If you’ve been following the SCIC Universities conference in Brussels over the past few days, you may have already heard the big news: Speechpool, the dynamic, collaborative, multilingual website for interpreters to exchange practice material, has just been officially launched. When I first caught wind of this project in January, I knew that this was something that my readers would want to hear about, so I got in touch with Sophie Llewellyn Smith, the founder, to find out more. Here’s what I learned:
MH: Sophie, you have just launched Speechpool, a speech-sharing website for interpreters. Could you tell me a little bit about what it has to offer?
SLS: Speechpool will offer interpreting students, graduates and practising interpreters a forum to upload practice speeches and view other people’s. The idea is to create something truly collaborative in the form of a multilingual website and a Facebook page.
Many students already give each other practice speeches in class, or in groups outside of class. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to record these speeches on a laptop, video camera or tablet computer, and allow others to benefit from them. If everyone gets involved, we could very quickly build up a large and dynamic bank of video clips.
MH: How did the project come about?
SLS: I spent several years as an interpreter trainer at the University of Leeds. Every year students would ask for good sources of practice material. Our main message to them was that they should prepare well-structured speeches for each other and practise in groups outside of class. Gradually we came to the idea of uploading audio files onto a file sharing website. We still had a problem with source language, though; sometimes our students were looking for speeches in a particular C language, but there was no native speaker of that language on the course. It occurred to me that students around the world were probably doing exactly the same thing. Surely it would make sense to pool all that material and make it freely available to everyone?
I have been working hard since last summer with a web developer to create a suitable website, and I have been very fortunate to receive financial backing from the NNI (National Network for Interpreting) in the UK, and a lot of help and goodwill from students and alumni of many interpreter training institutions. Now that the basics are in place, we are gradually working on adding more language versions to Speechpool, and starting to build up our stock of speeches!
The idea behind Speechpool is nothing new, but I hope the scale and ambition of the project and the features available on the website will make it a very useful and widely used resource.
MH: What target group do you have in mind? Are there any prerequisites that have to be met by those who’d like to become involved?
SLS: The website was designed with conference interpreting students in mind, but if the project is successful I would expect that other groups might take an interest, for example graduates wanting to maintain their skills or prepare for a test, practising interpreters trying to add a new language, interpreter trainers looking for material to use in class, or even language learners. It is also possible that the content of Speechpool might be of interest to public service interpreters, who make up a large proportion of the interpreting market in some countries and who don’t always have access to material (or even to training!).
We have set some limits on users who would like to upload material. This is to try to ensure that the speeches are of an adequate standard. You will need to be an interpreting student, graduate or practising interpreter to upload content, and you will need login details.
MH: Walk me through the website. How does it work?
SLS: First of all, I should say that the interface is multilingual, i.e. there will be parallel versions of Speechpool in English, French, Greek, and dozens of other languages. If you want to watch a speech in Hungarian, you simply go to the Hungarian version of the site (you can navigate from the home page).
To find a speech for interpreting practice, you will use a search function which allows you to search by topic (agriculture, finance, health etc.) and/or keyword. We hope this will allow users to refine their search and find the most relevant speeches.
To upload a speech, you will need to fill in an upload form with details of topic, keywords and links to background material. In order to avoid the site collapsing under the weight of massive video files, we have set it up so that speeches are actually uploaded to YouTube, then embedded in the Speechpool site. This means users will have to create a YouTube account.
For those who have concerns about privacy, YouTube allows you to adjust privacy settings to ‘unlisted’ so that the speech is only visible to those who have the link. It sounds rather complicated, but once you have a YouTube account, it’s really very quick and easy. We have counted on the fact that the new generation of interpreters is very comfortable with modern technologies, YouTube, Facebook and the like.
MH: What features or functions does Speechpool offer users?
SLS: The website has a few interesting features. First of all, when you have watched a speech, you can leave comments about it. You could even leave a link to your own interpreting performance (on YouTube) and ask for feedback from another user.
One of the important features of the site is that speeches won’t be graded for difficulty by an outside authority. Instead, the users themselves will vote on the perceived difficulty of the speech (a bit like the TripAdvisor site where you can vote on hotels or restaurants). This cumulative assessment by users will give each speech a ‘star rating’ for difficulty. When you search for a speech, you will be able to sort the results by star rating, but also based on whether the speech is recent, or very popular.
We very much hope that users will upload high quality speeches, but to address any quality problems we have created an alarm button. If you watch a speech and feel there is a significant problem with sound or image quality, or the quality of the speech itself (i.e. its content) you will be able to click on the alarm button and send an email to the site administrators to have the speech removed.
We see Speechpool as an interactive site where users can meet, chat, and ask for feedback or help. To encourage interaction between users, we have created a Speechpool page on Facebook. The idea of this page is that users can ask for a particular speech. For example, you might post: ‘please could someone prepare a speech about EU fisheries policy in Portuguese?’
To make the material uploaded to the site even more useful, we are asking users to include two links to relevant background material, and we are working on a way to allow uploads of transcripts and glossaries.
MH: What languages, topics, and interpreting modes will the speeches cover?
SLS: I confess I have taken a maximalist approach here. I can’t vouch in advance for what the speeches will cover, because it depends on who gets involved and uploads speeches; but the website is designed to accommodate speeches suitable for consecutive or simultaneous, a wide range of topics, and a truly vast number of languages. We are currently working on versions of the Speechpool site in the EU23, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Croatian, Turkish, Icelandic and Macedonian. After that, we’ll see!
I should add that I expect Speechpool will include speeches given in a range of accents, including non-native accents. Many interpreters are called upon to interpret English, or French, or any other language, spoken in an unfamiliar accent or by someone who is not a native speaker. The Speechpool site is designed to offer speeches of this type; there will be an indication of whether the author of the speech is a native speaker, and what sort of accent he or she has. One of the exciting things about this project, to my mind, is that it could bring together interpreters from all over the world. Just one example: students from Ghana, Cameroon and Mozambique have volunteered to prepare speeches.
MH: There are already a few speech repositories available on the internet. What added value does Speechpool offer?
SLS: There are pros and cons to every speech bank. They serve different purposes.
In a sense, Speechpool isn’t ground-breaking: there are already speech banks on the internet set up by students to practise together. They tend to be small-scale and to use audio files. Some of them are short-lived; they grind to a halt when the founding students graduate. And at least one has been taken over by pornographic spam posts, unfortunately! Speechpool can offer something on a much larger scale: very wide language coverage, video clips, and hopefully more permanent!
Of the larger scale speech banks, some offer ‘live’ recordings of political debates or speeches only, while others are libraries of various speeches that were not prepared specifically as pedagogical material for interpreter training. The SCIC/EP repository (author’s note: access to this repository is restricted to selected users) offers a mixture of speeches, some of them recorded live in Parliament, for example, and some of them prepared by trainers as pedagogical material.
The idea behind Speechpool, on the other hand, is that it should largely contain speeches prepared by students for students (or at least by interpreters for interpreters), in video format. All the material will be original. There won’t be any video recordings of politicians’ speeches or parliamentary debates. There will be minimal ‘policing’ of the site, and users will be responsible for posting high quality content. If everyone joins in, it will be a very dynamic resource with a rapid turnover and a large number of speeches.
I see Speechpool as a more interactive site than many speech banks, and the Facebook page is a nice opportunity for users to chat and make requests. The fact that users will vote on difficulty is another distinguishing feature.
All in all I suppose the added value I see is that Speechpool allows students to take responsibility for their own learning, but with a much wider pool of partners than might otherwise be possible. In an idealistic way, I see Speechpool as a way of bringing the different strands of the interpreting community together and creating something genuinely collaborative for the common good. And I very much hope we’ll avoid obscene spam messages!
MH: It all sounds very exciting! Do you see any potential pitfalls for this project?
SLS: Well, like any other collaborative project, the success of Speechpool will depend on its users. It will be interesting to see whether people are altruistic enough to make the project work; if no-one uploads speeches, the project won’t take off.
MH: Is the Speechpool site already up and running? Can people already use it to view and upload speeches?
SLS: The short answer to this is yes. We are busy testing the site, and some speeches have already been uploaded. The English, Greek and German versions are available, and we will be rolling out the other languages gradually. I expect the next few versions to include Italian, Spanish, French and possibly Hungarian and Macedonian.
MH: Where can my readers find out more?
SLS: I presented the project at the recent SCIC Universities Conference on 22nd March, and my presentation is available in the archive. A short clip introducing Speechpool has also been prepared by DG SCIC. The project was also featured in a recent video interview for the interpreting blog A Word in Your Ear.
As I said earlier, Speechpool also has a dedicated Facebook page. Click ‘like’ to receive regular progress updates and to become part of the Speechpool community. You can also follow Speechpool on Twitter (@Speechpool).
Most important of all, why not visit the site? You will find it at speechpool.net.
MH: How can people get involved in Speechpool?
SLS: The most important message I want to get across is that Speechpool will be free to use (though not to run…) and easy to access once you have login details, but the success of the project will depend on users!
If you can help us translate the content into another language, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. More importantly, if you think this is a useful resource for interpreting students and you plan to view speeches and use them for interpreting practice, please upload a few speeches first! Speechpool is totally based on the principle of ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. So get involved! Prepare a speech, upload it onto YouTube, and ask for your Speechpool login details. We’ll be happy to oblige!
Sophie Llewellyn Smith trained as a conference interpreter at the European Commission in 1994, with French, German and Greek as working languages. After two years as a temporary agent with SCIC, she returned to the UK in 1996 and combined freelance interpreting with interpreter training at the University of Leeds, where she also developed online materials for conference interpreter training for the NNI and ORCIT projects. She is currently back in Brussels, enjoying something of a respite following the Cyprus Presidency of the EU (while thinking ahead to the Greek Presidency!).