Here are some thoughts about B languages that we have developed over years of interpreter training. While much of what follows can be applied to Bs in general, much of our experience is with English B.
There has always been a recognition of the need for interpreters who can work into a second active language, hence the AIIC definition of a B language as “A language other than the interpreter’s native language, of which she or he has a perfect command and into which she or he works from one of more of her or his other languages. Some interpreters work into a ‘B’ language in only one of the two modes of presentation.”
While this is a good starting point, “perfect command” does not go into enough detail for training purposes. It is generally agreed that a B is a language in which you can deliver a clear and accurate message to conference participants as well as to colleagues on relay.
To take matters further we need to acknowledge the difference between a language of which someone has a “perfect command” and his/her ‘native language’. A B language is one you must handle with care because it is not your native language. (A language in which you are a guest, as a colleague once put it.) While you will rarely have any difficulty with accents or vocabulary in your source language when you are working from A to B, you will spend more effort in formulating your target language. Do not forget that you will have fewer resources available to you in your B; more effort will be spent on grammar and syntax, and it might be harder to get out of difficulties by using synonyms, quick rephrasing, or intonation.
When working into a B, you there may well be problems with, for example:
While interpreters working into their B language have a certain amount of room for maneouvre when it comes to these possible problem areas, they cannot get away with murder. Since the aim is to deliver a clear, accurate message to listeners, interpreters working into their B should know what their weaknesses are and develop strategies for dealing with them. They must be mindful while working to make sure that they are as clear and as accurate as possible. Away from the booth, they need to listen to their B language and use it, practise by doing sight-translation and consecutive exercises. It can be useful to be listened to by native speakers of their B, as long as they know that the aim is not to sound like the “retour” is an A but to be easy to follow.
The following list of Dos and Don’ts gives an indication of the sorts of strategies that can help interpreters working into their B:
- Keep it simple
If your sentences are short, you won’t lose track of your syntax or the message.
- Focus on the message
Listeners want to know what the speaker is saying.
- Use appropriate language and register
Conference settings require formal language and modes of address.
- Know the terminology you will need (international affairs, parliamentary procedure, your client/organisation)
Meetings have their basic lexical sets so you need to master the vocabulary that delegates use regularly.
- Where appropriate, briefly explain specific cultural references that an international audience could not be expected to understand
You will not have much time but all languages and cultures have their familiar references or expressions and they are not always known to others. The French expression “soixante-huitard” could be rendered as “Sixties activist”, “Pachamama” is “Earth Mother” to the indigenous people of the Andes, and you might need to clarify “The Defenestration of Prague”.
- Make sure the names of people and places are clearly pronounced so listeners will understand them
They do not need to know how a Spanish speaker says “Andalucia”.
It is a waste of time and risks losing listeners’ confidence.
- Try too hard to sound like a native speaker
Acquiring an accent is difficult and it would be a better use of your time to concentrate on speaking clearly.
- Offer ‘multiple choice’ interpretation
If you are not happy with your choice of words, keep the better solution for later or you will sound wordy and unclear; listeners will not always understand that you are rephrasing an idea and might find it hard to follow if the speaker’s points are made over-complicated. If you feel there is a better way of putting something, bear it in mind for another occasion.
- Be tempted to use too many idiomatic expressions
They are sometimes hard to get 100% right in a B; not everyone will necessarily understand them anyway and it can be an unnecessary use of the limited time and effort you have to speak clearly and correctly.
There are many ways to practise a B language.
- Listening to the radio or podcasts can enhance your vocabulary,
- You can improve your fluency by learning a few lines by heart,
- Sight translation from A to B can also help you with fluency, especially if you record yourself: having a machine running will help you avoid hesitation and listening to what you’ve done is a good way of hearing how you are doing,
- Consider attending some of the many retour courses you’ll find on Skilliga, e.g. ours for EN Bs in London this summer.
While you may not be at home in your B the way you are in your A, you can be very comfortable in it. Remember that your listeners welcome your presence!
From the Editor:
Christine and Zoë are offering a course designed specifically for colleagues with English B:
London Is the Place to B: Short course for conference interpreters with English B on 21-25 August 2023.
There will be opportunities for colleagues to work on their B in a practical, supportive environment. Sessions include: simultaneous interpreting; tailored feedback from English A course tutors; voice coaching; English enhancement; debates on topical issues; participant speech preparation and delivery.
Contacts: Christine Adams email@example.com; Zoë Hewetson firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Guichot de Fortis, A few thoughts on B languages
Andy Gillies, Language enhancement exercises for conference interpreters (video)
Adriana Neagu, Interpreting into a B Language: Proficiency, Directionality and the Retour Dilemma. European Masters in Conference Interpreting lecture (video)
Worth reading and learning more about Conference Interpreting.