Failsafe mode – Guichot de Fortis

In this article Chris Guichot de Fortis explains how to offer a “minimum service” when – for one reason or another – the circumstances make the ideal impossible. This text offers suggestions on how to save effort and time when interpreting at the limits of one’s cognitive capacity.


Managing your brain

Strategies for saving time and effort

Examples of 3 modes – normal mode; failsafe mode; bullet-point mode

Advice for conference interpreters who are struggling in the booth: how to switch into ‘degraded mode’ to ensure ‘basic minimum’ performance.

The definition of ‘degraded mode’ (also termed ‘fail-safe mode’)

The expression ‘degraded mode’ refers to situations where all or part of a specific entity has to or should function without its usual human or material resources…

In order to react in the best way possible and return to normal, those playing vital roles are generally asked to prepare to go into ‘degraded mode’

Going into ‘degraded mode’ means attempting to provide a service which is deemed indispensable, notwithstanding the unavailability of the full and customary range of reliable and appropriate resources

….This requires the kind of preparation which characterises the fields of learning and crisis management.

‘Fail-Safe’ mode is an automatic process to be found in the field of technology. In situations where a system breaks down, the Fail-Safe mode kicks in and is tasked with preventing any disastrous consequences… which may stem from single or repeated breakdowns. This does not mean that the system will no longer function – rather it simply means that the breakdowns or malfunctions will not worsen, thanks to this mechanism. It is, therefore, a safety mechanism. If a system within which a Fail-Safe mechanism has been triggered suffers failure, its state will not worsen beyond that which existed when the initial failure occurred and the Fail-Safe mechanism was triggered. (translation of Wikipedia’s article in French: ‘Mode dégradé’


Dear new and prospective colleagues, I have decided to sit down at my computer once again to try and suggest a few techniques which will help you to survive when you’re struggling, in the booth, to enable you to follow and do justice to the speaker…

In the first few years of your career, to a greater or lesser extent, you will not always be able to avoid some measure of failure. However, what is expected of you is that you will never fail to provide the ‘basic minimum’. If you do not ensure this, you will not be honouring your contract (in both the literal and figurative sense of the word), and your continuity in the profession will actually be jeopardized.

Here my aim is to provide you with the skills and knowledge necessary so that, in the worst case scenario, you will not simply allow yourself to be carried away or overcome by the situation, but will rather make strategic and sensible choices. The aim is to help you to persevere and salvage the most from these difficult situations.

I was inspired by the term ‘degraded mode’, which means that cars (which I am pretty passionate about, as those who know me are well aware!), computers and engines of any kind can continue functioning to a lesser extent rather than completely breaking down. 

To begin, I would like to look at three specific cases in simultaneous interpreting:

  1. The less experienced interpreter: perhaps you’re struggling to follow everything the speaker is saying, because your professional, cognitive and intellectual background (including technique, languages, experience or resilience) is such that you cannot -yet – constantly guarantee the ‘basic minimum’ performance. Essentially your overall performance level is not yet up to scratch when faced with the multiplicity of speakers and topics day in, day out…
  2. Imperfect working conditions: when the stars align perfectly and when there are ideal conditions (including just the right sound, equipment, speed, density, level of technical difficulty, stress, language quality, etc), your professional development is such that as a conference interpreter you have everything that is needed to ensure you do a good job. However, on a particular day (or part thereof) some of these variables may not be present at a reasonable level, and you might have to make strategic decisions in real time.
  3. A particularly dense and complex speech/speaker: perhaps you are faced with a speaker who is reading, or whose speech is very fast, dense, technical, literary or full of cultural and linguistic nuances….in short, a speech which is very difficult to interpret at an appropriate level. In this scenario, however, the interpreter IS capable of rendering the entire message precisely, skillfully and quickly. Nevertheless, for the average client the resulting interpretation would simply sound like an avalanche or tsunami of random words and ideas which would be well-nigh impossible to digest.

This happens more frequently when working from a concise language with a flexible structure (English, for example), into a language which features less flexible syntax and grammar, and whose speakers are more rigid in their modes of expression (an obvious example being my second language, French). 

To take a simple mathematical example, we could count the number of words which need to be uttered by the interpreter to render the same ideas as in the original speech. You could, for example, have to move from a speed of 180 words a minute to 240 words a minute, simply to convey the same message. 

This means that, even if the interpreter is actually technically and intellectually capable of working at such a speed, what was already a difficult speech to follow becomes impossible to digest for the clients. A conscientious interpreter who is committed to communicating well must here make the sensible and conscious decision to apply the ‘degraded mode’ technique, and the decision must be made rapidly.


In the above three scenarios, interpreters in the booth are forced to make a difficult choice between (1) immediately finding a survival strategy, and (2) giving up, failing, and seriously jeopardizing their freshly-embarked-upon careers, as well as undermining the speaker’s message. Therefore, interpreters need to enable ‘degraded mode’, having of course learned it thoroughly and tested it extensively in advance.

Before going any further, I would like to add that, to a certain extent, all simultaneous interpretation is somewhere on the ‘degraded mode’ spectrum. Logically, apart from the occasional moment where there is nothing to improve on or add to the interpreted version, interpreters are always, at least partially, in ‘degraded mode’. But the more competent and experienced you become, the more you are able to remain in control, the better prepared you are, the better you understand the topic in question, and the more often things go according to plan (psychologically, physically and technically speaking), and therefore the less you have to resort to ‘degraded mode’. 

In addition, as your skills grow, switching into ‘degraded mode’ will increasingly be the result of a careful and professional decision based on clear thought processes, as opposed to a knee-jerk course of action that you are forced to use in the heat of the moment.

Disclaimer : nowhere in this text do I wish to give the impression that it is acceptable, technically or ethically, to interpret badly or to only do half a job. The goal must always be to render ALL of the substance and ALL of the form of the speaker’s argument. I would like to reiterate the fact that here I am talking about cases where, for a whole host of reasons, it is temporarily impossible or inadvisable to ensure the quality interpretation expected from the profession and where a rational and conscious strategy is needed to avoid total breakdown, which is NEVER acceptable.

Managing, training and developing your brain to be an ‘interpreting machine’

In an ideal world, every interpreter would always be able to interpret every last idea and every last nuance in every speech, without forgetting to: respect the substance and form of the original, dodge the numerous traps, and deal dexterously with all the intricacies of the languages in question. Here I am reminded of the famous biblical quote ‘one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law’… In any case, humour, irony, technical terms, reasoning, emphasis, abbreviations, quotes, ambiguities and the like would all be expertly conveyed and you would leave the booth satisfied and with your head held high. 

However, this will not always be the case, even for the best interpreters in the world. The younger you are and the more of a beginner you are in your career, the more often you will find it impossible to deliver a hundred percent on the legitimate demands of the delegates. This is when you will have to apply some of the techniques that I will now attempt to describe.

“[Practice and exercises] are a preparation, both physical and for your whole self, which will enable you to respond instinctively to any situation. It is only if…you are in a state of total readiness that you are free to be part of the action, which is new every moment. In other words, you do not have to come out of the situation to reflect and think ‘How can I do this?’: you do it at the moment the action arises, because your voice and brain are so free. Exercises should not make you more technical, but more free.” (Cicely Berry – ‘Voice and the Actor’ – John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1991

I would like you to start thinking of your brain and the partnership between your brain and your body (mens sana in corpore sano!) as if it were a sophisticated and impressive sportscar, or a thoroughbred racehorse. Both demand careful pre-emptive and routine maintenance in order to prevent breakdown or injury, and to continuously guarantee that they realise their performance potential – which is far higher than that of a humdrum diesel family saloon or of a plodding drayhorse. 

Then, if there is a defect (wherever the fault may lie) and the engine or the muscles begin to lose power, it is essential to go into ‘degraded mode’ in order to reach the nearest garage or veterinary clinic (which symbolizes the end of the day in the booth!). 

To continue the automotive analogy (rather than flogging a dead horse!), the engine management system (i.e. your brain) will detect a temporary mechanical defect or sensor error affecting one part of the vehicle (for interpreters this may be the brain, the body or the psyche), and, in order to preserve the vehicle, the ‘backup mode’ will be switched on. A few of the car’s features will be shut down (depending on the nature of the failure), but the car will continue moving at the same or similar pace, and all should be well as long as too much is not demanded of it…

Taking this idea further, I would encourage you to start putting in place a plan and adopting habits and techniques that will allow you to manage your brain and your body, and that will also take into account how intense and unique are the efforts that you are asking of your brain and voice. In your everyday life and practices, put in place a systematic plan which trains, feeds, and indeed maintains your neurological, cognitive and vocal skills. You must understand that this cannot be improvised on the fly, and that your performance and your continuity in the profession depend upon it..

Think of your ‘inner interpreting machine’ as being capable of an overall performance level of X. In most cases, so long as you keep calm, you have the choice of dividing your cognitive efforts in the booth among several factors or variables. To illustrate this, I am going to liken your brain to the tyre on a rally car (yes, I know!). When you are behind the wheel of your rally car, you can ask this tyre to brake, accelerate or turn. You can also ask it to combine two or even all three of these things, depending on your ability and on the circumstances. However, regardless of what you do to share out the tasks demanded of the tyre, you cannot exceed the overall sum (fixed at X) of braking, accelerating and turning that the inflation pressure, rubber compound, width, aspect ratio, carcass, composition, age and temperature allow at a given time in specific circumstances. 

In fact, it’s actually even more complicated than this. If your skills and experience behind the wheel allow, you can go slightly beyond the performance level which we have termed X. You can reach, say, (X + 10%) by managing and controlling the slip angles engendered by going beyond the tyre’s current limits. But if you ask your tyre to reach, say, (X + 30%), either the tyre will be left damaged, or you will end up going off the road and your rally (and perhaps your life as well!) will be over. Additionally, if your tyre has worn down or overheated (or if the rubber is not resistant enough for the conditions), it will also lose grip and begin to slide. 

An able driver will take this into account, pace himself/herself, lower his/her expectations, and change trajectory so that the rubber holds out until the end of the event. The idea is to go at a speed which is slightly below the ideal speed…

This is exactly the same with your brain. You can ask it to listen, speak, understand a line of reasoning/an idea/a word, analyse ideas, render them and handle the console (these days, whether real or virtual), but you must always bear in mind the limits imposed upon you by your current stage of development as an interpreter, as well as the size and capacity of your cognitive ‘muscle’. 

Depending on the nature of the speech (the content, form, level of factual density, speed of delivery, accent, errors of syntax or grammar), you will fluidly mete out the tasks and cognitive demands according to the situation. The same applies whether you’re working into your A or your B language, and also when you’re working from a C language, depending on your level of mastery of all the language categories being employed for that particular interpretation event.

But, just as in the example of the rally car tyre, you cannot and must not go beyond the set psychological and cognitive performance level (the famous level X) you require of your brain. The only main difference between a tyre and a brain (and here is some good news for young and growing interpreters) is that the brain adapts, develops, and learns to raise the bar when it comes to the set performance level. This is what happens with other muscles in the body when you follow a rigorous and reasoned training programme put together by a recognised expert coach or trainer. Evolving the brain and voice, creating appropriate neuronal pathways, synapses, muscle memories and reflexes is indeed the goal of all training sessions for conference interpreters. But you will not learn to adapt if a professional and experienced coach/trainer/mentor (which might even have to be yourself in a worst case scenario!) is not there to help you to create a gradual, logical and sensible programme: one which takes into account all the factors linked to cognitive development…

“Desire without discipline dies… but desire with discipline deepens into passion… a discipline is an activity, within our power, that enables us to achieve indirectly what we cannot otherwise achieve by direct immediate effort. This is the difference between training and trying.” (Atul Gawande, surgeon and author)

In fact, you can (and must!) develop your brain so as to ensure that it performs better cognitively speaking. It might be a question of increasing your cognitive ‘bandwidth’ and being able to process more information in a given time, of increasing your mental resilience and concentration, of performing at the same level for longer, or of reaching a greater level of consistency. Your ‘default’ level will improve with practise and experience, and you will therefore become a better and happier interpreter. But be careful, because if you ask too much of your brain throughout your practise sessions and work assignments, it will start to wane, you will end up destroying your brain cells, and you will go backwards.

Continuing interpreting straight after something very demanding is another example of a situation where you will perhaps have to temporarily go into ‘degraded mode’ while you wait for your cognitive skills to get back on track. Here just a reminder: you won’t be able to stop interpreting simply because your brain is hurting!

So, let’s say that, after all the effort you have put in to learn more things and increase your mental ‘bandwidth’, your brain is able to work at performance level X. Your brain is excellent at adapting and evolving, but you need to treat it like a ‘standard muscle’, and ask it to work a little harder each day so that your abilities will grow consistently. This means that you will be able to improve on your standard performance level (level X), so, rather than just being level X, it will be X + Y%….

Thus, as you progress you can ask your brain to interpret at X + 5%, then a little later at X + 10%, then at X + 15%, which will mean that the standard level (X) will evolve over time. But if you ask your brain to immediately work at X + 50% in the booth, not only will it be unable to do so (just as if it was a horse refusing to attempt to jump a specific obstacle), but you will also be damaging it measurably and destroying neurones, to such an extent that it will then actually perform less well and your achievable level will for a while fall to a maximum of X – 5% or X – 10%. 

What is even worse is that if you demand so much of your brain as an interpreter (in terms of duration or intensity of effort), the damage to the neurones might last for several hours or even several days. However, the nature of our work is such that while your struggling grey matter is attempting to build back up its stock of neurones to the level preceding this traumatic (and here I’m talking about density, speed, fatigue, level of technicality, accent, sound quality etc), experience you are still expected to continue interpreting and ensure the ‘strict minimum’!

To come back to the analogy of the tyre, once the tyre’s grip has been overcome by by speed, the angle of a specific bend, and/or the acceleration or braking required, the car will start to slide. However, crashing is not inevitable, especially if the driver is highly skilled and can manage the skid so as to stay on the road and reach the end of the stage. 

Going into ‘degraded mode’ will very often be a life-saver, and this is all the more likely to be the case at the start of your career, because inexperienced interpreters who are on a learning curve will logically struggle more often in the booth than their more experienced colleagues.

Switching to ‘degraded mode’

how to save your energy and cognitive and mental resources

Before going any further into the nuts and bolts and introducing you to these tools, I would like to add that the actions that follow will be much easier to implement if you have in front of you the text of the speech you are interpreting, provided, of course, that you can handle the technique of ‘simultaneous with text’ (something which can really not be taken for granted at the start of your career). 

If you haven’t yet added this string to your bow, I would strongly advise you to do so. This essential technical exercise is quite complex when carried out at a high level, and can be and more of an obstacle than an asset if it has not been practised at length, fine-tuned and embedded as a cognitive reflex (which is of course the case for so many of the conference interpreter’s skills). 

Is your brain struggling to cope with events? Just like a computer which is slowed because the installed processor cannot cope with a high bit rate, you might be suffering from a case of cognitive ‘buffering’. What, then, can you do to provide the service expected by your contract, your employer, your listeners and your colleagues (not to mention yourself!)? How can you both preserve your brain and save your career?

  1. Anticipation

First of all, it is important to move into ‘degraded mode’ before you are actually forced to do so – if not, it will already be too late for your brain! Imagine only topping up your engine with oil when the ‘low pressure’ warning light comes on. In this case, your engine will already be (possibly irretrievably) damaged by a lack of maintenance and forethought. The same applies when you’re thirsty – you feel thirsty when your body is already dehydrated, and even if you drink a litre of water, it will take some time to metabolise and rehydrate your neurones and muscles. Clearly when you are engaged in intense physical or mental activity, you need to drink beforehand, pre-emptively as it were… All this means that an important part of practising the use of ‘degraded mode’ is anticipation. Here are just some examples of this anticipation in practice:

  • You might know in advance that a certain speaker is difficult to interpret
  • You discover that sound is poor and cannot be improved for the remainder of the event – this is especially likely in a ‘bidule’ or RSI setting
  • You discover that many delegates, who were slated to attend in person, will be joining by videoconference
  • You might find out that your booth partner will arrive later or need to leave earlier than expected
  • The agenda has unexpectedly been rejigged, and you will be called upon to interpret a topic or speaker that the team had agreed your colleague would prepare
  • The meeting may go on longer than expected, and your team leader agrees to work an extra hour
  • You are perhaps tired, ill, or feeling a bit low
  • You have, or develop, a headache
  • A topic arises that you personally find difficult or unpleasant
  • On arrival, you realise that the physical working conditions are far fom ideal, and will remain so
  • The team had been promised certain equipment (such as a ‘bidule’ with an incoming sound channel for interpreters) which does not materialise

These are all reasons for listening to your cognitive and psychological alarm bell, and making the decision to go into ‘degraded mode’ before your brain actually begins to shut down in an uncontrolled fashion!

NB: The above in no way means that you or your team should not do all in your power to improve sub-optimal  environments, team arrangements or sound equipment – to do so is a professional obligation – but on very many occasions much will unfortunately remain beyond the interpreters’ control.

2. Practical actions and techniques

More concretely, what are the techniques and tools that you can resort to in order to activate this ‘degraded mode’? Here is a non-exhaustive list of ideas, techniques and tips (more or less in order of usefulness):

a) Lower the volume of your input, and therefore of your output

This is the most useful strategy when it comes to economising physical and mental effort. Start by lowering the volume of the input, so you will be forced to lower your own volume (and, by extension, your timbre of voice). This is a virtuous cycle which relieves some of the strain and stress at ‘both ends’, thereby leading to a calmer and more convincing rendition, which as a bonus will sound more professional and more controlled. 

Stress almost inevitably makes the voice louder and higher-pitched, and so you will need to fight hard to apply this method. Do persist with it, though, because it’s your default tool! Do not forget that, just as a stressed driver has to continually loosen up his/her shoulders and hands, you have to do the same with the volume of your voice, because the volume and pitch will inevitably rise again under the effect of stress!

A little reminder: speaking more quietly means that you have to make sure you don’t sacrifice the different emotions, intonation, emphasis, etc that you are expected to use to convey the nuances in each speech. When we speak more quietly, we tend to limit the extent to which we use these vocal faculties, which in turn harms the quality and value of our interpretation. Practice reconciling vocal expression with lower volume. You should by the way already be doing this on a regular basis, to improve the quality of your whispered interpreting, for very similar reasons!

b) Use short words as much as possible 

This will probably seem obvious, but experience has taught me that often young interpreters don’t tend automatically to use shorter words in the booth – you must develop this reflex, to be employed when necessary – which will be often in today’s meetings! It is, however, a technique which will help you to save a great deal of energy, and you can use it at any point in the booth. Here are just a few of many thousands of possible examples:

  • ‘talks’ instead of ‘negotiations’ 
  • ‘aim’ instead of ‘objective’
  • ‘joy’ instead of ‘happiness’
  • ‘body’ instead of ‘organisation’
  • ‘project’ instead of ‘initiative’
  • ‘asset’ instead of ‘advantage’
  • ‘challenge’ instead of ‘difficulty’
  • ‘show’ instead of ‘demonstrate’
  • ‘goal’ instead of ‘objective’
  • ‘tool’ instead of ‘instrument’

As is the case for so many aspects of simultaneous interpreting, making this technique automatic is what truly counts – until this is the case, like most learned techniques it simply creates an added cognitive burden! 

Systematically gaining a few extra syllables here and there will have an amazingly significant effect on your brain’s ability to resist, recover, relax and function. I guarantee that you will be astonished at how much of a difference a bit of added time makes to your struggling neurones once you start using this technique systematically!

c) Use your tone rather than words to convey nuance and emphasis

This technique is essential, because you can use your voice and vocal resources to add emphasis, emotion (sarcasm, irony, anger, doubt, disappointment, authority, sadness, euphoria, etc.) or intensity. You can use this technique in lieu of adding additional words – which are often employed, after all, to clarify a point, support an argument, inject emphasis, convince or show/solicit empathy etc.

This technique is even more useful when you are working into a B language, as you will not always find, or even know, the right word. We often tend to use more words in an effort to convey the full meaning of the original, but this technique will help avoid this trap. You can, and should, use this method even when you’re not in ‘degraded mode’ to compensate for gaps in your second active language.

d) Use acronyms and abbreviations

Depending on your awareness of your listeners’ knowledge of the field (especially if all listeners are present from the beginning of the meeting), it can be very helpful to use abbreviations and acronyms – once you have, of course, first spelt out their full meaning, usually the first time they arise. To be clear: on the first occasion someone mentions the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, you would say ‘the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE’. Thereafter, you would simply use the acronym ‘OSCE’. Saying a few letters will consume far less time and energy than saying a whole title!

As an aside, if you are working into a language that features genders, do not forget that you need to know whether the abbreviation takes the masculine or the feminine, the singular or the plural. One must also take into account the fact that while most acronyms and abbreviations can change between languages (for example ‘NATO’ becomes ‘OTAN’ in French and Spanish) some do not, and still others (like ‘ETA’ or ‘IRA’) retain the same letters but may be expressed as an acronym (pronounced as a word) in one language and an abbreviation (pronounced as single separate letters) in the other – quite a minefield! 

e) Use ‘bullet point interpretation’

This is the most extreme version of degraded mode.

This technique will take some of the pressure off your brain, because it will enable you to find shortcuts when faced with heavy syntactical and grammatical structures. You will also be able to directly catch the attention of your listeners. 

Imagine, then, that the delegate’s speech is being shown on a PowerPoint slide, complete with bullet points, using simplified grammar and syntax. All you now need to do is interpret these bullet points as they would appear on a screen, which will save you words, effort and time. This will, in turn, allow your brain to take more micro-breaks and your body to breathe – your interpreting performance will improve and both your own brain and those of your listeners will thank you for it!

See the ‘Bullet point’ versions of the speech extracts below.

f) Cut through the verbosity and repetitions – prune and prioritise

(see written examples below)

“…use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do,

for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”

(Matthew 6:6, KJV)

This is one of the most efficient and useful strategies, but is also the most difficult both to describe and develop. This is what you need to do:

  • First, choose the minimum number of words (this obviously entails knowing a great many words – then you can choose wisely and well!)
  • Leave out little quips, quotes, ironic sayings, asides, formulaic expressions of politeness and linguistic flourishes, on the understanding that if these were to disappear it would not harm the rendition of the main ideas
  • Then, depending on the conditions and your own skills (both in general and at that specific moment), prioritise ideas and concepts on the fly (under pressure) and overlook ideas that are of secondary importance or that are repeated

A word of warning: I am aware that in reality you will perhaps be forced to pare back a given speech because you’re not able to capture and understand each nuance, reference or instance of humour and/or sarcasm. But there is a world of difference between this situation and a situation where you understand these aspects of the speech, but strategically choose not to render them to enhance communication and aid your clients.

As is the case with any technique, you must practise as much as possible so that it becomes automatic. This tool must be wielded in such a way that it does not damage your concentration or the cognitive abilities that you need to perform the actual ‘core task’ for which you have been hired: i.e. conveying the nuances and complexities of a speech delivered by a demanding and intelligent speaker.

To make sure this technique becomes truly ingrained, you could even try combining ‘business and pleasure’! Practise this in a group setting. Each person could give a pruned version of an original text, getting rid of the superfluous elements and keeping the main message. Then you could compare versions, and the person who has preserved the meaning while using the fewest words wins (the prize being up to you!)…

I would like to reiterate the fact that these techniques are much easier to apply correctly when performingsimultaneous interpretation with text. Once you have learnt to make use of texts, you can much more easily anticipate, prioritise and prune speeches in a logical and reasoned way, since you should be able to see what is coming.

I must again point out that, for a conference interpreter, it is essential to learn this technique thoroughly and be able to employ it instinctively – until this stage of professional familiarity is achieved, having the speech text in the booth is in fact more of a hindrance than a help, as it loads yet one more task onto your tired brain! But, be persistent, work and practice lots, and this skill will begin to become second nature….

Here is yet another word of warning: the aim is not to be satisfied with doing an incomplete job. It goes without saying that our contract (whether implicit or explicit) means that we should be able to convey every detail, every nuance, every quote and every repetition that the speaker chooses to put in his/her speech. Here we are talking more about doing your best in a difficult situation by switching into ‘degraded mode’. 

We choose to use this mode – and it must be a conscious choice, not the fruit of panic – in conditions where the alternative would be either a complete breakdown or a random, hesitant and patchy output. In the latter case, the main and essential ideas could get lost just as easily as the superfluous and secondary ideas, because the brain is no longer at the helm!

g) Use clichés, images and figures of speech as much as you can

Generally speaking, idiomatic expressions, clichés, aphorisms, figures of speech, sayings, images, quotes and other set expressions are VERY useful in interpreting, because they will help you to render complex ideas relatively easily. They will also add an element of ease and facility to what you are saying, and this will reassure both yourself and your listeners. When you’re in ‘degraded mode’, doing this will enable you to momentarily relax your concentration (because you know these expressions by heart and will render them automatically, and your clients will register them equally automatically). 

But be careful – when you use such expressions in your B language, make very sure that you learn them perfectly and properly, and that you understand their meaning and know when to use them appropriately. You must also ensure that your register is consistent, and a cliché or image rendered with even 95% linguistic and grammatical accuracy serves only to draw attention to your weaknesses and to make you appear pretentious!

h) Keep hydrated and ventilate your booth

I sincerely hope that, in normal circumstances, you drink regularly and pre-emptively while interpreting. Well, when you go into ‘degraded mode’, you should drink even more! Take frequent sips to hydrate your brain (which is already struggling due to the circumstances that have made going into ‘degraded mode’ necessary), and lubricate your vocal folds/cords and your throat. 

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of hydration to the interpreter’s brain – like a conscientious and intelligent sportsperson, you should be taking on, say, at least a couple of litres of water per full day in the booth, and more still if your booth is hot and stuffy.

The stagnant and overheated air, which is unfortunately the rule rather than the exception, which you will find in most booths (especially mobile ones), is another problem to contend with. Do everything you can to create a flow of fresh air through your booth, even if this means talking more quietly (in itself not an evil – see a) above!) to avoid disturbing your delegates or colleagues, if your booth is in the meeting room itself or adjacent to another, and if you decide to keep the door open or ajar – which is always advantageous but not always possible…

i) Learn (how) to breathe!

As an interpreter, your voice is a massively important tool, both for expression and for stress-relief. It is essential to consult experts and learn the techniques that enable your body to produce sound convincingly, effortlessly and consistently over a lengthy period. There are many techniques to improve voice and sound production – I can help with tips and tools for this, so by all means contact me if required.

Other techniques enable you to learn to breathe in ways that either calm or energise, depending upon what is needed at the relevant moment!

j) Avoid overheating by changing posture and by modifying your clothing

For the same reasons, do everything you can to put yourself at ease physically, so that you can interpret for longer. Of course you should follow this recommendation only when and where it is possible to do so, particularly with regards to protocol, visibility, set-up in the booth, the status of your partner etc. If so, loosen your tie or even take it off, take your shoes off, get rid of your jacket, adjust the angle of the backrest, etc. 

If you can use a headset that has a microphone attached, this will help you to feel more comfortable, because the microphone will follow your mouth. It will allow you to speak more quietly and to sit in a much more relaxed way, which will in turn make your flow more relaxed and fluid and put less pressure on your muscles. This a win-win situation whether you are in ‘degraded mode’ or not!



  • Normal mode
  • Degraded mode
  • ‘Bullet-point’ mode 

Transcript of a speech by the French president at the Ambassadors’ Conferencethe 27thof August 2018.

Extract (1) from the original speech

Je suis très heureux de vous retrouver aujourd’hui pour ouvrir cette conférence des Ambassadeurs et des Ambassadrices. Heureux parce que c’est toujours l’occasion unique de partager quelques convictions et une lecture du monde tel qu’il va, dans lequel chaque jour la France agit, est attendue, porte sa voix. Dans quelques jours, vous rejoindrez vos équipes sur le terrain et vous porterez avec exigence, détermination, une très grande responsabilité.

Version in normal mode

I am delighted to be here today to open this ambassadors’ conference, as for me this is always an unparalleled opportunity to share my convictions, and my reading of the way in which France can act, speak out and meet expectations in today’s changing world. In a few days’ time, you will be joining your respective teams on the ground, and I am confident that you will carry what is a heavy responsibility with rigour and resolve.

(116 syllables)

Version in ‘medium degraded’ mode

I am delighted to open this ambassadors’ conference, as it is a chance to share my thoughts on the way in which France should act and speak today as a major world player. You will soon join your various teams, and I know you will act with rigour and resolve. (65 syllables)

Version in ‘maximum degraded’ (bullet-point) mode

– I am happy to be here

 – We will discuss France’s major role worldwide

 – Out on the ground, I know you act as true professionals

 (33 syllables)

Extract (2) from the original speech

Votre première responsabilité, ce sera de représenter notre pays, notre histoire, nos idéaux républicains, nos géographies de métropole et d’outre-mer, nos intérêts. Et en représentant la France vous représentez l’histoire, la force, le rôle de notre peuple dans le concert des nations et avez à y conduire une diplomatie que je veux fiable et innovante. Votre deuxième responsabilité, avec votre équipe, avec l’appui de tous les relais dont vous disposez sur place, sera de mettre en œuvre une politique ambitieuse pour notre pays. Cette ambition, soyez assurés qu’elle se traduira par un rythme de réformes en France qui ne changera pas d’allure, bien au contraire. Le Premier ministre vous en précisera les orientations. Plusieurs ministres auront aussi à s’exprimer sur ce point. Sous la conduite de votre Ministre Jean-Yves Le DRIAN, que je tiens à remercier pour son implication constante, vous nous aiderez à soutenir ces réformes à l’international.

Version in normal mode

Your prime responsibility will be to represent our country, with her interests, her history and republican ideals and the geographical diversity of her various territories. In so doing, you will stand for France’s historical strength, and the role of the French people in the concert of nations – I am asking you to conduct our nation’s diplomacy in a reliable and innovative fashion. Your second responsibility, hand-in-hand with your teams and contact points on the ground, will consist of in implementing an ambitious policy for France. Rest assured that such ambitions will continue to be backed up by an increasing pace of reform on the domestic front. The Prime Minister will provide you with further details, and a number of ministers will be addressing this matter. Under the guiding hand of your minister Jean-Yves Le DRIAN, whom I wish to thank for his unstinting commitment, you will assist us in supporting these reforms on the international stage. (262 syllables)

Version in ‘medium degraded’ mode

You must first represent France in all her historical, geographical and moral diversity. You will help our people play their role on the world stage, and I ask you to work reliably and innovatively. Next, with all other stakeholders, you are called to implement an ambitious national policy, which I will back up by intense reform at home. The Prime Minister and his colleagues will provide further details here. Allow me to thank Minister Le DRIAN, under whom you will help France support these reforms the world over. (136 syllables)

Version in ‘maximum degraded’ (bullet-point) mode

– You represent France, in all her diversity, to the outside world

 – I ask you to be both reliable and innovative

– With others, you are called to be true ambassadors for our ambitious reforms 

– I thank Minister Le DRIAN and his colleagues, who will lead you and provide all relevant details (76 syllables)

Extract (3) from the original speech

En effet, vous êtes à mes yeux parties prenantes de la stratégie que j’ai demandé au gouvernement de mettre en œuvre pour le pays. D’abord, en associant pleinement nos communautés françaises à l’étranger. Elles sont une richesse, une force. Nos réformes doivent leur être expliquées et elles doivent aussi être portées par elles. Les Françaises et les Français de l’étranger sont un atout pour notre pays. Ils doivent participer pleinement de ce nouveau rayonnement de la France. C’est pour cela que j’ai souhaité une réflexion en profondeur sur l’enseignement français à l’étranger qui, sur la base du rapport que j’ai demandé au gouvernement, donnera lieu à l’annonce d’une réforme cet automne. C’est aussi pour cela que je veux aller au bout des simplifications attendues par nos concitoyens, en termes de démarches administratives et de vote en ligne.

Version in normal mode

You are indeed an active and integral part of the national strategy that I have requested the government to put in place. The first step is fully to involve our French communities abroad, as they are our wealth and our strength. Our reforms need to be explained to them to secure their buy-in. French men and women overseas are a huge asset, and they have an essential part to play in projecting our country’s soft power. It is for this reason that I commissioned an in-depth review of French education overseas – on the basis of the report which the government will submit to me, a reform will be announced this Autumn. For the self-same reason, I am determined to complete the streamlining of our administrative and on-line voting procedures. (194 syllables)

Version in ‘medium degraded’ mode

You have a role to play in France’s new national strategy. We need to explain this to the French diaspora, who need to be brought fully on board. Our citizens abroad are also our ambassadors. The government will report back to me in the Autumn on our overseas education, and we will continue to streamline administrative procedures generally. (96 syllables)

Version in ‘maximum degraded’ (bullet-point) mode

– Our nation’s strategy needs your help

 – France’s diaspora must be brought onboard

 – This Autumn will see a report on French education abroad

 – Administrative procedures are being streamlined (48 syllables)

Extract (4) from the original speech

Ensuite, vous contribuez à la compétitivité de la France. Vous devez expliquer aux gouvernements, aux acteurs économiques dans les pays où vous êtes en poste, la cohérence et l’ampleur de notre agenda de transformation. Notre attractivité s’améliore, mais il nous faut nous mobiliser bien davantage pour nos exportations. Votre mobilisation en faveur d’une diplomatie économique est un élément important de cette stratégie. Nous devons notamment axer notre action collective sur une stratégie export pour les entreprises de taille intermédiaire comme les petites et moyennes entreprises qui seule réduira notre déficit commercial. Mais j’attends de vous encore davantage. De Ouagadougou à Xi’an, de Sydney à New York ou la Sorbonne, j’ai durant l’année qui s’achève pu, à travers plusieurs discours, renouveler nos approches géographiques ou stratégiques. Il faut que celles-ci soient désormais déclinées avec précision. Cela suppose de choisir des objectifs clairs et donc limités, et de prendre de nouvelles mesures afin d’en assurer le suivi. Nous avons encore trop tendance à considérer que tout est prioritaire et ne pas suffisamment avoir une culture du résultat. Même en diplomatie, le succès se mesure – certes pas en un jour et même sans doute jamais en un jour – à la capacité néanmoins d’infléchir des attitudes, de construire des amitiés et des alliances, de remporter des marchés. En un mot, de faire avancer les intérêts de la France et des Français et de faire partager un peu de notre vision et conception du monde.

Version in normal mode

You also contribute to our nation’s competitiveness. It will be up to you, in your various postings, to explain the logic and the extent of our transformation agenda. France is becoming increasingly attractive, but we must work proactively to promote our exports. Your efforts to further economic diplomacy will be key building blocks in this strategy. Priority must be given to working together on reducing our trade deficit by forging an export strategy for both small and medium-sized enterprises. But I expect still more of you! From Ouagadougou to Xi’an, from Sydney to New York and the Sorbonne, in the course of several speeches over the last year I have outlined our new geographical and strategic approaches. It is now important to put flesh on the bones of these initiatives, which entails choosing clear and realistic goals, and to put in place new measures to ensure an appropriate follow-up. We still tend to consider that everything is a priority, and we are not sufficiently results-oriented. Even in diplomacy, success can be measured – certainly not overnight and in fact definitely never overnight – by the ability to change hearts and minds, to build friendships and alliances, and to win contracts. In a nutshell, our task is to further the interests of France and the French people, and to share a little of our vision and reading of the world. (413 syllables)

Version in ‘medium degraded’ mode

We trust you to promote and explain France’s economic growth and new agenda, through economic diplomacy. You must work on promoting exports for our SMEs, so reducing our trade deficits. I have spoken widely of our new approach, and now you must help by providing details to your interlocutors and ensuring follow-up. We must all assign clear priorities and be results-oriented, working on mindsets and winning contracts. It is our job to work for the good of France, and share our vision with the world. (141 syllables)

Version in ‘maximum degraded’ (bullet-point) mode

– Speak on behalf of France’s new economic agenda

 – Help our SMEs by aiding exports and cutting trade deficits

 – You must now give details on the agenda I have presented

 – We need clear priorities and aims to win contracts

 – You are France’s ambassadors, sharing our vision worldwide

 (76 syllables)


Here are two links to recordings of my own simultaneous interpretation of a speech by the American Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was speaking at the ‘American Enterprise Institute’ in 2017. First, here are the links to the transcript and the video: %20America%20in%20the%20World%20%2802.30-%29%20%28T%29.mp4?dl=0 

The first example below is of a full interpretation in ‘normal mode’, while the second is an example of ‘degraded mode’:

‘Normal mode’:

‘Degraded mode’:

Chris Guichot de Fortis

19th June 2020

Quelques reflexions sur la “langue B”

Qu’est-ce que la langue ‘B’ ?

– Il faut d’abord préciser la nature, pour l’AIIC et les interprètes de conférence professionnels, de cette ‘langue B’. Il s’agit d’une langue active, capable d’être employée quant à moi en consécutive et en simultanée. Certains acceptent que la combinaison C > B peut ne pas être offerte, ou l’être seulement en consécutive, mais l’ avis personnel de l’auteur est qu’une langue active doit l’être à partir de toutes les autres langues de travail de l’interprète.

– En parlant ici de la langue ‘A’ dite ‘maternelle’, j’entends un niveau de langue hors du commun, car il ne suffit pas d’être ressortissant d’un pays et d’être d’une certaine expression linguistique pour prétendre maîtriser cette langue comme se le doit un interprète de conférence. Il s’en suit que certaines langues ‘B’ peuvent être supérieures, comme vecteurs d’expression, à une langue ‘A’ moyenne.

– N’oublions pas non plus que ‘biactif’ n’est pas synonyme de ‘bilingue’ ; les vrais bilingues (culturels, émotionnels, linguistiques..) sont très très rares, et ne sont pas forcément de bons interprètes du fait de leur seul bilinguisme. A titre d’exemple, sur le 39 interprètes permanents actuellement en exercice à l’OTAN, tous biactifs, 6 sont bilingues, soit ‘double A’ d’après les catégories AIIC.

– On rencontre aussi assez fréquemment le cas de figure de l’interprète en herbe qui ne possède pas de langue à proprement parler maternelle et qui, à la différence du bilinguisme auquel sa vie précédente a pu lui laisser croire, possède deux langues ‘B’, aucune n’étant maîtrisée au niveau requis chez l’interprète de conférence. En ce cas-ci, la carrière d’interprète de conférence n’est malheureusement pas une aspiration réaliste.

– Il est aussi possible de trouver des interprètes capables de travailler vers trois langues, mais il s’agit ici d’un phénomène des plus rares – je me méfie de la grande majorité des linguistes qui prétendent à de telles compétences, car elles sont le plus souvent synonymes d’une interprétation de qualité médiocre. Comme on le dit en anglais « Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ». Le vrai professionnel connaît ses limites…

– Il convient d’oublier ici toute notion de ‘retour dépannage’ tel qu’enseigné par les écoles belges, car celui-ci n’a pas lieu d’être, et dévalue à la fois l’interprète et sa profession. En clair, on doit pouvoir offrir une prestation professionnelle et de haute qualité, ou se taire…

– La langue ‘B’ telle que pratiquée au niveau le plus élevé en conférence (par exemple à l’OCDE, au Conseil de l’Europe, à l’OTAN, au sein des différents ministères nationaux..) est donc une deuxième langue dont la maîtrise se situe, grosso modo, à un niveau légèrement en-deçà de celui d’une langue maternelle d’interprète (entre disons 2% et 15%, il étant entendu que ce genre de mesure n’a que peu de sens). Cette langue se pratique à un très haut niveau de richesse et de souplesse, et qui dépasse sensiblement le niveau de langue du ressortissant lambda, même diplômé universitaire, du pays en question.

– En langue ‘B’ on peut accepter un léger accent étranger, du moment que celui-ci ne représente jamais une entrave à la compréhension. Un nombre très réduit d’erreurs (par exemple de genre dans les langues latines ou d’accent tonique en anglais) peut aussi être toléré, en fonction du contexte, car il ne s’agit pas ici d’une langue qui se prétend maternelle.

– Il est bien entendu impossible d’établir un pourcentage des langues ‘C’ que l’on peut envisager de convertir en langue ‘B’, mais il faut comprendre que, à la différence de la langue maternelle, une langue ‘B’ peut se fabriquer. En mon expérience de pédagogue de 18 ans, entre environ 15% et 20% des étudiants-interprètes pourraient à terme, une fois bien conseillés et bien guidés (et à force de travail acharné !), envisager le rajout d’une langue ‘B’ à leur combinaison.

Pourquoi vouloir se doter d’une deuxième langue active ?

Maintenant que nous savons plus ou moins ce qu’est une langue ‘B’, voyons un peu son utilité.

– Vous savez que, grosso modo, les interprètes de conférence professionnels se scindent en deux grandes catégories :

  • *  le profil dit « classique », où l’interprète possède une langue maternelle active, et un certain nombre de langues passives
  • *  le profil dit « biactif », où l’interprète possède deux langues actives et éventuellement un certain nombre de langues passives – Dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, où commerce et globalisation sont rois et se véhiculent par une version bâtarde et appauvrie de la langue anglaise, le temps est en permanence compté, les budgets serrés, et on se passera volontiers de l’interprétation là où c’est possible. Néanmoins, pour des raisons soit de technicité des rencontres, soit de nature davantage politique et de prestige, l’interprétation de conférence reste un métier prisé qui demeurera de mise là où une communication approfondie et subtile est nécessaire. – Le marché international desservi par les interprètes se scinde grosso modo en deux : le privé/commercial et l’étatique (gouvernements, organisations internationales..).
    Dans certains cas de figure devenus rares, il reste souhaitable de conserver une kyrielle de langues de travail et de rechercher donc des interprètes qui en possèdent au moins trois de manière passive ; on pense notamment ici, bien entendu, à l’Union Européenne et, dans une moindre mesure, à l’ONU.

Pour l’ensemble des autres secteurs où les hommes et les femmes sont appelés à dialoguer, le souci de la communication va de pair avec celui de la rentabilité, de la vitesse et de la mobilité ; tous ces facteurs concourent à rendre de plus en plus souhaitable le recours aux interprètes pratiquant l’aller-retour, soit la biactivité.

Il y a tout lieu de croire que le deuxième secteur s’étendra à l’avenir aux dépens du premier. Cette tendance est marquée au sein du marché privé/industriel; à Paris, Bruxelles et Genève, et même au Pays Bas pour ne citer que quelques exemples, la demande reste très importante pour des interprètes compétents (et ce mot a de l’importance !) offrant la combinaison français-anglais en biactif.

Dans les pays européens, ainsi que ceux de l’Afrique sub-saharienne ou au Canada (pour ne citer que quelques exemples), les entités étatiques telles que les Ministères cherchent également activement de bons interprètes de conférence offrant en langue active la langue du pays et, notamment, l’anglais.

– Donc, pour l’interprète qui possède deux langues à un très bon niveau (voir dessus), l’option biactive est attractive et prometteuse. Cet(te) interprète possède peut-être d’autres langues de manière passive, et rien n’empêche de conjuguer les deux modes, afin de se rendre attrayant et utile à un maximum de clients et de configurations de réunions. Par contre, pour celle ou celui qui ne peut offrir qu’une langue active ‘classique’ et deux ou même trois langues passives qui le sont tout autant, il y a peu de débouchés qui permettent de vivre uniquement de l’interprétation de conférence. Demeure l’option d’apprendre une autre langue ‘exotique’, mais comment savoir lesquelles sont et resteront porteuses, et comment trouver le temps de les maîtriser à un niveau convaincant, tout en gagnant sa vie ?

En conclusion, au sein de la tourmente des évolutions commerciales et politiques de ce monde, et malgré les fluctuations que vit de notre profession d’interprète de conférence, l’interprétation biactive de grande qualité (impliquant donc deux langues dont la qualité active est au-dessus de tout soupçon) devient de plus en plus une valeur sûre qui permet à ses pratiquants de vivre de leur art. Par contre, les pressions budgétaires étant ce qu’elles sont et les écoles d’interprètes continuant à fournir une relève qui fait plus que compenser, numériquement, les départs de la profession, la qualité est une condition sine qua non. Voilà pourquoi il est plus que souhaitable de se doter, en toute connaissance de cause et après mûre réflexion, d’une langue ‘B’ à toute épreuve, et qui force le respect des clients ainsi que des collègues.

Avant de passer à la section suivante, je pensais qu’il serait amusant et instructif d’illustrer mes arguments avec un petit échantillonnage aléatoire (et nullement scientifique, s’entend) de l’annuaire de l’AIIC, en ce qui concerne le pourcentage d’interprètes ayant une langue ‘B’.

Le taux global de langue ‘B’, sur un échantillon total de 360 interprètes AIIC, est de 57%.

Voici la ventilation par ville ou par pays : Bruxelles 36%, Genève 50%, Etats-Unis 60%, Royaume-Uni 62%, Autriche 65%, Canada 72%, Paris 82%

Quelles peuvent être les conditions de base pour entamer cet apprentissage de manière réaliste ?

– la langue ‘A’ est au-dessus de tout soupçon

– la première langue passive, que l’on veut transformer en langue ‘B’, Est déjà très bien maîtrisée

– l’accent étranger, dans cette langue, est faible ou inexistant

– l’interprète en question a vécu ou est prêt à vivre au moins une année dans un pays où cette langue est parlée comme première langue

– l’interprète est prêt à travailler de manière assidue, en cabine et en en-dehors, pour établir les automatismes neuronaux et linguistiques requis par sa nouvelle combinaison. Il s’agit de refaire en partie l’apprentissage de l’interprétation sans doute déjà accompli, ce qui requiert bien entendu des dizaines d’heures passées en cabine à rôder cette seule combinaison

Quelles ont les démarches à assurer et les pièges à éviter, une fois la décision prise d’opter pour le rajout d’une deuxième langue active ?

Il s’agit de renforcer cette langue, et le bagage socio-culturel qui va avec, jusqu’au niveau où un délégué de cette expression s’y retrouve dans votre production linguistique, et se sent en présence d’un interlocuteur qui le comprend à tous les niveaux, qui partage avec lui/elle le sens d’un milieu de vie et de société.

a) Voici quelques exercices à privilégier :

Passer beaucoup d’heures, en cabine, à prendre en filature (‘shadowing’) un intervenant parlant bien la langue ciblée. Il s’agit d’employer des fichiers MP3, des cassettes, des CD où l’orateur s’exprime dans les cadences de sa langue maternelle, et la maîtrise bien entendu à un très bon niveau. En filature, vous répétez le discours de l’orateur sans en changer la langue. Ainsi, votre cerveau et votre bouche doivent apprendre inconsciemment à intégrer et à produire cette langue sans effort mental, et réflexivement, ce qui exige évidemment des dizaines d’heures d’entraînement.

En agissant de la sorte, l’appareil neuro-linguistique assure environ 80% des opérations impliquées dans l’interprétation simultanée (une synthèse de plusieurs études récentes menées par des chercheurs spécialisés), le seul élément manquant étant le transfert linguistique. Il s’agit donc d’un très bon exercice à plusieurs niveaux.
Pendant la prise en filature, vous pouvez travailler la longueur du recul et la faire varier, et insérer petit à petit des expressions de votre propre facture. Il convient avant tout d’assimiler en automatisme les cadences et le relief vocal de la langue ‘B’ ciblée.
Le but ici est de constituer dans votre cerveau de nouvelles trajectoires nueronales ; ceci est un apprentissage indispensable pour toute nouvelle combinaison linguistique. Le fait d’avoir maîtrisé la pratique de l’interprétation simultanée entre une première et une deuxième langue ne dispense aucunement de travailler longuement, à titre séparé, chaque nouvelle combinaison – le cerveau devra se modifier en fonction, ce qui n’est pas le travail d’un jour.
A cette fin, il est également important de s’entraîner, pendant le travail de filature, à occuper une autre partie du cerveau, en écrivant par exemple (tout en parlant) des séquences de numéros qui exigent de la réflexion : 3, 7, 11, 15, 19….. Employer des séquences de plus en plus complexes au fur et mesure de l’apprentissage.
En travaillant en filature, il est tout-à-fait possible de réduire un accent étranger éventuel de manière considérable.

En matière d’accent, la filature peut faire beaucoup, bien qu’au moins un reliquat subsistera presque toujours, et n’est pas une contre-indication en soi (voir dessus). Il existe dans toutes les langues une poignée de sons (qui variera en fonction de la langue et du pays de l’apprenti-interprète) que l’étranger aura des difficultés à produire : en anglais le ‘th’ ou le ‘’ ou bien les accents toniques (se méfier notamment du mot ‘development’ !), en français les ‘..ouille’, ‘..u’ ‘en’, ‘in’, ‘an’ ou ‘on’, par exemple. Savoir quelles sont vos lacunes à ce niveau, et attelez-vous à apprendre à reproduire ces sons sans erreur, en vous exerçant jusqu’à ce que l’automaticité s’installe.

Pour commencer à mesurer votre aptitude croissante dans la langue ‘B’, vous devrez guetter le moment où votre production de cette langue se fait automatiquement sans erreur grossière d’accent, de grammaire ni de syntaxe. Une fois acquis la certitude que, même sans surveillance ni censure mentale de votre part, la production de la langue ‘B’ se fait sans encombre, votre cerveau pourra commencer à passer au traitement intellectuel des sujets abordés et à la transposition de la langue ‘A’ ou ‘C’ vers la langue ‘B’ .
Une nuance ici : n’entamer l’apprentissage de la combinaison C > B qu’une fois acquis celui en A > B.

La langue maternelle étant constituée en grande partie pendant la scolarisation secondaire, il est essentiel de refaire cet apprentissage, manquant chez ceux qui ne sont pas de parfaits bilingues, dans la langue ‘B’ visée. Il s’agit d’apprendre les notions et surtout les vocabulaires de bases manquants, en géographie, histoire, chimie, maths, physique, histoire de l’art, littérature etc. etc. Il peut être utile d’acheter pour ce faire les manuels scolaires de la langue en question, qui existent au bon niveau de connaissance et de langue, et qui auront été compulsés à l’époque par vos délégués e cette expression.
L’expérience montre que les deux domaines les plus souvent lacunaires dans la langue ‘B’ sont ceux des noms géographiques et de l’histoire de l’art et des cultures. Potassez tout de suite vos atlas, car ces vocabulaires ne pardonnent pas !

Une fois les progrès de base accomplis, il est capital de rester au courant, en temps réel et en permanence, des évolutions culturelles/sportives/sociales du premier pays où la langue ‘B’ est parlée. Les films, la télévision, les journaux sportifs seront ici des atouts précieux.

Passer du temps, régulièrement et pour des périodes aussi longues que possible, dans le(s) pays où votre langue ‘B’ se parle, en privilégiant les visites de musées et d’expositions, ainsi que des manifestations sportives et des cultures jeunes.

Il est parfois possible d’organiser une année de travail dans l’un de ces pays, en offrant vos services d’interprète qualifié comme lecteur ou assistant de cours à une école d’interprétation du pays. C’est le scénario le plus favorable, dans la mesure où vous restez dans le milieu de l’interprétation, dans la langue et la culture étrangères. En outre, il est parfois possible de prévoir un arrangement de troc où, en échange des cours que vous donnerez, vous pourrez assister à d’autres cours et vous servir des installations d’interprétation.

Se munir d’un petit cahier où vous consignerez systématiquement toute belle citation, expression, image ou autre locution que vous rencontrerez, et que vous guetterez, dans la langue ‘B’ en devenir. L’idée ici est de rehausser le niveau global de votre expression, en étendue et en profondeur, en y incorporant des milliers de mots et de membres de phrase. Ces locutions, vous les apprendrez par cœur pour qu’elles deviennent seconde nature ; vous pourrez ainsi, petit à petit, rejeter en interprétation le premier mot qui vous viendra à l’esprit, pour privilégier systématiquement le deuxième ou le troisième, d’un registre meilleur.

Choisir un beau discours dans la langue visée (et s’il s’agit de l’anglais, choisir entre celui du Royaume-Uni et celui des Etats-Unis, ensuite s’y tenir de manière cohérente) et s’évertuer à en apprendre une phrase par jour, en se la répétant de vive voix, le nombre de fois qu’il faut, jusqu’à ce qu’elle coule de source. Ne s’arrêter que lorsque le discours entier sera rentré dans votre mémoire et conscience. De cette manière, vous commencerez à maîtriser la grammaire, les cadences, la syntaxe, enfin le génie de la langue.

b) Il existe des pièges à éviter lors de l’emploi d’une langue ‘B’, et qui guettent tout jeune interprète :

– faire très attention en matière de registre, car celui-ci ne peut être jaugé avec la finesse habituelle dans la deuxième langue active. Toujours opter pour une locution ou une expression légèrement moins familière, ou moins musclée, que l’original.

– privilégier des phrases et expressions simples, sans céder à la tentation de clairsemer son discours en langue ‘B’ de locutions complexes, vieillottes, familières ou autrement hors du commun. Dans tous ces cas, et notamment avec l’emploi de métaphores ou d’images, il est très rare de pouvoir manipuler la langue non-maternelle avec une précision suffisamment certaine. N’imaginez surtout pas que l’une ou l’autre phrase prétentieuse, consciencieusement apprise par cœur, réussira à relever le niveau global de votre discours – au contraire, elles ne serviront qu’à perpétrer autant de ruptures de style, et attirer ainsi l’attention du client sur la relative pauvreté de la langue parlée par l’interprète

– la règle d’or est la suivante: « Keep it simple, stupid ! » Manier la deuxième langue avec sobriété, clairvoyance et intelligence, en respectant à tout moment ses propres limites. De cette manière vous viendrez gonfler les rangs des interprètes de conférence compétents et professionnels, vous serez respecté(e) et comblé(e) dans l’exercice de votre métier et vous apporterez votre pierre à l’édifice d’un monde où la communication est là au service de l’essor des hommes…

Chris Guichot de Fortis
(mars 2007, actualisé en 2011)


Webmaster at Interpreter Training Resources, Andy is a freelance interpreter, member of AIIC, who works EU and European institutions as well as for private market clients. Based in Paris he has been involved in training interpreters in Poland, France, Canada and Germany, at the European Parliament and has written a number books for student interpreters. He teaches at ISIT in Paris.

A big thank you to colleagues who have offered material for the site so far, and in alphabetical order…..

Benoit Cliquet aka Clic!

Munich based colleague Benoit Cliquet, aka Clic!, has created a book of entertaining cartoons, lampooning some of the traits that working interpreters will recognize in themselves and their colleagues. He’s kindly allowed ITR to use some of the cartoons here. Proceeds from Clic!’s book go to the AIIC Solidarity Fund.

Alex is half of the excellent TechforWord team and a founding member of the Troublesome Terps and can also be found in several training films from the EU Commission. He’s lending his technical and training know-how to ITR as an admin.

Chris Guichot de Fortis

…is senior staff interpreter at NATO and teaches interpreting at several Belgian interpreting schools. He is also one of the organisers of the renowned Cambridge interpreting course for interpreters. He has volunteered a number of excellent guides, in FR and EN:  acquiring and maintaining a B language;  shadowing for delivery skills ; a guide to practising; and difficultés psychiques de l’apprentissage. You’ll also find more of Chris’ training material at CCIConline.

Leading light in the world of interpreting research, curator of the CIRIN research network prolific author and experienced trainer of student interpreters Daniel offers some answers to students most frequently asked questions. You can also find an extract from Daniel’s excellent “…Concepts and Models” book here: The Gravitational Model of linguistic availability

Former head of the Polish booth at the European Parliament and senior member of the European Parlament’s interpreting Directorate General Anna is an experienced member of test juries at the EU institutions and she has offered a few pointers on getting through exams on the EXAM TIPS page

Guy Laycock

Guy is a staff interpreter at the EU Commission and has offered help and advice on a number of parts of the site but is too modest to claim the fame. Guy is a regular member of test juries at the EU institutions, so it is well worth checking out his very useful EXAM TIPS

Claudia Monacelli

Author of scientific papers but also a couple of very user friendly books on interpreting Claudia has volunteered a very useful set of questions aimed a getting to know your speaker

A teacher in a former incarnation, Jean-Jacques has taught at ESIT in Paris and is currently a staff interpreter at the Council of Europe. Jean-Jacques has compiled a list of tips for improving your knowledge of your working languages, loosely based on the Paris school, ESIT’s, well known booklet, Perfectionnement linguistique.

Lou is the brains and energy behind the fabulous A Word in your Ear interpreting vlog. She’s kindly donated some of the better photos that you’ll find on the ITR site.

Mikołaj Sekrecki

Mikołaj is based in Cracow Poland and has also taught at the Jagiellonian University’s interpreting school. He works from English and offers some answers to frequently asked questions.

Valerie worked for the UN and other international institutions from her base in Geneva before she moved to Australia where she has become a leading figure on the interpreting market there. 
She has written a book for student interpreters, Conference Interpreting – Practice and Principles”, extracts of which she has contributed to this site.
They deal with Booth Etiquette, a subject not always addressed on training courses, and Preparation. You can also visit Valerie’s home page.
Valerie has also offered a range of Tips for novice interpreters.

David Walker

David has been a staff interpreter at the European Parliament for the best part of 40 years, works from 5 EU languages including Greek.

He has compiled an invaluable preparation resource, his thematically ordered Guide to the Committees of the European Parliament which you can download here.
He has also shared some ideas of the use of register in interpreting and his latest offering is a ten part series on language learning – the Dekalog.

Alex Williams

…suggests of few very useful ideas for finding your feet, and work when starting out in Geneva

Martin Wooding

…is a former staff interpreter of the European Parliament. Martin was editor of the EP’s interpreter bulletin, Lingua Franca, and was Head of Unit responsible for Enlargement and Multilingualism at the EP. He has reviewed Andrew Gillies’ book, Note-taking for Consecutive Interpreting, for this site.

Thanks too, of course, to the many colleagues who have included links to ITR on their own websites, who have offered suggestions and ideas on improving the site, and also to those whose material has been borrowed or summarized elsewhere on the site.

Difficultés psychiques

L’apprentissage de l’interprétation de conférence et les difficultés psychiques qui lui sont inhérentes

Chris Guichot de Fortis
Senior Interpreter NATO

Vous voilà apprentis interprète de conférence, et je vous félicite de votre choix de carrière, qui vous comblera à terme de ses bienfaits, professionnels, intellectuels et personnels. Cependant, il se peut que vous ne sachiez pas, ou pas encore, quel peut être le cortège de difficultés et d’angoisses qui va trop souvent de pair avec les études que vous avez choisies.

J’ai une expérience de vingt ans de pédagogue dans diverses écoles d’interprétation en Belgique, en France et au Royaume-Uni. Année après année, j’ai pu constater (à ma grande tristesse!) que la majorité des étudiants qui se consacrent aux études du diplôme de «Master » d’interprétation de conférence, trébuchent sur les difficultés insoupçonnées, d’ordre émotionnel et psychique, qui sont fort malheureusement incontournables dans ce contexte.

Mon but ici est de vous prévenir quant aux contraintes personnelles et aux pressions psychiques qui font partie intégrante de la profession et des études qui y ouvrent l’accès, et de vous prémunir contre ces embûches. J’espère ainsi, en vous permettant de vous consacrer les yeux grand ouverts et en pleine connaissance de cause à votre apprentissage de la profession, vous épargner bien des états d’âme et des mises en cause personnelles habituellement angoissantes. En somme, je voudrais que vous deveniez des interprètes compétents et épanouis, mais aussi que vous preniez du plaisir en apprenant à accéder à ce statut…

1) Jusqu’ici, il y a fort à parier que vous avez toujours été les meilleurs, ou presque, dans vos études de secondaire et/ou de baccalauréat ou de licence, car les écoles d’interprètes recherchent toujours les étudiants les plus doués et les plus motivés. Dès à présent, cependant, vous ne serez sans doute plus le numéro un, ce qui bien entendu est tout-à-fait logique, mais ce fait peut imposer un petit ré-étalonnage mentale et psychique avant de pouvoir assumer avec sérénité le nouveau statut de ‘petit poisson dans un grand étang’.

Il faut également comprendre que vous vous attaquez désormais à une matière extrêmement difficile, et il se peut que ce soit la première fois de votre jeune vie que vous tentez d’acquérir une gamme de compétences techniques qu’il vous sera impossible de maîtriser de prime abord. En effet, surtout en ce qui concerne l’interprétation simultanée, personne n’y arrive dès le début de l’apprentissage, et il faudra travailler très dur, et patienter jusqu’à ce que le métier rentre et que le déclic s’opère. La bonne nouvelle est que, à condition de posséder les compétences linguistiques et intellectuelles requises et de travailler et de vous entraîner comme des forcenés, cet heureux déclic arrivera presque immanquablement, tôt ou tard. Moralité de l’histoire : soyez patients, travaillez dur, écoutez les conseils et ne soyez ni étonnés ni déprimés de ne pas y arriver tout de suite, et de connaître bien des hauts et des bas, autant intellectuels que psychiques…

2) Vous ne la savez peut-être pas encore, mais l’interprétation de conférence est un art où les performances et les prestations se font grâce à une improvisation permanente, le plus souvent sans ‘filet de sécurité’ et en faisant appel en temps réel à une vaste panoplie de compétences et de réflexes complexes, peu naturels et initialement fragiles.

Voici une description assez parlante du jazz, description qui décrit à merveille les complexités et les gloires de l’interprétation simultanée:

« Controlled spontaneity. Like ink painting, like haiku, like archery, like kendo fencing – jazz isn’t something you plan, it’s something you do. You practice, you play your scales, you learn your chops, then you bring all your knowledge, your conditioning to the moment.

‘In jazz, every moment is a crisis’, said Wynton Marsalis ‘and you bring all your skill to bear on the crisis’.
Like the swordsman, the archer, the poet and the painter –it’s all right there –no future, no past, just that moment and how you deal with it. Art happens….. »

(Christopher Moore – A Dirty Job)

Comprenez que nous sommes des artistes et des performers, évoluant sur la corde raide, et que notre profession exige, de par sa nature, que nous ‘sortions nos tripes’, que nous nous investissions d’une manière intense, intègre et très personnelle dans nos prestations, que nous y mettions tout ce qui est en nous. C’est ainsi que nous devenons des interprètes de conférence dignes de ce nom, dignes du message, dignes de nos délégués.

La contrepartie d’un tel investissement de soi, c’est que les commentaires et critiques que vous feront vos professeurs, peuvent vite prendre des tournures personnelles blessantes et/ou contre-productives, ou être perçus par vous de cette manière. Il est essentiel que professeurs et étudiants se rappellent à tout moment que les études impliquent que ces derniers soient évalués et jugés en leur qualité d’interprètes de conférence (potentiels) et non pas en tant qu’êtres humains. Pour vous, étudiants, il est important de trouver en vous le moyen d’accepter et d’agir sur le feedback de vos pédagogues, mais sans le prendre comme atteinte à la personne que vous êtes et sans vous mettre en cause vous-même sur le plan psychique– je vous assure que ce malheureux amalgame est tout-à- fait courant!

3) Notre profession peut être qualifiée d’art du spectacle, et les interprètes de conférence sont des performers ou artistes, montant sur scène et puisant dans toutes leurs ressources pour animer, inspirer et informer un public ayant besoin d’eux pour participer à l’événement. Il est donc jugé légitime que ceux qui ‘consomment’ l’interprétation en ‘assistant au spectacle’, s’arrogent le droit de juger et de commenter les prestations des interprètes, un peu comme le font les critiques et le public devant une performance à l’opéra, aux Jeux Olympiques ou au théâtre.

Peut découler de ce phénomène un effet de stress et d’angoisse, décrit comme suit par le champion de tennis Pat Cash :

“I’m referring to the pressures of the game that grow and grow to such an extent that you almost reach the stage where you resent and despise the sport you play. And most of those pressures come from within your own brain.
I reached the point…where, during a match, so many people were prepared to make judgements on somebody they didn’t know…”

Je ne voudrais absolument pas que vous tombiez dans ce piège, alors réjouissez-vous plutôt de pouvoir vous montrer des performers polyvalents et doués, et acceptez que ce phénomène est à la fois le fléau et le couronnement du travail de l’interprète de conférence.

Une contrepartie évidente de ce constat, c’est que l’interprète de conférence qui craint d’être écouté, ne pourra survivre ! Or, il est très courant de voir les débutants se taire par simple effet de peur et d’intimidation, lorsqu’ils se savent écoutés par un collègue ou un professeur – il s’agit d’un défi de plus à surmonter, et si vous arrivez à reconnaître cette peur pour ce qu’elle est, plutôt que d’y céder vous finirez par vous délecter à l’idée d’avoir une occasion d’afficher vos compétences grandissantes!

4) Je vous recommande, jeunes interprètes en devenir, de vous construire un ‘personnage professionnel’ que vous revêtirez pendant les heures de travail ou d’exercices, quittes à l’ôter une fois le travail fini, pour redonner libre cours à votre caractère habituel, et sans aucun doute estimable et fascinant! Vous devez vous habituer à devenir de fins professionnels pendant les heures où vos clients dépendent de vous, et il peut être passionnant de construire et de perfectionner ce ‘personnage bis’, qui épatera – de par sa résistance, son énergie, son intelligence, sa fiabilité, son savoir-faire, sa discrétion et son professionnalisme – tous les acteurs des conférences auxquelles vous assisterez. Ce personnage, vous devez pouvoir l’assumer (et l’assumer intégralement) à la vitesse de l’éclair, comme si vous actionniez un interrupteur.

5) La profession de l’interprétation de conférence s’est développée et est structurée de manière à passer presque toujours par des tests grandeur nature, en temps réel devant un auditoire. Ceci est le cas qu’il s’agisse d’obtenir votre diplôme d’interprète ou d’être accepté comme freelance ou permanent au sein d’une organisation internationale, et que l’on aime ou non ces passages obligés, ils sont incontournables. C’est un peu à l’image d’un chanteur, d’un acteur, d’un athlète, d’un musicien ou d’un danseur, qui doit montrer de quoi il est fait en situation de stress réelle, et souvent dans des contextes où ‘toute erreur se paie cash’.

En fait, puisque nous gagnons notre pain quotidien en nous livrant à des performances de cet art complexe, il est normal et souhaitable, pour tout entité diplômant ou employeur éventuel, de vouloir apprécier le niveau de prestation de l’interprète (potentiel) en situation de crise (voir 2) ci- dessus), car notre travail consiste à gérer une ‘crise permanente’. Chez l’interprète de conférence, il va un peu sans dire que l’évaluation continue n’est pas vraiment utile, puisque nous ne valons jamais plus que notre dernière prestation en date..

Voilà quelques-unes de mes idées, un peu à l’emporte-pièce, concernant les expériences que vous risquez de vivre en tant qu’étudiants- interprètes. J’espère, sincèrement, que vous aurez vite fait de comprendre que, malgré les difficultés décrites, dont certaines s’appliqueront sans aucun doute à votre cas, le jeu en vaut très largement la chandelle. Notre profession est unique, passionnante, complexe, envoûtante, et je vous souhaite de la vivre intensément et d’une manière qui vous inspirera tout au long de vos années en cabine !

Christopher Guichot de Fortis (AIIC)
Interprète principal au Siège de l’OTAN,
Bruxelles 26 septembre 2011

Practice Guide Guichot de Fortis

by Chris Guichot de Fortis
Senior Interpreter, NATO
January 2015

“You have a mind, it wants to learn. Acquire an arsenal of knowledge with which to arm yourself…our modern age is a time when learning is power….every man must know everything. Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge the wing we use to fly…your brain must hurry to eat all the facts it can hold, before the next age of darkness.”
(Phillip Depoy – “The King James Conspiracy”)

It has become increasingly apparent to me over the years that a considerable number of students studying conference interpreting (at Master’s and other levels), find it difficult to know exactly how to proceed, and which tactics and techniques to adopt in their efforts to improve their consecutive and simultaneous techniques, and strengthen both their ‘A’ and ‘B’ languages. So, I felt it might be useful for me to provide a few hints and guidelines to help my future colleagues, which is my goal in this informal (and far from exhaustive) guide; I hope and trust that it will be of assistance both to those still engaged in their studies, and recently qualified young conference interpreters.

If you are to progress, it is important that you understand that the formal hours of teaching and training offered by your school during your interpreting studies can only be considered as simply the tiny tip of what is a complex and extensive iceberg. If you limit yourself to this ‘official’ training and practice, be advised from the start that you will have practically no chance either of passing your diploma exams or (much more importantly) of actually becoming a conference interpreter! Please divest yourself immediately of the misapprehension that simply attending classes will automatically make you into a conference interpreter – from today on, devote your energy, your willpower and your imagination to external/supplementary/independent training activities aimed at making you both competent and autonomous.

Think of your formal classes more as a chance to have regular access to experienced trainers, who will be able to observe your performance and provide advice to enable you to then go away and progress. Remember that even though Olympic athletes (and theirs, linguistically, is the level of difficulty and excellence in performance at which you are aiming) resort systematically to specialist professional trainers, these experts can only observe performance and indicate what form the athlete’s training should take. It will be the individual athlete’s muscles and tendons which will bring Olympic success, and not those of the coach – it is therefore up to the athlete to make the lengthy, focused, sustained and considered efforts which will progressively strengthen and develop muscles, resilience and technique, and lead to success in performance.

In your case, it is your own brain that you must painstakingly develop, nourishing synapses and creating the new neuronal pathways which are a prerequisite for simultaneous interpretation, and to which there are no shortcuts: there can literally be no substitute for many many hours of purposeful and targeted practice, actually carrying out the interpreting task! You may practice alone or in a group, and must regularly seek evaluations and advice from seasoned professional interpreters/pedagogues, who know where the bar is set. This professional feedback should lead to the adoption of strategies to remedy any faults identified, and this practice/feedback loop should be repeated many times.

It is usually said that, to acquire a high-level specialist skill, some 10.000 hours of deliberate practice are required. While this will indeed be necessary for you to achieve a truly expert level of performance (which should legitimately be your aim after a couple of years in the profession, if you wish to make a living from conference interpreting in a competitive world), to reach the level required to actually launch one’s career, several hundred hours (in conditions as near to those of real life as possible) should suffice!

During your practice sessions, I suggest that you draw inspiration from the text in Annex I below, detailing the training methods and strategies employed by experts and specialist performers in a variety of fields.

It is very important that you practice even a little every day (while allowing yourself a weekly day of rest!), rather than opting for less frequent but rarer but longer, intensive bursts of activity. On days when you have classes, I recommend a daily average of 90 minutes’ concentrated training, in two 45 minute slices, all disciplines included; on those days when you have no formal interpreting classes, you should at least double this amount of time. Work also at acquiring the conference interpreter’s essential skill of ‘throwing the switch’ and being able to concentrate immediately and totally on the task at hand, while relaxing just as fully when the time is right. This ability (a skill in its own right), is so frequently disregarded and/or misunderstood, but it will be the basic key to the success of your training and practice, and later to your life as a practicing professional conference interpreter.

You will find below a short list of exercises which I hope and believe will help you develop as a conference interpreter. I should add the rider that each person, each brain and each linguistic and professional profile is different – you should therefore put together a reasoned, rational and achievable study and training plan to suit your own abilities and circumstances, and stick to it even when the going gets tough (as will often be the case, trust me!). If you would like to consult me ( for help in establishing a tailor-made personal training plan, I would be very happy to help if time permits:

1) Listen every day, for at least an hour, to spoken-word radio (NPR, BBC Radio 4 and World Service, for English), at times with complete focus and concentration and at times as a background to your routine activities. Whether you are an English ‘A’ or ‘B’, the advantages here are multiple:

  • –  during the ‘concentrated’ listening periods, you will improve your grasp of current affairs and geopolitics, and enhance the lexical breadth and depth of your language
  • –  at all times, in the absence of visual cues, your ears and brain will become accustomed to instinctively and rapidly seizing the meaning and cadences of the (‘C’ or ‘B’) language, and to honing active listening skills
  • –  in listening to radio speech while engaged in other relatively undemanding activities, you will train your brain to listen and extract meaning with only a part of its capacity; this is an absolute goal to be reached in simultaneous interpreting, where the brain must be free to concentrate on the more ‘noble’ core functions of interpretation, i.e. understanding, processing and transposing complex ideas.

2)  Practice simultaneous, using real-life speeches delivered by speakers who are making no concessions to the fact that you are interpreting them, and pulling no punches! Use headphones and a computer, record your work and check it afterwards; as often as possible, ask for feedback from an experienced interpreter with the relevant ‘A’ language (if need be, arrange to send sound files by email). I hope that the list of useful links in Annex II will help you here.

3)  Form a training and practice group with other students or young colleagues,: negotiate access to a room with interpreting booths (use imagination and lateral thinking, and do not take ‘no’ for an answer!) and organize regular and frequent training sessions. Attend these sessions come what may, even when tired or discouraged, as they will be a source of motivation and cross-fertilisation; while the learning curve is still steep, it is easier to struggle with others than alone. You should attend these sessions systematically, no matter how (or how confident) you are feeling mentally or physically, because others will be depending on you and your commitment. The discipline will later stand you in good stead as a professional interpreter, and will help develop your character and reliability, making you a sought- after colleague.

In your work with the practice group, every member in rotation should prepare and deliver speeches, which will also develop your self-confidence and hone other communication skills that will help you greatly in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. While working in a group, be constructive in your feedback to colleagues, but also frank and demanding. Undemanding or superficial feedback (too many schools tend to be insufficiently demanding of their students) does more harm than good, and it is only through constructive frankness that you will progress. Try hard to move beyond a simple recitation of inaccuracies and language errors, and seek to identify weaknesses in listening, concentration, reasoning and understanding, all of which will undermine successful interpretation. A further bonus here is that in learning to critique colleagues, you will also become better able to identify your own problems.

In Annex III below you will find a description of an excellent group of this type, which is primarily aimed at recent graduates. This is an example from which to draw inspiration; please take into account the intellectual property involved in the format and website of this group, and make sure to ask permission from the group organizer (listed in the Annex) before cutting and pasting any part of her work.

4)  Practice on-sight translation every day, alone or with others; fix the goal of finding (in your ‘A’ language) 5 or 6 versions of each and every sentence without hesitation, varying grammar, syntax and word order; in your ‘B’ language, your goal should be to provide 3 versions with equal speed. You can work on this exercise anywhere and at any time, using virtually any type of text, and it is indispensable for increasing the speed and flexibility of your thought processes, and your linguistic breadth and depth in all your active languages.

5)  Perform 4-minute slices of consecutive interpretation, preferably in front of an audience made up of your colleagues or of ‘pure consumers’ who have no knowledge of the source language – this is a good motivator for young interpreters, as it places them in a situation where their interpretation is truly necessary, a salutary and welcome change from the artificial circumstances in which most such tasks tend to be carried out in a learning environment.

6) Spend a considerable amount of time ‘shadowing’ (see guide at Annex IV below) elegant, flowing and convincing speeches in all your active languages (‘A’ just as much as ‘B’). Do not forget that even your mother tongue will not yet be at a level sufficient to be able to professionally interpret complex arguments and ideas. In addition, shadowing is the best possible tool for acquiring a strong ‘B’ language, so that it can be employed reflexively, confidently and convincingly: after many tens of hours of practice, this technique will help you automatically employ correct vocabulary and register in your ‘A’ language, and appropriate cadences, accent and rhythms in your ‘B’ language.



Article : « Elite Players’ Practice »

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long, Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…

Decoding the Patterns of the Elite

We can start by disproving the assumption that the elite players dedicate more hours to music.

The time diaries revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours on music per week (around 50).

The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.

This might not be surprising, as the importance of deliberate practice had been replicated and reported many times (c.f., Gladwell).

But the researchers weren’t done.

They also studied how the students scheduled their work. The average players, they discovered, spread their work throughout the day. A graph included in the paper, which shows the average time spent working versus the waking hours of the day, is essentially flat.

The elite players, by contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods.

When you plot the average time spent working versus the hours of the day for these players, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In fact, the more elite the player, the more pronounced the peaks. For the best of the best — the subset of the elites who the professors thought would go on to play in one of Germany’s two best professional orchestras — there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two- sessions a day schedule.

This isolation of work from leisure had pronounced effects in other areas of the players’ lives. Consider, for example, sleep: the elite players slept an hour more per night than the

average players.

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Hard Work is Different than Hard to Do Work

To summarize these results:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin. I’ve seen this same phenomenon time and again in my study of high achievers. It came up so often in my study of top students, for example, that I even coined a name for it: the paradox of the relaxed Rhodes Scholar.

This study sheds some light on this paradox. It provides empirical evidence that there’s a difference between hard work and hard to do work:

  • Hard work is deliberate practice. It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but you don’t have to do too much of it in any one day (the elite players spent, on average, 3.5 hours per day engaged in deliberate practice, broken into two sessions). It also provides you measurable progress in a skill, which generates a strong sense of contentment and motivation. Therefore, although hard work is hard, it’s not draining and it can fit nicely into a relaxed and enjoyable day.
  • Hard to do work, by contrast, is draining. It has you running around all day in a state of false busyness that leaves you, like the average players from the Berlin study, feeling tired and stressed. It also, as we just learned, has very little to do with real accomplishment. This analysis leads to an important conclusion. Whether you’re a student or well along in your career, if your goal is to build a remarkable life, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’re the average players from the Universität der Künste — not the elite. You’ve built a life around hard to do work, not hard work. The solution suggested by this research, as well as my own, is as simple as it is startling: Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.