and it is really helpful. Therefore, I would like to consult you on the matter of a thesis since your experience and knowledge in this field surpass my poor one. I'd appreciate your help. Actually, I'm confused about a thesis topic. Sometimes, I find myself into machine translation assessment and other times audiovisual translation, subtitles in particular. I did read on every single aspect of translation studies and yet it is hard to decide. So, could you please help me by suggesting some useful topics that you think are worth doing research about? Or maybe some good ideas to start with.
Here's my reply.

Dear XXX,

I'm glad to hear you find reading my blog useful.

In order to answer you, I'd like to know something about your background. Where are you from? Where are you studying? What languages do you know?

I ask this because, as a general principle, you should choose a topic that is relevant to the context in which you live. In that way it should be easier for you to find data at first hand, perhaps even in your own personal experience. For instance, I write about multilingualism and translation because I've been living for 50 years in societies (Quebec, Valencia) that are multilingual and use translation on a daily basis from childhood, not because I've read about them. Do not choose topics like MT or AVT just because a lot of other people are studying them and writing about them at present. That's 'jumping on the bandwagon'. Try to be original. In that way you may be lucky enough to add something fundamental to our understanding.

Hoping this is helpful.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Interpreter's Voice(s) - 2

This post is the conclusion of the preceding post. Please read the other one first.

The last post gave a round-up of the voice registers that an Expert Interpreter should master and told a couple of stories to illustrate them. Here's one final anecdote.

I once took a small party of my students to visit the United Nations in New York and meet some interpreters. It's an experience all North American conference interpretation students should have, and actually it's quite easy to arrange through the Office of Conference Services. At full strength they have about 120 interpreters. We listened in for half a day to a committee meeting. Afterwards there was a question and answer session with a training officer, Remco Kraft. In the course of it, one of the students asked an undiplomatic question:
I'd like to be able to interpret like those interpreters some day, but there's one thing that worries me. Why do they sound so bored?
Here, paraphrased, is his answer.
The general public is only aware of the most dramatic events at the UN, like the Security Council meetings. But our mos important work is done away from the spotlight, and the most interesting part of it is done in small, private negotiations, usually in consecutive. (For which reason, don't forget your consecutive.) What the public gets to hear in meetings like this morning's is mostly what we interpreters call blah-blah. We get to sound bored because we are bored.
The moral of the story is that interpreters should beware of letting their voices be affected by the material they are translating or by fatigue. If they do, listeners will soon notice it.

In the heyday of radio, there used to be an occasional course for announcers in North America, for instance the one offered by the National Institute of Broadcasting in Canada. Today, the same level of microphone voice is needed for the burgeoning industry of voice-over, though interpreters lack ‘drama‘ and actors are preferred. Nevertheless, writings on the subject are few and far between in the large literature on interpreting. As for practical training, the only dedícated course I know of is the one that used to be given by Ailsa Gudgeon, a British professional voice coach, in the late and much lamented programme at the University of Westminster (see References). And how about even less documented languages like Arabic or Chinese?

Strange, isn’t it, that such an important skill as voice production should receive so little attention? Every interpreter training programme should include a module on it.

Ailsa Gudgeon. 'Voice coaching for interpreters'. AIIC
, 2009.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Interpreter’s Voice(s) - 1

The other day I was reading a comprehensive manual of interpreter training by a Spanish friend when I came upon a quotation that confirmed something I've long suspected. It's from an article by the late Hildegund Bühler. She ranks the qualities of a 'good' interpretation. Most Expert Interpreters and interpretation teachers would put something like her "Sense consistency with the original message" in first rank. Bühler's list, however, begins with "native accent" in first place. This is understandable if you know that her ranking is based not on what the experts think but on the preferences of listeners to the interpretations. As I used to say to my students, "You can get away with murder if you do it with a native accent."

But a surprise came with her second-ranking quality, still well ahead of "sense consistency", etc. It's "pleasant voice".

I like to believe this because of an incident that occurred to me when I was interpreting at a conference in Canada. A lady came up to me in one of the intervals and said shyly, “It doesn’t matter which language you’re speaking. I just love to sit and listen to your voice.” I have no illusions; I’m no Basil Rathbone. But it was a compliment I’ll never forget.

I take no credit for it. The germ of our speaking voices, like the germ of translating, is something natural that we’re born with. However, like other natural capabilities, it can be modified by culture and training. (For which reason Spaniards tend to have loud voices from childhood.)

Here, though, is a counter-story. We had a student come to us at the University of Ottawa for interpreting who was already an Expert Translator. In fact he was a staff translator for the Government of Canada who wanted to change career path. After several months in the programme, the time arrived for his final examination. He was the student we felt we had the least to worry about that year.

To our horror and astonishment, he failed.

I should explain that our juries were made up of external Professional Interpreters and not of teachers from the university. So as soon as possible, I asked one of the examiners what on earth had gone wrong. This is the reply I got:
“Oh, yes. He can translate all right and he’s fast enough. But can you imagine having to sit and listen to that dreary voice all day.”
Efforts to find a suitable voice coach for him in Ottawa failed. We turned to the university’s drama school and sent him for a course there; but it turned out to be focused on the loud voice needed for the theatre. However, there was a happy ending. With the help and criticism of colleagues, he improved and the following year he passed.

The 'compleat' Expert Interpreter needs to have mastered not one but several registers of voice. Here they are listed in order of increasing loudness:
1. Whispering
2. Microphone
3. Telephone
4. Dialogue
5. Court
6. Oratorical
Let's go through them.

1. Whispering may be true whispering, ie, to speak very softly using one's breath rather than one's throat and devoicing the voiced sounds. Or it may be murmuring, ie, using normal articulation but very quietly. This is a natural mode but it has a common fault in practice, which is to let the volume rise to a point where it disturbs other people around who don't want the interpretation.

2. Microphone voice. This is the register used in simultaneous interpreting, for an obvious reason, and hence in the stories told above. Since microphones aren't natural, nor is this register. But it's not only a matter of volume. If you've listened to your voice recorded through a mike you know – and may have heard with surprise – how the process changes its timbre and hence its character. Common faults are speaking too close to the mike, hissing on sibilants, speaking too loud. The last is made more likely by the headphones simultaneous interpreters have to wear. Today the register is needed as much for TV as for meetings or radio.

3. Telephone interpreting. Close to (2), but telephones have less fidelity than professional mikes and the context is complicated by the use of speakerphones. The rise of a telephone interpreting industry has made this register important almost overnight.

4. Dialogue interpreting. This is the register of much community/public service medical and diplomatic interpreting, where there are meetings with two or very few participants. Cecilia Wadensjö coined the term in connection with immigration and medical work. It is the register closest to everyday conversation, and is therefore natural. However, care must be taken to maintain a volume that enables all the participants to hear without straining.

5. Court interpreting. Here we take a big jump into the unnatural. It's the register not only for the courts strictly speaking, but also for tribunals and public hearings, workshops, etc., that are still often conducted without microphones. In court it is a legal as well as a practical necessity that everything the interpreter says be heard by all present, even the people seated behind the interpreter, and this requires high volume and voice 'projection'.

6. Oratorical. For large audiences. There should be a microphone for it but sometimes there isn't. I've had to do it, for example, when the equipment for simultaneous had broken down. It requires conscious boosting of volume, projection and endurance equal to what is required for the traditional theatre. Indeed I got my training for it doing amateur theatricals at school.

To be continued.

María Gracia Torres Díaz. Enseñar y aprender a interpretar: curso de interpretación de lenguas Español/Inglés. Malaga: Encasa, 2004, p. 228.

Basil Rathbone: there are several recordings of his readings of Poe’s The Raven and The Red Death on YouTube. They are the best.

Hildegund Bühler. Linguistic (semantic) and extra-linguistic (pragmatic) criteria for the evaluation of conference interpretation and interpreters. Multilingua, vol. 5, no. 4, 1986, pp. 231-235.

Cecilia Wadensjö. Interpreting as Interaction: On
dialogue-interpreting in immigration hearings and medical encounters.
Linköping University, 1992.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Church Interpreting and The Philosopher’s Stone

This is a guest post by Jonathan Downie of Edinburgh. Jonathan is a Professional Conference Interpreter who also does interpreting in churches. He is a postgradúate student of Heriot-Watt University, and he was responsible for coordinating the church interpreting sessions at the NPIT1 and NPIT2 conferences. So he’s an expert on it and it’s a privilege to have this contribution from him.
Other relevant guest posts welcome.

It’s a bit odd, if you really think about it. The (now thankfully outmoded) tradition for training conference interpreters is to make them work really hard to make their work go unnoticed. Impartiality, completeness and even appeals to secrecy mean that the archetypal conference interpreter is one who lets you pretend that they don’t exist. The philosopher’s stone of interpreting is to be so smooth and clean that clients can lie back and imagine that they are actually listening to a speech produced in their language.

Walk round the corner from the conference hall to the local international church and the picture changes completely. Across four continents, nine countries, and numerous denominations, research in church interpreting is beginning to paint a picture of a kind of interpreting that is visible, powerful and unavoidably changes the context in which it appears.

Take the work of Cécile Vigouroux on interpreting in a church in South Africa. Here the interpreting is not only carried out sentence-by-sentence on-stage but it functions as a symbol (perhaps only a symbol, go read her article) of the openness of the church to the English-speakers in the surrounding community. Suddenly, the existence of interpreting has turned a church that would otherwise be labelled an immigrant church into a fully-fledged member of the local church community.

Then there’s the work of Sari Hokkanen. A conference interpreter by trade, her autoethnography of church interpreting not only shows how this practice blows giant holes in our nice neat classifications of interpreted events but it puts paid to the idea that neutrality and impartiality are always the keystones of interpreting. At the end of May 2014, at the NPIT2 conference in Germersheim, Germany, she even dared to talk about crying in the booth and being personally affected by the material she was interpreting. It turns out that interpreters are human and have feelings too. Who knew?

Jill Karlik, who should probably be recognised as the mother of church interpreting research, offers an equally insightful datum. One of her respondents felt that interpreters were so important in one church in Gambia, that he deemed one his co-preacher. Here we have stakeholders actually asking for interpreters to partner with them in the production of a text. This sense of partnership might explain why Hayne Shin found so many interpreting users in churches in Korea who wanted interpreters to be Christians before they sat in the booth.

Now, it is highly possible to dismiss all this work as inconsequential. Yes, the majority of church interpreters might be natural interpreters. Yes, it seems to be more common than anyone previously thought but it is still marginal, right? I am sure most of these arguments have been applied to research on other forms of natural interpreting too. It is much easier to dismiss such work than learn from it.

Perhaps this is a case where the professionals can learn from the naturals. In church interpreting, there is no way to pretend that interpreting can or should make itself invisible. There is an admission by everyone involved that a church service with interpreting is completely different to one without it. Rather than trying to erase this difference, many churches seem to want to celebrate it and use interpreting to the full. I have personally visited a church where interpreting is given pride of place in the constitution and is seen as a core activity.

From this flows a whole new way of working with interpreters. Partnership rules the day there. Preachers interrupt their own sermons to congratulate interpreters on their work. They exploit the potential of having two people on-stage and discuss how to better communicate across cultures with interpreters off-stage. As I said, we have a lot to learn, even and especially from people who have never received training in how to interpret. Maybe it’s our values that need to be realigned, not theirs.

Jonathan Downie’s business address is Integrity Languages,

Sari Hokkanen. Interpreting through tears: Religious experience, emotion and simultaneous interpreting. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Jill Karlik. “Natural” interpreting in a group of Gambian churches: Frames of reference. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Hayne Shin. User-expectations on the role and qualities of church interpreters: Consecutive and simultaneous interpreting in Korean churches. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Cécile B. Vigouroux. Double-mouthed discourse: interpreting, framing, and participant roles. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 14:3.341-369, 2010. Available for downloading from

Which is the interpreter, which the preacher? It was at a service like this in Cameroon that I first encountered church interpreting myself. − BH