Reviews: 'Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises'

"Interpretation: Techniques And Exercises" by James Nolan. Available on Amazon.

James Nolan, interpreter and lawyer, has served as Deputy Director of the Interpretation, Meetings & Publishing Division of the United Nations; U.N. Senior Interpreter; and Head of Linguistic & Conference Services of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Mr. Nolan is a graduate of the School of Translation and Interpretation of the University of Geneva and of New York Law School, and is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). He has taught simultaneous interpretation at the New York University School of Continuing & Professional Studies, and at Marymount Manhattan College, New York.

Dr. Lynn Visson Mosty and Dr. Ingrid Mosquera Gende reviewed his book, "Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises."

New Insights into Teaching Interpretation
Dr. Lynn Visson, Editorial Board, Mosty Translation Journal, Moscow, 3(7) 2005

While a teacher of interpretation may comment on a student's sight translation of a text, or put on earphones to listen carefully to a trainee struggling with a tape, relatively few teachers have engaged in a truly in-depth analysis of the 'why' and 'wherefore' of the teaching and learning process. The contents of a new book by an experienced United Nations interpreter, James Nolan, Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises (Clevedon Buffalo Toronto: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2005), the fruit of decades of analysis and experience, provide a wealth of material for both students and teachers and students.

Bilingual in Spanish and English and fluent in French, Nolan is also familiar with German and Russian, has worked as both a translator and an interpreter, and has earned a law degree. As a lawyer, he is well aware of the importance of the interpreter's proper use of his native language, and of the significance of advocacy (a word that translates very badly into Russian!) in interpretation. After all, a speaker is usually trying to convince his audience of something — be it positive, negative, ironic, humorous, comic or tragic, or the truth or falsity of an argument, proposal, experiment, bill, resolution, scientific paper or whatever. Otherwise, why would he be taking the floor? For this reason the budding interpreter stands to gain by listening to professional 'advocates' — statesmen, politicians, radio and television commentators.

A useful way for a budding interpreter to see the 'advocacy' process in action is for him to write a text himself — in his native language. The student can take a stand defending or opposing a given issue, building his arguments from the starting premise to a logical conclusion. Seeing the structure of a text in this way 'from the inside' helps to analyze the words, parts of speech and phrases that form the building blocks of sentences. Once the student is satisfied with his text he can record it onto a cassette and listen critically to his voice quality, tone, intonation and speed, and then do the same thing as he interprets his text into one of his working languages.

The most 'neutral' sentence can be uttered with emphasis, stress, intonation and pauses that convey a huge range of emotions and feelings. For example, Nolan suggests taking a phrase such as, "The bus is on the corner," and reading it out into a tape recorder in ways that express anger, satisfaction, frustration, puzzlement and skepticism. Or try doing, "I have bought the newspaper," in an apologetic, amused, solemn, cheery or weary manner. It's harder than you think — and also a very rewarding exercise!

As interpreters know all too well, the majority of the sentences 'fed' to them by speakers are far more complex than, "The bus is on the corner." What is the interpreter to do when a French sentence starts with "Que" or "Si?" "Si" can mean "if" or "although" in English. Or if an English sentence starts with "Since?" That word can mean "from the time when" — "Since he left I've been very busy," or "Due to the fact that" — "Since that's the way you feel, I have nothing more to say." Omitting the conjunction or replacing it with "and" can provide a convenient solution: "He left, and I've been very busy;" "That's the way you feel, and I have nothing more to say."

The greater the interpreter's awareness of the components of language and discourse, the richer his options. Idioms, similes, metaphors, hyperbole, metonymy, synecdoche, oxymorons, and apostrophe are all figures of speech and tropes that are part and parcel of language use. But how many interpreters have given much thought to paronomasia or puns — the juxtaposition of two words with similar sound or spelling, but different meaning? Take an English sentence such as, "Show me an unemployed movie star and I'll show you a movie idle." The word play between "idol" as in "movie idol" and "idle" as in "without work, without an occupation, doing nothing" illustrates the kind of problem interpreters encounter in real life. It is not so easy to distinguish between the kinds of puns for which a reasonable interpretation can be found, and those, which require the interpreter to say that the speaker's chosen phrase does not have a direct equivalent in another language. How many interpreters are familiar with the term "bromide" — an epigram that has become trite or stale from overuse? Or have thought about the concept of an apothegm, a short, pithy saying such as, "If you must lie, be brief?" Stretching one's mind and wrapping one's tongue around such figures of speech are excellent exercises for the student interpreter. And rather than shuddering in fear when the speaker says, "We have a proverb…." Or, "As we say in my country," the interpreter can counter with, "We have a saying to the effect that…" which gives him plenty of wriggle room and allows for a free rendition of a tricky proverb or saying.

Then there is the category of 'untranslatables' — words that allegedly "cannot be translated" into one or another language. Nolan succinctly points out that, "'untranslatability' is primarily due to the inherent features of cultures and languages, not to the individual abilities of the translator or the limitations of the craft." The vocabulary of a given language may limit what we can say about the world around us, but not necessarily whether we can perceive it. The interpreter needs to find a way of getting the idea across rather than trying to find a specific equivalent in the target language. For example, in French 'faire l'amalgame' means to create deliberate confusion by mixing up things that should be treated differently. In English this can be rendered as 'mixing apples and oranges' or as a 'patchwork' or 'hodgepodge.' The English word 'amalgam' here is a 'false friend' of the French expression.

One of the biggest traps awaiting the interpreter is that of 'register' or 'diction' — the emotive resonance of a word, its stylistic level, the associations it brings to the listener's minds, the effect it has on contiguous words in a sentence. The failure to strike the right note, the use of an overly formal or colloquial word or phrase more than anything else betrays the interpreter's poor knowledge of the target language — or that fact that he is not a native speaker. Nolan provides a wealth of synonyms for various expressions and idioms, as well as examples of variations in 'formal' and 'informal' language. A seemingly simple sentence conveying the information that a war resulted in the death of 5,000 people can be expressed in at least nine different ways, ranging from the informal to highly formal:

  • The war killed off 5000 people.

  • The war killed 5000 people

  • 5000 people died in the war.

  • The war wiped out 5000 people.

  • The war claimed 5000 lives.

  • The war took a toll of 5000 lives.

  • The war decimated 5000 people

  • The fatalities in the war totaled 5000.

  • In the wake of the war, 5000 people lay dead.

If he is to properly reflect the speaker's intent, in choosing the proper word the interpreter needs pay close attention to register and tone. For example, a 'dishonest deal' can be rendered in quite a few ways: it can be described as a


A warning that trouble lies ahead could be a

heads-up/wake-up call/red light/warning sign/alarm/alarum/tocsin.

In a formal address a political official may suggest that his opponent/adversary/enemy has taken leave of his senses, but is unlikely to say, "he's gone bananas," while an angry baseball player may ask whether the umpire has "gone nuts" but it is highly unlikely that he will suggest that the gentleman "has bats in his belfry."

The dozens of examples of such synonyms and exercises in register and style that Nolan provides in his book are precisely the kinds of things interpreters should be thinking about. Noting down a new word is not enough. The interpreter must mull over the term, try to fit it into a linguistic-stylistic context, and determine how and when the words or expression can best be used. All too often the interpreter working into a foreign language is tempted to 'show off' his fluency by using excessively colloquial language, e.g. by saying, "Why is he gonna do this?" or by taking an excessively formal tone: "I wish to express my gratitude," instead of "Thank you."

The question of synonyms and of expanding basic vocabulary, as Nolan points out, has become particularly important in economic discourse. While the interpreter has no choice but to memorize technical economic terms, the language of economics — particularly as reflected in the world press — has become increasingly descriptive. Images or figures of speech may be based on mechanistic analogies — e.g., a market may 'soar' or 'skyrocket,' or on organic analogies — that market may 'thrive' or 'flourish.' Here, too, the interpreter must pay attention to stylistic register. Prices may decline, slump or rise; the stock market may bust, hold steady or inch up; descriptions of a downward trend may include words as varied as deteriorate, plummet, collapse, implode, slide, peter out, lose ground or nosedive, while an upward trend may gain momentum, boom, soar, expand, strengthen, gain ground, forge ahead or surge ahead. The greater the interpreter's range of options, the closer he is likely to come to an accurate rendition, and the less likely he is to put his listeners to sleep.

Nolan's treatment of many other topics, including suggestions for coping with humor, numerals, Latinisms and note taking techniques, should all prove extremely valuable for both students and teachers of interpretation.

Review: Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises
Dr. Ingrid Mosquera Gende, Department of English Philology, University of A Coruna, Spain


The book includes an introductory section of Acknowledgements in which one can already notice the importance of the didactic function in the elaboration and structure of the book, present from its subtitle: "Techniques and Exercises" — a very relevant aspect to take into consideration due to the central position of the issue of practice in the chapters, as we will comment on later. Therefore, one can say that the main readership of this book would be composed of professionals within the field of Translation and Interpretation Studies, as well as students and teachers for which this book could provide a basis for a course on Interpretation Studies.

After this, there is a brief Introduction, four pages long, subtitled 'Frequently Asked Questions.' In this section the author poses major questions about interpretation, opening a great range of possibilities that he develops in the subsequent chapters. As a course book would, this text opens with questions related with the way the book should be used, explaining its structure and intrinsic necessity, as well as its mainly intended audience: "It is meant to serve as a practical guide for interpreters and as a complement to interpreter training programs, particularly those for students preparing for conference interpreting in international governmental and business settings." Therefore this first section is divided in several subsections in the form of questions which are central and common when confronting the subject of interpretation from different perspectives: Why this book? How to use this book? What is interpretation? How does interpretation differ from translation? What is the difference between consecutive interpretation and simultaneous interpretation? Is it useful to specialize in a particular subject area? Are some languages more important than others for translation and interpretation? Are there any formal professional requirements? Is it advantageous to be bilingual? Is simultaneous interpretation a stressful occupation?

The answers are concise and clear, providing the perfect basis to begin reading and understanding the meaning and differential features of Interpretation.

The body of the volume comprises eighteen chapters:
1. Speaking
2. Preparation / Anticipating the speaker
3. Complex syntax / Compression
4. Word order / Clusters
5. General adverbial clauses
6. Untranslatability
7. Figures of speech
8. Argumentation
9. Diction / Register
10. Formal style
11. A policy address
12. Quotations / Allusions / Transposition
13. Political discourse
14. Economic discourse
15. Humor
16. Latinisms
17. Numbers
18. Note-taking.

These titles are very explicit, so that with just one quick look it is possible to get an idea of the themes dealt within each of them, giving us an overview of the aspects in which Nolan wants to make a point, either due to their relevance or to their difficulty when undertaking the task of interpreting. At the same time, each of the chapters is divided into two main sections: the first one is an introduction to its theme, about one to two pages long, even just one paragraph in some cases; whereas the second one is dedicated to Exercises and is far more extensive, underlining, once more, the practical approach of the book, which makes it easy to read and follow the text.

The languages used in the examples and exercises are English, Spanish and French. Examples in other languages are presented through English. For instance, in the chapter entitled 'Figures of Speech,' proverbs from very different linguistic sources are presented in English. We have Italian, German, Malay, Latin-American, Egyptian, French-African, Indonesian, Arabic, Russian, or Chinese proverbs, among others. Therefore, the sole usage of the three languages mentioned above does not prevent Nolan from citing many other languages from all around the world. However, when providing the typical linguistic example of 'the snow' and its different types, in the chapter entitled 'Untranslatability,' he includes vocabulary from Finland or Alaska, one of the few points in which we find other languages directly reflected in the book.

The book undergoes progressive development from the very beginning to the end, from general points to take into account, such as preparation or speaking, to detailed aspects such as the treatment of numbers or Latinisms. Apart from that, there are several chapters devoted to specific kinds of speeches and tones: political, economic and humorous.

Although the introduction to each of the chapters is short, as stated before, the so-called practical part, the exercises, are much more than a simple enumeration of activities. They include theory — sometimes in form of rhetorical / non-rhetorical questions — examples, and interpretation tips, which increase the possibility of widening our knowledge and vocabulary. In addition, included are a considerable number of exercises on translation, based on English, French and Spanish, as well as many role-playing type activities on interpretation.

At the end of the book there is a extensive bibliography, including many recently published titles, divided into seven sections (non-numbered): Works consulted; Illustrative materials used; Speeches; Books; Articles; Other; and Resources.

Under Resources, the author includes "suggestions for further reading, study and reference," under the following headings: Articles and documents; Books; Collections of essays, monograph series, and conference proceedings; Dictionaries, glossaries and thesauruses; Handbooks of usage; Directories and guides; Periodicals, journals and series; and Web sites.

The titles and authors included in the bibliography are varied, interesting and practical from several points of view. They can serve to convince a political reader or an academic one to deepen his or her understanding of the subject matter, to undertake self-study and research, or serve as a complement to practical courses. Students and teachers, and many other kinds of readers would be delightful with this thorough bibliography. Some of these subsections are even introduced by a line or two explaining their contents.

Special commendations can be made on the Web sites subsection, very practical and necessary nowadays, as well as the Speeches subsection, where we can find accurate references for relevant political speeches, such as the ones by Fidel Castro, Hillary Clinton, Alberto Fujimori, Felipe González, Mikhail Gorbachev, John Paul II, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, or Yitzhak Rabin, among many others, in concordance with the objectives shown on the very first page of the book, in accord with international political and commercial relations.

Although it could be taken for granted, it is also important to underline the presence of an Index, within which one can easily find references to techniques as well as to relevant themes and concepts dealt within the book.


Some minor criticism and personal opinions were expressed in the synopsis of the book. On the whole, the book is a great, original, necessary, and quite novel approach to interpretation studies from a linguistic and an academic point of view. Its structure is perfect from a pedagogical perspective, and its practical basis and approximation seems logical in relation to the noted theme. The exercises presented are numerous and varied in methodology and objective. The only possible drawback I could find would be related to its form, not to its content, having to do with possible complements in order to enrich the book. The languages used as a basis are English, French, and Spanish, but the examples and proposals are not given in the three of them, and sometimes such translations could be useful — perhaps they could have been included at the end of the book. More important than that would be the inclusion of some more languages in the book in order to widen its direct usage by teachers and students.

In the same way, I would appreciate the inclusion of original examples cited from other languages. For instance, in the case of the aformentioned proverbs I think that the inclusion of the originals would enrich the multilingual approach of the book, a relevant perspective due to the subject matter of the text.

James Nolan effectively introduces the subject of Interpretation, and differentiates it from Translations, explains its main characteristics, develops its techniques and exposes its concepts. We cannot talk about a practical part of the book since the book is all practice in itself, and the best way of achieving a significant amount of learning is by practicing. I would use this book both as a text book and as a reference book for my university classes without doubt.


Mr. Nolan has conducted two seminars based on his book, and a third is scheduled for October in Venezuela. His most recent seminar, Simultaneous Interpretation, was held at the Grenville Baker Club, Locust Valley, New York, from June 26 to 30.

The sessions included a brief presentation and a practicum conducted 'round-table' fashion, using audio and video recordings of U.N. and other speeches. Among the topics covered were Preparation, Segmentation, Complex Syntax/Compression, Word Order/Clusters, General Adverbial Clauses, Formal Style, Economic & Political Discourse, Humor, Latinisms, and Numbers.

His next seminar, Simultaneous Interpretation: Techniques & Exercises, will take place at the School of Modern Languages of the Faculty of Humanities & Education, Caracas, Venezuela, from Oct. 7 to 11.