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

The Interpreter Diaries has now been around for about two months, and by now many readers might be asking themselves how it is possible that in all that time, this blog on interpreting has not yet done much talking about languages – aren’t languages what it’s all about, after all? To make up for it, I’m going to dedicate the next three posts to exploring the ins and outs of the interpreter’s language combination.

Every interpreter works with a number of different languages – at least two, often as many as five or six, and sometimes even more. An ABC classification system has been developed to describe the different categories of working languages that interpreters can have, and how they will work with each.

Let’s start with the official definitions of an interpreter’s working languages as provided by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters:

            Active languages

A: The interpreter’s native language (or another language strictly equivalent to a native language), into which the interpreter works from all her other languages.

B: A language other than the interpreter’s native language, of which she has a perfect command and into which she works from one or more of her other languages.

           Passive languages

C: Languages, of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she works.

So far, so good – it all seems quite straightforward. So what’s there to talk about? Well, unfortunately, there is often a lot of confusion about interpreters’ working languages amongst the general public, and sometimes even amongst aspiring interpreters as well. That’s why I’d like to go beyond the official definitions and look at the ABCs in practice.

This week’s post will look at the active languages (A and B), and next week’s post will tackle the passive languages (C). Part three of the language combination series will look at … something else.

A – The Mother Tongue

This is the easy one, you’re probably thinking right now. Everybody’s got a mother, so everybody must have a mother tongue (except for bilinguals, of course, who have two). Right? Well, yes and no. Virtually everybody grows up with a mother tongue, it’s true (more on the “virtually” in a moment). But sadly for many interpreter hopefuls, the quality of their native language does often not meet the standard required for working as an interpreter.

This is probably one of the main problems faced by people who would like to become interpreters – and even by interpreting graduates trying to get jobs at international institutions or elsewhere (for an excellent blog post on this, read Aida’s post entitled Con la lengua materna hemos topado, which looks at this problem as faced by applicants to the UN).

As an interpreter, you need to be able to express yourself well in many different registers and have access to a broad active vocabulary covering different fields. Just growing up speaking a language does not automatically mean you will have these skills. I see it all the time in the early days of a course, when students can’t seem to stop themselves from talking like they do to their friends in the bar and start sounding like interpreters.

That’s the bad news; the good news is that these skills in one’s native language can usually be acquired through much diligence and application. This is one of the objectives of an interpreter training course – it’s not just about learning how to speak and listen at the same time!

One mother tongue or two … or none?

Still on the subject of A languages, I want to look briefly at two possible cases: that of the person with two As, and that of the person with no A at all. Let’s take the second one first: the case of the alingual (author’s note: for a closer look at this term and how it should be used in the context of interpreter training, read the comments section for this post). This term is used to describe a person with no mother tongue. Now before you go raising your eyebrows at me, let me illustrate this apparent impossibility by means of an example.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to work with a student who, for reasons of upbringing and education (this guy had a killer CV!), had a near-to-perfect command of three languages. I mean it – there was nothing you could put past him in French, English or Spanish! Almost all students have gaps in their language knowledge of some sort – say, certain regional accents, registers or fields that they’re not familiar with – but not this student. He understood it all.

However, when we started working at developing his interpreting skills into two of these languages (he had started the course with two As), we started to realize that his three languages were interfering with each other. Although his accent was flawless in both of his active languages, he would often come up with turns of phrase or expressions that proved jarring to the ear of a native speaker. And he had a lot of trouble with false friends across the different languages. What we had on our hands was an alingual – a multilingual person who speaks several languages, but none at a native level.

There is a happy ending to this story. The student dropped one of his As, and by focussing on developing a single active language to the level required for the booth, managed to “clean up his act” in time for the exams. I’m pleased to say that he is now working as a freelance interpreter in Geneva – and if I’m not mistaken, about to take a certification exam for his second A as well.

Unfortunately for other alinguals out there, there’s not always a happy ending. The fact of having grown up in a bilingual environment sometimes proves more of a curse than a blessing to people – at least if they have aspirations to become interpreters.

This brings me to the next bit I wanted to deal with: the bilingual interpreter. It does happen that some people have two mother tongues, although it is quite rare. In this case they are said to have a “double A”. Much more common among interpreters is a combination with one A language (native) and one B (near-native but not quite).

Time for some figures: a brief perusal of the listings of AIIC interpreters in Germany (the country has been selected at random) will reveal a total of 15 interpreters with double As, as compared to literally dozens with an A and a B, from a total of 289 interpreters throughout the country. Although I haven’t actually checked the statistics on language combinations for all world regions (maybe they’re out there somewhere, but I haven’t been able to find them), I would think that this trend is repeated elsewhere.

My own region, Spain, might be a bit of an exception, since a sizable minority of interpreters here have two mother tongues: Spanish plus a regional language such as Catalan. Of a total of 100 AIIC interpreters in Spain, a full 24 have two A languages – and one colleague even has three!

B is for Bilingual

Now that we’ve dealt with the definition of an A language, it’s time to look at the B. This is probably the slipperiest of the three language categories. What, indeed, is a B language in practice? And what is the difference between a B and an A in a bilingual interpreter?

For those interpreters who work into their B from all their languages and in all modes (simultaneous and consecutive), the question is little more than academic, since nothing will distinguish their B from their A on a practical level. But most interpreters with a B are not like that – almost all interpreters place some restriction on how they work with their active language that is not their mother tongue. Either they will only work into it in consecutive mode but not in simultaneous, or they will choose to work only from their mother tongue into their B and not from their other languages (this is probably the most common form of B out there).

In case this is all starting to get a bit head-spinning, let’s use an example to show how the difference between A and B works. An interpreter with Spanish A, English B and Italian C will work from Italian and English into Spanish, and from Spanish back into English, but NOT from Italian into English (i.e. from a language that is not their mother tongue into their B).

This distinction may sound a bit ridiculous to a layman, who might tend to think that if you speak a number of languages well, you should be able to work equally well between them all and in all directions, but I can assure readers that interpreting into a language that is not your mother tongue is a good sight more difficult than doing it into your native language, which is why this distinction between A and B exists in the first place.

Okay, so what about the C?

At this point it would be logical to go on and define the interpreter’s C language. However, I think I’ve got readers sufficiently confused for one week. Next week, we will look at the last of the letters on our list. And at that point hopefully readers will be able to say they’ve learned their ABCs.

Related Posts

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

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

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The Aptitude Test – Overcoming the First Hurdle

It’s that season again – the interpreting schools, close now to winding up the academic year with their final exams, are already starting to prepare for next fall. Yes, it’s aptitude test time. Over the next few lines, I will be giving you a rough idea of what to expect if you have applied to take an aptitude test for a post-graduate interpreting course – and possibly reviving some traumatic memories among those readers who have already been through it!

The purpose of an aptitude test is to identify which applicants to a course would appear to be most suitable for training as interpreters. Since this is virtually impossible to determine from a paper CV alone, it is necessary for universities to hold face-to-face interviews with candidates. These tests constitute the first of many hurdles that need to be overcome on the way to becoming an interpreter. I won’t bore (or depress!) readers with details of all the various hurdles right now – there will be plenty of time to tackle them all one-by-one on the pages of the Diaries.

What? No obstacles? If only it were that easy ...

In keeping with the diary theme of this blog, I think it’s appropriate that I introduce readers to this topic by sharing the story of my own aptitude test (which was more years ago than I care to admit, although not as long ago as some might think). The test that I took at the University of Westminster (sniff!) may have changed over the years, but at least back when I took it, it comprised a personal interview, memory exercises, written translations and a general knowledge quiz.

My most vivid recollection of the interview component of the test was that it seemed to be a hair-raising blend of job interview, personality profiling and all the oral exams I had ever taken at university. I was sat down before a panel of four examiners (all of whom I came to know well later and who actually are extremely nice people!), who proceeded to pepper me with questions (in four languages) about my life, my experience and why exactly I thought I might want to become an interpreter, anyway. I was expected to code-switch between all my languages, replying to each question in the language it had been asked. And of course I had to remain cool, calm and collected throughout – not to mention try not to say anything stupid!

After this friendly multilingual chat, the examiners put me through some memory exercises. Ironically enough, I don’t remember a thing about what that was like. I have completely blanked out the whole affair. That just goes to show that it is short-term, not long-term, memory that counts in an interpreter. But I imagine they were just like all the other memory exercises that I have done (or inflicted!) since: 2-3 minute speeches on a given topic that candidates are expected to recall (without notes!) and then reproduce in their mother tongue, with as much detail as possible and ideally following the original structure.

After that was done and I had been given some time to catch my breath, I was sat down with the rest of the candidates, given some texts in my various passive languages and asked to provide a written translation of each into English. This part is also a bit of a blur now, but I do recall wishing I had a dictionary when I came across the word “colza” in the French text and hadn’t a clue what it was (rapeseed! Grrr… I’ll never forget that again).

After the translations, all candidates were asked to fill out a general knowledge quiz. This part of the aptitude test, we were assured, was not eliminatory. In other words, if we performed well on everything else, we would be forgiven for not knowing the difference between the Koran and the Taliban (which I didn’t – my excuse now being that this was long before 9-11!). I still remember the words of my examiner when I was given the results of my general knowledge quiz: she said that my answers “hadn’t been quite as abysmally bad as that of my fellow candidates” – words which I took as the highest form of praise at the time (and made me wonder what sort of answers the others had given!).

Interestingly, one of my most vivid memories of the whole aptitude testing ordeal was the “buzz” I felt when I came out of the test. It was a completely new sensation for me, but I have since come to recognize it as the feeling you get when you have nailed a particularly difficult speaker or made it through an especially challenging meeting. I think this “buzz” is probably one effect of the interpreter’s great friend, the adrenaline rush (which I talked about last week).

Oh, my goodness – are they all like that?

No, actually. It must be said that not all aptitude tests are the same. Far from it: some universities run group sessions instead of individual interviews, others leave out the written translation component. At the University of La Laguna, for example, candidates are tested in groups of eight at a time in sessions that last three hours each. These sessions include the dreaded memory exercises, general knowledge questions and language-switching components.

But the ultimate aim of all aptitude tests, whatever form they take, will be the same: to test the candidates’ ability to express themselves clearly and eloquently in their mother tongue, their comprehension of their passive languages, their ability to deal with stress, how they work with memory and, of course, their knowledge of the world.

For those with a more academic interest in the subject, I would encourage you to read a 2008 comparative study on aptitude testing in interpreting schools. It’s available for purchase from St Jerome Publishing.

You said something about hurdles …

If you are an aspiring interpreter, what I’m sure you really want to know is: what are my chances of actually passing the aptitude test? Well, like all interpreting trainers worth their salt, I believe in throwing in a few figures at the end, so here goes …

I am told that at most interpreting schools, roughly 20% of the candidates who are invited to participate in the aptitude tests will ultimately be offered a place on the course. At the University of La Laguna, the course I know best for obvious reasons, some 95 applications were received for the 2011-12 course; 75 of these applicants have been invited to take the aptitude tests; the number of places available on the course is 16-18. Specifically, for the Spanish booth, it is expected that perhaps ten of the 45 or so candidates might make the grade.

How can you make sure you will be among that 20%? Well, my main message would be “remain calm”. It’s only a test, after all. And if you don’t make it, that might just mean you aren’t cut out to be an interpreter, for whatever reason – a message you are better off receiving now rather than later, when you have invested more in the process.

Why do people fail the aptitude tests? I’d hazard a guess that the most common reasons for not passing an aptitude test are proficiency problems in one’s passive languages, inability to perform as required on the memory exercises (whether due to stress, not understanding the original, or other reasons), and insufficient fluency in one’s mother tongue (problems with choice of register or poor active vocabulary). But I have no statistics to back this up, it’s just my own impression.

As to specific forms of preparation: in other posts, I look more closely at how much “general knowledge” you will be expected to possess at an aptitude test (and at other stages of your training) and what “language proficiency” means from an interpreting perspective. That information, plus my reflections in the last post on the typical character traits of an interpreter, will hopefully give readers an idea of what it takes to overcome this first of many hurdles.