It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… Speechpool!

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

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 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!).

How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam

As many readers will already be aware, the UN is currently recruiting English, Spanish and French interpreters for its headquarters in New York and other duty stations (you can find details of the posting here). Unfortunately for those who are just hearing the news now, the deadline for applying has already passed. However, there will undoubtedly be some interpreters out there who have submitted their applications and are now wondering how to make the most of their time until the tests are held later this spring.

Now, while I haven’t actually applied to take the test, I have to confess I was curious to see what sort of information and resources are available to help candidates prepare for the big day. So I started digging, and here’s what I found.

Oddly enough, a cursory search of the UN careers website didn’t turn up much (whilst the site is jam-packed with interesting information, I find it a bit hard to navigate effectively to find exactly what I want).  A quick Google query led me to this article: How to Pass the United Nations Interpreter Examination. I found the article informative enough, and it included a few useful links at the bottom. However, it was nothing compared to what I unearthed next…

On the Interpreter Training Resources website, my site of choice for all things interpreting-related, I found a link sporting the innocent title of “UN Tips”. Well, what did I find when I clicked on it but a direct link to the United Nations’ own official guidance document on how to prepare for their interpreter exams!


Thank you, Andy! What would we do without you…

The full title of this little gem is Examinations for Interpreters* and I’m happy to say it delivers exactly what the title promises. The guide is published on the UN’s Language Outreach portal (I didn’t go back to the UN Careers site to see if there was a link through to this portal, but I have to hope there is one and I just wasn’t clever enough to find it).

The guide gives detailed, step-by-step suggestions of how to prepare for the exams using material found on the various UN websites. There are enough ideas there to keep even the eagerest of beavers busy for the next few months until test day!

The only downside to the resource that I could find were the statistics they gave in the right-hand column (UN hopefuls, please avert your eyes now): there were 38,231 applicants to the 55 examinations held between 2005 and 2009, and only 10.6 successful candidates were placed on the roster after each exam. Gulp.

So, there you have it. Time for you aspiring UN interpreters to get practicing so you can beat the odds… and time for me to stop blogging and get back to my real job!

*Update for 2016: the UN language careers website has been revamped and all information on Examinations for Interpreters, including the Tips for Preparation I described above, can now be found at this link. This blog post has been amended in part to reflect the changes.

Found in Translation Book Review: Nataly Kelly Responds

It’s hard to believe that 2012, which was a landmark year for the Interpreter Diaries blog in many ways, is now over and we’re already well into 2013. Before the month of January gets away on me altogether, I’d like to inaugurate the new blogging year by wrapping up some unfinished business from last fall.

Readers may recall that I wrote a review of the book Found in Translation for the AIIC blog a few months back. My review concluded with a few examples of questions that I felt had been left unanswered in the book. Not long after the review came out, Nataly Kelly, one of the book’s co-authors along with Jost Zetzsche, contacted me with the offer to answer the questions I’d raised. I eagerly took her up on the offer, and I’m happy to be able to share those replies with my readers today.

Many thanks to Nataly for going the extra mile and making sure I had all the information I needed. I’m sure readers will find her comments just as interesting and informative as I did!

Photo FoundinTranslation_Cover_small

One comment I made in my review was that I wish I’d heard more about the working conditions enjoyed by the language professionals featured in the various testimonials. While there’s no way this type of background information could have been supplied for all of the case studies presented, here is what Nataly says about the few jobs that I asked about in particular:

Q. Are 9-1-1 phone interpreters paid for their standby shifts or is it a volunteer service?

A. For the most part, this is paid work in the countries where it is offered, such as Canada and the United States. Typically, telephone interpreters are either salaried or paid by the hour. Generally, they are paid even when they are not interpreting and are just on standby, but if you’re an interpreter for Spanish in the United States, you rarely get a rest, because the phone keeps ringing. In some cases, they are paid by the minute, which I know is a controversial topic in some circles – however, believe it or not, some interpreters make more money this way, because the per-minute rate can work out financially better than the hourly rate, and they can take breaks whenever they wish, as opposed to waiting for a shift to end. However, this work is generally not very well paid.

Also, emergency calls are just one type of calls that telephone interpreters receive. They also may receive calls from hospitals, courts, insurance agencies, crisis lines, catalogs, and all other conceivable situations in which people need to communicate over the phone. Telephone interpreters are usually trained specifically in the techniques of emergency interpreting, which are different from interpreting in other settings. Because this field is so very different from others, I developed model standards of practice for telephone interpreting in emergency settings. Those and many other details about this field are included in my first book, Telephone Interpreting.

Q. Do round-the-clock escort interpreters for elite athletes and circus performers ever get to take a potty break?

A. Yes, they do! To clarify, this work is not round-the-clock, because athletes and performers don’t need interpreters when they are home alone with their families and/or friends. Rather, they enable these individuals to do their jobs – so most of their work takes place when their client is working. However, they do also help them in some cases with other routine things, like shopping for groceries or going to a dental appointment. Usually, these interpreters are paid by the employer – so, the LA Dodgers in the case of the baseball interpreter we profiled in the book (although he now works for the NY Yankees) or Cirque du Soleil in the case of the circus interpreters. However, this type of work has a high degree of variability in terms of the settings covered.

What I found very interesting from our interviews is that the interpreters in these types of work develop very close bonds with the athletes or entertainers for whom they interpret. Impartiality is not necessarily desired in these settings. In fact, one interpreter even told us that he would sometimes refrain from interpreting “trash talk” if he thought it would affect the athlete’s performance or confidence. He would later inform him of it after the game. So, the role of the interpreter is very different for these settings, because they are doing a type of work that is more personalized. Therefore, it deviates significantly from the fields of interpreting that are more standardized, such as conference or community interpreting.

Q. What do professional translators think of the fact that Facebook decided to crowdsource the translation of its interface?

A. There was well-publicized uproar in the professional translation community when Facebook decided to translate its interface with its community members. Namely, people were upset because they saw this as a threat to their way of working. What they didn’t realize at the time is that this model was not designed to push freelancers out of work. In fact, it actually created opportunities for paid translation by professionals.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that companies turn to crowdsourcing to save money. In actual fact, the research shows that companies have to spend a lot of money to develop these kinds of platforms. And, they usually pay for professionals to manage the communities, to proofread and edit the output, and so on. Their main drivers are not saving money, but rather, things like quality and increased turn-around time. People often raise their eyebrows in confusion when I say that quality is a driver of community translation, but when you stop to consider that many translation projects require “end client review” as part of the quality assurance steps, it makes sense. If a company can get direct feedback from hundreds or thousands of their actual customers, why wouldn’t they do that? They are going directly to the source.

My colleagues at Common Sense Advisory and I shared some of the findings of that research in chapters that appear in two books recently published in the translation studies field (From Crawling to Sprinting: Community Translation Goes Mainstream and Project Management for Crowdsourced Translation: How User-Translated Content Projects Work in Real Life). Let it suffice to say that crowdsourced translation has not put a dent in the demand for “regular” translation – not in the slightest. These platforms only lend themselves to specific types of projects. More and more, freelancers are realizing that crowdsourced translation is simply another model that exists alongside more traditional ones.

Q. Did Dr. Seuss’s translator get paid the same for Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (which took her over a year to translate) as for Green Eggs and Ham (which she reportedly dispatched in half an hour)?

A. Actually, the translator of the Dr. Seuss books into Spanish, Aída Marcuse, spent a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect translation for the phrase “Sam I Am,” and it was only after she found the perfect translation that translating the remainder of the book was made so much easier, since the book relies so heavily on that particular key phrase. This just goes to show, the amount of time is not always the best measure of compensation, because for literary translation, it can take many hours (or even days) to find the perfect translation of just a few words. I was in touch with her again this week, and she explained that this was the case for The Lorax and Oh, the Places You’ll Go. For projects like this, what is typical is to charge a fee for the entire translation project – not for the numbers of words or the time it takes to complete it.

I also remarked in my review that I wish I had learned more about her interviewees’ training background. Nataly explains:

Q. Why didn’t you spend time looking at the types of training undergone by the practitioners featured in the stories?

A. Funnily enough, in some earlier drafts, we actually made the mistake of providing too much detail about what kind of training practitioners had. Obviously, since we are practitioners, that kind of detail was of interest to us, so we asked questions about their backgrounds in our interviews. However, since this book was written primarily with non-practitioners in mind, we had to ask ourselves, “Will a non-practitioner find this interesting?” Ultimately, we edited much of that detail out, because it was not really in keeping with the goal of the book, which was to show people how fascinating this field really is.

For example, in the opening story, the goal of that story is to drive home the point that interpreters can and do save lives every day, to show the reader, “Look, this work matters!” If we started rattling off details about the telephone interpreters’ backgrounds and training in 9-1-1 calls, the emotional appeal of that story would have been lost, and it would have turned it into a very different type of book – one I would argue probably would not be as effective at reaching mainstream readers.

Q. Were some of the translators and interpreters you interviewed self-taught on the job?

A. Everyone we interviewed was a paid professional, and most were highly recognized for their work. That said, not everyone had a degree in translation or interpreting, but I would argue that most of the degree programs out there would not be very relevant for some of them. Some of the stories that come to mind are the story of Kenji Nimura, an interpreter for professional baseball players, and Colin Pine, an interpreter for the professional basketball player Yao Ming. These two gentlemen did not go through a specific training program in order to become a “baseball interpreter” or a “basketball interpreter,” because no such training program exists. Instead, the people recruiting for those jobs needed to find people who knew the sport inside out and upside down and had extremely high levels of proficiency in both languages.

It isn’t an easy task to locate interpreters who are subject-matter experts in the game, which is required from day one on the job. I asked myself if athletes would be better served finding a professional interpreter and trying to train them in all the terminology of a given sport, but the knowledge required extends far beyond terminology. We’re talking about people who have spent their entire lives accumulating knowledge in a very specific area of sports. I believe that interpreters in these areas would definitely benefit from learning interpreting techniques that are taught in courses, but I also believe that any interpreter stepping into their shoes would learn a lot too.

Q. Is the book taking a subtle stand on the question of whether translators and interpreters are born or made, whether they are learnable professions or a calling that you either have or you don’t?

A. No, we definitely were not taking any kind of stand on that issue. The only “stand” we take in the book is one that permeates the entire book, to say to the rest of the world, “Translation and interpreting matter!” However, I can say that, in my own view, people working in these fields are both born and made. You can’t succeed in either field through sheer talent alone, although you might have certain life experiences or innate skills that give you an advantage or an edge in some areas.

Likewise, you can’t succeed in this field merely through hard work either. I have seen plenty of very hard-working, dedicated, and well-meaning individuals who failed professional exams. Skills can be improved up to a point with many willing students, but there are some skills that take a very long time to develop. That said, the good thing about the fields of translation and interpreting is that they are so diverse that there are professions for people of many different skill sets and backgrounds. So you’re an opera singer? There’s a need for that type of translator. Oh, you love to play video games? There’s work for you too here. That is also part of what we wanted to show in the book, to help inspire more young people to learn foreign languages.

I’ll wrap up with a question that I didn’t actually ask in my review, but which I am sure many readers will be eager to hear the answer to all the same:

Q. Will there be a sequel to Found in Translation?

A. There are so many stories of how translation surrounds us each day. I receive new story ideas nearly every day, and I have quite a collection already, just in case of a sequel. The book is in its fourth printing already, and that makes me happy for one simple reason. The more people know about this work, the more respect there will be for the people who carry it out. This book is a microphone that serves to make those voices louder. That is why we have been working so hard to get the word out about it, and why I am so grateful to you for helping your readers learn about it too.

To read my original review of Found in Translation, click here. The questions can be found near the end of the article.