General Knowledge: The Quiz

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post on general knowledge, looking at what a candidate to a conference interpreter training course might be expected to know. In that post, I promised to share with readers the questions asked at the aptitude tests held in June for the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna. Today, I’m going to keep that promise.

In total, about 50 different questions were asked over the course of the day that I was present at the aptitude tests (there were four days of testing in total – one on Tenerife and three in Madrid). I hesitated for a long time about whether I should publish all of the questions that were asked on that day, or just a selection. I finally decided on the latter approach, since it seemed to be closer to the actual test given on the day.

In the following quiz, you’ll see that there are two questions given for each language being tested. This is in keeping with the approach used at the aptitude tests: each student was asked only two questions for each passive language for which he or she was being examined. Candidates didn’t get 50 questions to show off their knowledge of the world with, but four, or at the most six.

Also, in the actual test, the questions were asked in the language being tested, and replies had to be given in that language as well. Here, I’ve translated them all into English, to give everybody a shot at them. (By the way, there were other languages tested on other days, but these were the only languages involved on the day that I was present.)

Time to take the test!


Who is the current Bundespräsident (not Bundeskanzler!) of Germany? How is the Bundespräsident elected?

What is celebrated on October 3rd in Germany? What does the date commemorate?


What do you think when you hear “Lorca”? (Note: there are two possible, completely unrelated answers to this question, and both are right.)

What can you tell me about the “Movimiento 15M”?


What happened on 25 April, 1974 in Portugal?

What were the results of the recent Portuguese elections?


Name any two newspapers published in France, and give me their general editorial line.

Name all the French overseas departments.


What are the BRICS countries and what unites them? How about the PIGS countries?

What’s the origin of the name “Tea Party” and what is the term used to refer to these days?


There you have it! Don’t worry about providing me with the answers in the comments section or anything like that, as this test is for readers’ personal edification only. I am pretty sure all of the correct answers can be found in Google without too much difficulty, although if anyone gets stuck on the Lorca one, let me know and I’ll be happy to explain.

My final holiday post is coming next week …

C is for … – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part II)

Last week, I left readers hanging, having explored the A and the B of the interpreter’s language combination as defined by AIIC and beyond, but not the C. I’m going to try to make up for that today.

We all know what “C” stands for to the Cookie Monster. For interpreters, “C” refers to “the language(s) of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she or he works” (AIIC definition). These languages are also referred to as “passive languages”, since interpreters are not expected to work into them from any other language.

Passive, my foot!

Now, no-one should get the impression that passive languages are the poor cousins of the interpreter’s combination, or that since a language is “only” a C, it doesn’t require much effort to maintain. To an interpreter, passive knowledge of a language can often seem very active indeed! At least that’s how it feels to me at times, when I think about all the work I have to put into learning and maintaining my various passive languages.

To be able to classify a language as a C, an interpreter must have a full understanding of that language in all of its different forms. This means what? Well, to me at least, it boils down to three things.

1) You should be familiar with dialects and regional variations – so if, for example, the only French you understand is français de France, then you will have to start tuning your ear to the twang of Québécois and the distinct rhythm of African French (and don’t forget Belgium and Luxembourg and all the other places where French is spoken). Austrian vs. German vs. Swiss, Flemish vs. Dutch, the various versions of Spanish spoken around the world … Few languages are spoken in a single, standard version, and an interpreter must really know as many variants of his C as possible.

While I’m on the topic of language variants, it’s also worth remembering that anyone who wants to work from English will all too often find themselves working from Globish instead – that international version of English spoken around the world by non-native speakers, each in their own special way. A Finn does not speak Globish the way a Korean will, and interpreting from these and other non-native speakers of English will at times require the interpreter to develop special skills (like mind-reading, maybe?). Bootheando, interpreting blogger extraordinaire, looks at the term in her post entitled Preparados para el Globish, which includes a cartoon and a video on the subject.

Interpreting students who plan to work from English will really have to try and make sure they understand a broad range of  accents in English – from regional dialects to Globish and beyond. (N.B. there is a politically incorrect, expletive-riddled but highly illustrative YouTube video on the subject of English accents that went viral a few months ago. I’ll refrain from giving you the link so as not to injure any sensibilities. However, if you want to get an idea of what you’re up against, you’re free to try to track it down yourself.)

2) You must also be familiar with a range of registers. By register, I mean (more or less) a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. This is probably easy enough for somebody who has lived for extended periods and/or studied or worked in a country where the language is spoken, who will have had exposure to the language in a range of registers, but might not prove so easy for others. When I started studying interpreting, for example, I found that my “kitchen Dutch” had to be brought up to speed quite quickly – something I tackled by reading Elsevier and the financial pages of De Standaard, and by participating in an exchange to the EMCI course in Antwerp, among other things.

From the kitchen to the classroom

On the other side of the register spectrum are those students who have taken a more “book-learning” approach to a language who often find that they can’t understand street slang or other less formal versions of a language as spoken in different social settings. This may not be a problem if you only ever work in Parliamentary Committees, but will definitely be an issue if you end up at a public hearing or a trade union conference, or any other meeting where participants may not be so concerned about using the formal register to express themselves.

3) Your knowledge of a language needs to cover a broad range of fields. It’s not all just politics and the evening news. As I said in my post on general knowledge, an interpreter’s knowledge needs to span many subjects – and by extension, their knowledge of their passive languages must also cover these subjects.

I’ll have chocolate chip, please

Expressed in this way, the learning of a C language might sound a bit daunting, and might make aspiring interpreters reading this right now wish they were back on Sesame Street. One thing is clear, and that is that language proficiency to the layman (which some might equate to level 2 or 3 on the ILR table) is not the same as language proficiency to an interpreter (for listening or passive knowledge, I’d put it at level 4).

Not too  long ago, I found myself explaining this to a friend who had said that she thought that I would soon be ready to take an interpreting exam for Portuguese, since, as she saw it, my language skills had advanced to a point where I was relatively fluent (I’ve reached B2 on the Common European Framework, or so my Portuguese teacher tells me!). Sure, I can read a Portuguese paper just fine and hold my own in an intermediate-level conversation. To many non-interpreters, this equates to fluency in a foreign language, and for a large number of real-life situations, this degree of proficiency  is indeed more than enough. But as I think I’ve just illustrated, it is not enough in my line of business. So I will keep plugging along happily with my Portuguese lessons until that faraway day when I feel that I have a fair shot of convincing an interpreting examination board that my level of knowledge meets the three criteria I’ve listed above.

After all, I would hate to think what would happen if I was in the booth and the Portuguese speaker I was working from decided to stray from European affairs or the financial crisis – about the only two subjects I can currently follow with any confidence in that language. And if he did that in an Azorean or regional Brazilian accent and then proceeded to throw in some slang, I’d be até o córrego in no time (Portuguese speakers, feel free to cringe).

C is (finally!) for Conclusion

This last point brings to me why I have decided to spend so much time looking at the whole questions of the language ABCs in the first place.

One of the main reasons why I have devoted two full posts so far to the topic of an interpreter’s language combination is that all too often, I see that the concepts are not fully understood by the general public. And since this general public includes our users and clients, it is worthwhile trying to set the record straight, if only so that they know what to expect when they hire us.

Possibly more worrying to me as an interpreter trainer is the fact that the same lack of awareness would appear to exist in some applicants to the interpreting course where I teach. One possible reason for this might be the use of different language classification systems at the universities where they come from. If they have just done an undergraduate degree where “B” was used to designate the language they were majoring in and “C” was used for their minor, then it is understandable that there might be some confusion when the post-graduate course uses a different classification system.

Applicants also often unintentionally misjudge or overestimate their own language skills. They might state that they have double As or Bs when they don’t, and in some cases even claim a language as a C when they don’t actually know the language very well at all (in such cases, I’d call this a “D” – a language you have some knowledge of, but which you can’t yet interpret from).

This is not a criticism of applicants or students by any means, it is simply a reflection of the fact that passive and active language requirements for an interpreter are often so much higher than what people think, even students themselves. Very often over the course of a training program, and sometimes even before the year begins, students’ language combinations will be modified from what they originally indicated on their application form in order to reflect more accurately their language proficiency. Of course, this goes both ways: there are also cases of students who underestimate their language skills, who end up getting a D upgraded to a C, or a C to a B.

So there you have it: my two-part take on the ABCs. Part III of the series on the interpreter’s languages will be coming soon …

Related Posts

Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part I)

“Which languages should I learn?” – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part III)

General Knowledge – How Much is Enough?

I’m sure we’d all agree that professional conference interpreters are expected to possess what is called “general knowledge”. But how does this translate into practice?

Does “general knowledge” simply mean keeping up with the latest headlines? What information sources can student interpreters use to add to their knowledge? And most importantly for aspiring interpreters: what degree of general knowledge is one expected to show at an aptitude test or final exam? These are the questions I am going to examine in today’s post. I’m warning readers now: this is a long post, but I decided against dividing it up into parts in favor of tackling these related ideas in a single post. Please stick with me to the end!

First things first

I once heard it said that an interpreter’s job is not simply to read the headlines, but rather “the headlines, the bylines, the back page, the sports scores, the financial pages, the arts and fashion supplement, the science column, the book reviews…”. Although a bit tongue-in-cheek, there may be some truth in this claim.

On at least two separate occasions, I have been approached by total strangers at the end of a long flight, who asked me in disbelief, “Did you actually just read that entire magazine from cover to cover?” Apparently the practice of reading every single article in a magazine or newspaper is not that widespread among the general public, although I’d argue interpreters should get into the habit of doing precisely that. You never know what might come in handy in the booth.

Get it from the source(s)

I’d go further and say that interpreters should not fall into the habit of getting their information from a single source. Of course, it’s good to have your favorite daily newspaper or news website to peruse over breakfast, but it is equally important to obtain a broad range of views from different sources. Global activists may be happy reading Noam Chomsky all day, and neoliberals might never consult anything but The Economist, but as interpreters, we should probably be reading both – and a range of other publications as well.

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of the periodicals that I try to read on a regular basis, as I have found that together, they present a broad range of views and cover many issues that are not in the headlines: Le Monde Diplomatique (which is available in 25 languages and 70 different editions!), Courrier International, The New Internationalist, The Economist, The International Herald Tribune, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Scientific American (this last one is more for my own enjoyment, but I do sometimes pick up stuff there that comes in handy in the booth!). Readers of this post are encouraged to add their own personal favorites to this list in the comments section.

It goes beyond periodicals, of course. Books introducing specific subjects to the layman can be very useful in filling gaps that we interpreters identify in our knowledge. Just to give a couple of examples of books that might come in handy for student interpreters, the Penguin History of Economics and the Economist’s Guide to the European Union made useful bedtime reading for me over the course of my interpreter training (albeit in older editions), as did a book called Internationale Organisationen from Heyne Verlag – in German, obviously, and possibly now out of print, since I can’t find an online reference. But it offered a great overview of the UN, EU, NATO, the GATT/WTO and NAFTA. This Handbook on International Organisations, coming out soon in English, might do the trick for many. A fellow instructor at the ULL also recommends students get hold of a good world atlas – not just for the all-important place and country names, but for all the additional information on population movements, main industries, weather patterns, etc. The CIA’s World Factbook is also great for information on specific countries.

Resources that fill in gaps in our knowledge of the cultures that go with our languages are also useful. When I moved to Spain and started learning Spanish, for instance, I found I urgently needed to get up to scratch on contemporary Spanish issues: The Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston and The Ghosts of Spain by Guardian correspondent Giles Tremlett went a long way to filling that particular gap.

I haven’t even begun to mention non-print materials. It goes without saying that the internet is a valuable source of information. These days, the websites that go with the periodicals and guides I have mentioned above are in many ways even more informative than the print versions. Again, readers are encouraged to share with me their favorite websites and online resources in the comments – where do you go in cyberspace to find out what you need to know?

Of course, as time goes on and one moves beyond training and into the field of professional practice, the learning doesn’t stop, it just becomes more focused on your clients’ specific fields. But the whole issue of professional specialization is probably best left for another day.

Back to the matter at hand…

Let’s look at general knowledge as it relates to the aptitude test now. What sort of “cultural baggage” will a candidate to an interpreter training course be expected to be carrying?

The best way to respond to this question would be to provide readers with a list of the general knowledge questions that I intend to ask in a couple of weeks at the University of La Laguna’s aptitude tests – but that wouldn’t be fair, would it? What I’ll do is publish that list after the tests have been run, at the end of June, and readers can test their own knowledge against it then (author’s note: you can now find that quiz here).

In the meantime, let me just say that this part of the test is really very difficult to prepare for. Essentially, at this stage in your personal and professional development, either you will have this “baggage” or you won’t. You can’t cram for a general knowledge test.

I do know of one candidate who apparently has been spending 20 hours a week in the library since January trying to expand her knowledge in preparation for the admission exams. I can only hope that after all of that, her languages are at the necessary level, because at the end of the day, being able to recite all of the European Commissioners in reverse alphabetical order won’t help you much if your language proficiency doesn’t meet  the required standard.

Fortunately for those candidates who have not been hidden away in a library for the past several months, the bar is not set overly high when it comes to general knowledge quizzes at aptitude tests. You would have to be pretty uninformed indeed to fail an aptitude test on the strength of the general knowledge component alone. Examples from real life: a candidate with Dutch who couldn’t name any famous Dutch people except Ruud van Nistelrooy and Frank Rijkaard didn’t fail the aptitude test due to his lack of world knowledge, but because he completely froze during the memory exercises. Similarly, the one who thought Dar es Salaam and Dharamsala were one and the same place may have looked pretty silly, but he didn’t get flunked for it.

In sum, as I said in my previous post on aptitude tests, if you show strong passive and active language skills, good composure, and perform well on the memory component, but reply incorrectly to the general knowledge questions, you will probably be accepted on the course – with a stern warning to pull your socks up and get informed in time for the finals.

Okay, so what about the finals?

However prepared you might be (or not) for showing off your general knowledge at the aptitude test, the good news is that you have eight months (and on some courses, longer) to get yourself informed and ready for those finals, where the bar will be set considerably higher. And you will not be alone in your endeavor. Instructors (and fellow students – it is a joint effort, after all) will be working hard to make sure that you not only learn the nuts and bolts of interpreting, but also broaden your knowledge in preparation for the day when you get into the booth for real.

At the University of La Laguna, each week is dedicated to a specific field of knowledge. During the week, students are expected to read up on the topic, prepare and share glossaries, and interpret speeches on various aspects of the field. Topics range from tourism to health care, from international finance to agriculture and fisheries, from telecommunications to sports. By the time the final exams arrive, students will have hopefully absorbed a considerable amount of knowledge in each of these fields, which they can then use as the basis for further learning and experience – and for acing their exams!

Of course, no matter how much students learn over the course of their interpreter training, it’s hard to know just “how much is enough” – which brings me back to the title of today’s post (and to my conclusion, weary readers will be pleased to hear!). This year’s crop of students, currently preparing for their finals, are of course wondering whether all the general knowledge they’ve acquired over the past year is going to be enough to get them through next week’s exams without getting egg on their face.

The best way to explain the level of knowledge that is expected at the end of a training course is by using an example. Let’s take fisheries – every interpreter’s favorite subject – to illustrate just how general knowledge evolves over the course of the training year, and what will be expected by the end.

Here, fishy fishy!

At an aptitude test, candidates might be expected to recognize the various species of fish and seafood that are likely to appear on a restaurant menu in their different languages – say, “tuna” or “lobster”. They might also be expected to know that the world’s oceans are being overfished. And that’s about it, really.

By the final exam, students should be able to readily identify a significantly higher number of species of fish beyond the menu mainstays (though not all the ones you can find on Fishbase!), will have learned the terminology used to describe some fishing gear and practices, will probably know more about which species are being overfished where (e.g. bluefin tuna in the Atlantic, Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean), will have familiarized themselves with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, will have heard speeches on other fisheries-related issues such as fish farming and whaling bans, will have hopefully at least visited the Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd websites, and will probably have heard in passing of the IWC, the ICCAT, the CCAMLR and a few other fisheries organizations as well. And if something “fishy” turns up on their final exam which they have not heard of before, they will know enough to fake it!

So there you have my own personal answers to the various questions raised at the beginning of this post. For those of you still with me, thank you for sticking it out to the end. For aspiring interpreters out there, hopefully this information will help explain to you just “how much is enough”.