Shadowing – Guichot de Fortis

In this brief text I shall endeavour both to describe the technique and provide some hints as to its use.

The technique and practice of shadowing is an indispensable tool for both the budding and the experienced simultaneous interpreter, but it is a controversial technique and is often misunderstood or discounted. In my opinion, however, all interpreting professionals would gain greatly from spending time both considering and practising the art of shadowing.

Chris Guichot de Fortis Senior Interpreter, NATO Interpreter Training Resources

Shadowing is useful into all the interpreter’s active languages, ‘A’ and ‘B’, and can be employed to correct and refine a multitude of interpretation weaknesses – accent, delivery, voice quality, vocal range, emphasis, ‘cleanliness’ of rendition, confidence etc. etc.

However, it is important that shadowing:

  • –  be carried out in a graduated, thorough and reasoned way
  • –  be regularly supervised and/or assessed by both the practitioner and his or her teachers, supervisors or colleagues
  • –  be carried out over many hours and in each of the linguistic combinations that it is desired to enhance
  • –  be coupled with more conventional training techniques

The technique consists of spending many hours in a real or virtual booth shadowing an able and fluent speaker of the target language. As the goal is to replicate the neurological and intellectual demands of simultaneous interpretation, a simple laptop/ipod/headphone combination will suffice, in the absence of a true booth. Using MP3/MP4 or flash files, DVDs, CDs or audio cassettes, choose speakers who are expressing themselves in their mother tongue and who have an excellent mastery thereof, without strong regional accents, and with a gift of oratory which allows full expression of the native cadences of the language. It cannot be over- emphasised that your chosen speaker must be carefully selected, as a function of accent, elocution, delivery, register etc. This is an excellent technique at many levels, as (this being a marked trend among recent neuro-linguistic and neurological expert studies) shadowing involves some 80% of the neuro-linguistic operations involved in simultaneous interpretation, the only factor missing being that of language transfer. Shadowing initially involves repeating the words of the speaker without modification. This allows the interpreter’s brain, ears and mouth, working as they do in concert, to begin to reproduce the sounds and rhythms of the target language, without conscious mental effort, and begins to create the ‘linguistic muscle memory’ naturally acquired by children learning their own tongue. This will require many tens of hours of actual speech production – it is essential that the language actually be voiced, or the exercise is useless.

It is also recommended, in the case of an actual or potential ‘B’ language, to shadow with a text, as it is true to say that we cannot hear or apprehend what we do not know, and if we do not hear all the articles, prepositions, and smaller sounds that make a native speaker sound native, we will not reproduce those sounds in our shadowing, and will lose much of the potential benefit. Here again, it is useful to record your shadowing, and then replay it, comparing it to the text.

The prime goal of the exercise is to accustom brain, ears and mouth to the flawless and (eventually) effortless production of the sounds and cadences of what may be (in the case of a ‘B’) a foreign language. The goal here is to establish a new network of synapses and neuronal pathways, this being an essential stage in the interpreter’s acquisition of each new language combination. It should not be thought that all lessons learned in the successful mastery of one combination can simply and instantaneously be transposed to another – many hours of actual practice are required for each language pair, and there are no shortcuts!

Let’s now begin to look in a more concrete way at the actual practice of the technique.

While shadowing, it is important to experiment with differing levels of time lag or ‘recul’ (say from 0.5 to 5 seconds), introducing a certain elasticity to reflect the fluctuating demands imposed by the speaker and to train the brain to cope with larger or smaller linguistic buffer spaces in the language combination being employed.

At the same time, gradually introduce expressions of your own, allowing for varying semantic (but of course not substantive) distance from the speaker. At one extreme you may wish to decide in advance to modify one or two words per sentence, and at the other to leave only one or two words unchanged.

In order to approach, in the ‘B’ language, the facility which characterizes an experienced interpreter’s work into his/her mother tongue, it is also important to train both voice and brain to ensure acceptable linguistic production while mental processing efforts are required elsewhere.
To this end, it is useful while shadowing to practice (for example) writing numerical sequences involving fixed gradations (1, 3, 5, 7… or 1, 6, 11, 16, 21 etc.), which can then be self-checked after the exercise, along with the recorded interpretation.
Another variant might involve writing down poems or song lyrics, which the interpreter knows by heart, while interpreting. Using increasingly complex sequences is doubly fruitful, and the goal, evidently, is to guarantee an acceptable level of linguistic production even while mental processing efforts are devoted to other, more noble, tasks such as actually understanding and transposing concepts and ideas! Such exercises are useless, of course, unless both spoken and written productions are assessed for accuracy and acceptability.

Many interpreters experience difficulties, in the booth, in adopting a register or ‘persona’ which differs from their own, and shadowing can be very helpful in acquiring these more thespian-related skills which can so often make the difference between a good and an excellent interpretation. Thus, shadowing speakers who are expressing joy, grief, anger, sorrow or enthusiasm, will begin to instill the required ‘muscle memory’ that will allow the interpreter (when the chips are down and lack of the appropriate vocabulary or register would severely damage the credibility of the interpretation) appropriately and confidently to transmit the entire message and sentiments of the speaker. To this end, it is useful to shadow speakers who are expressing strong or even excessive emotion, without fear of drifting into caricature, given that there will always be a filter or some loss of intensity between ‘shadower’ and ‘shadowee’.

The above exercise is of particular utility in the interpreter’s ‘B’ language, as its extended practice helps to instill native accent and provide a more nearly instinctive feeling for register and vocabulary, in sensitive contexts where any such failures would have serious consequences. For accent correction purposes, it is preferable initially to shadow language-learning tapes/CDs, etc., because the texts are spoken slowly, thus all sounds can be easily discerned. In addition, the texts employed are simpler, but grammar and syntax are correct. An added advantage is that the text will be available to read during shadowing.

It is also useful to spend time shadowing fast speakers, as it is true to say that many (usually inexperienced) interpreters have difficulty in simply delivering even their native language rapidly, clearly and without stumbling, especially when obliged to adopt a cadence which is not their own. It goes without saying that this difficulty is exacerbated into the ‘B’ language.

It is my hope that the above hints and descriptions will help you in your interpreting life, and endow you with increased facility and confidence in all your active languages, and in all registers. I should again stress the importance of shadowing, and of spending considerable amounts of time on this exercise, to enable the brain to integrate it in a reflexive, automatic way, clearing the way for more complex intellectual operations while actually interpreting.

Christopher Guichot de Fortis (AIIC)
Senior Staff Interpreter, NATO Headquarters, Bruxelles September 2011

Using register 2

The following ideas are taken from Alan Perlman’s excellent book “Writing Great Speeches”.  In it he makes very simple, but useful suggestions as to how to change between registers when speaking. Native speakers of English probably do all this already without thinking about it, but it will be useful for those of you with English B to see a few “tricks” that you can use.

The basic suggestion is that if you wish to be more formal in your register you should use a more impersonal language when speaking, and if you want to be less formal, a more personal one.

Impersonal = abstract  (ie suffixes -tion, -ity, -ness, -ing)modernisation of the business is proceeding
Personal = who’s doing whatwe are modernising the business
Impersonal = “done to”200 people were hired
Personal = doingwe hired 200 people
Impersonal = compound nounsa petrol tax increase
Personal = short nouns joined by prepositionsan increase in the tax on petrol
Impersonal = keep prepositions with their pronouns/nounsthis is a problem with which we are all familiar
Personal = split them upthis is a problem that we are all familiar with
Impersonal = don’t use contractionsIt will be a tough year
Personal = use contractionsIt’ll be a tough year

Using register

There is always more than one way of saying something!! Be aware of the difference register can make to what you say, and be aware of which register you are using.

If you are interpreting into a foreign language, the correct use of a variety of registers will be one of the most difficult things for you to master. For practical purposes it will often come down to a choice of two registers (formal and less formal) for the non-native speaker.

Have a look at the examples below where you will find pairs of synonymous phrases in the left and right-hand columns. These examples are taken from David Walker’s excellent Committee Guide, a thematic and lexical handbook for interpreters working in the European Parliament.

actively considering thinking about it 
afford an opportunity give a chance 
and indeed and 
as matters stand the way things are 
at an early date soon 
at their earliest conveniencesoon 
bereft of without any 
brought fully to the attention take up with 
came to recognise realised 
carries with it involves 
conspicuous by its absence not there 
consonant with in keeping 
debarred from prevented 
decline their invitation say no 
have an opportunity be able 
don’t think it differs very markedly much the same 
drew a positive response was welcomed 
endeavouring trying 
express my gratitude thank 
far in excess of much more than 
have shown no indication don’t seem to 
fortified encouraged 
have other ideas disagree 
I am reminded I remember 
I have in my possession I have 
in readiness preparing for 
indicate a willingness say they will 
initiate urgent discussionsget on to 
it was for that reason that was why 
it’s my intention I intend 
likely patterns forecast 
little to tell them apart similar 
made statements said things 
make common cause join forces 
make alternative arrangements do something else 
make available provide 
make representations protest 
nigh on nearly 
no dearth plenty 
on day one of accession as soon as they join 
omits to mention doesn’t say
persist in efforts keep trying 
put a statement out issue a press release 
secure an accommodation get an agreement 
seek a response ask for a reply 
set them alongside compare 
7 or 8, no-one really knows 7 or 8 
should acquaint themselves find out about 
some but not all some 
taken in conjunction together with 
that puts one in mind that reminds me 
their phrase for how they describe 
therefore seeks leave to asks permission 
under debate being discussed 
use their best endeavours try their best 
we’re ad idem on we agree 
wishes to wants to 
would do well to ought to