Voice Maintenance for Interpreters (or How to never get sick)

Voice Maintenance for Interpreters (or How to never get sick)

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As an interpreter, your voice is your livelihood. No voice, no job. So, it is important to understand how to maintain a healthy voice. The following is a collection of tips I have accumulated over the years. Please remember, I am not a medical professional. This is nothing more than a list of things I do to keep healthy.

Preventative Care

Tell your PCP how important your voice is to you

Your primary care physician must understand that without your voice, you don’t work. When you get sick, make sure s/he knows that voice recovery is your number one priority. This will change the type of medicine s/he prescribes for you

Take elderberry syrup and a multivitamin

There are lots of conflicting information about supplements. However, I have a good track record with elderberry syrup. It is a natural anti-viral agent that is safe to take daily. I don’t take it everyday, but when I am feel a tickle in my throat, I take it immediately until that “I might be getting sick” feeling goes away.

Drink lots of water

Your vocal chords do not function unless they are properly lubricated. The worst thing you can do is speak all day without drinking anything. I aim for at least 80 oz a day. Also, ice water is damaging to your vocal chords so make sure you are drinking room temperature or even warm water.

Warm up your voice

Before you go into an interpreting job, you should always do vocal warm-ups. I have a playlist here on youtube. These will get you ready for the intense amount of speaking you are about to do. Remember, just like you have to stretch before you run, you have to warm up your voice before you speak.

Don’t whisper!

Whisper interpreting should never actually be done in a whisper. That is one of the worst things you can do for your voice. Speak in a low volume, but never in an actual whisper.

Sleep and Exercise

Jonathan Downie’s book, Being a Successful Interpreter, has a section on the impact of exercise to an interpreter. We sit most of the day and do something extremely mentally taxing. If we aren’t also keeping our body in shape, then our health will deteriorate leading to more sick days. The same thing goes for sleep. When you were in college, you may have been able to pull an all-nighter before a test. But staying up late before a conference is a sure recipe for a cold. Your body needs the rest.


When you start getting sick

Take a decongestant immediately

One of the reasons your throat gets dry and scratchy is due to the mucus that runs down and irritates your throat when you are sick. So, when I feel I am starting to get sick, I immediately start Sudafed (a decongestant) and Flonase (an anti-histamine) to stop the nose from impacting my throat. Sometimes, this is enough to stop the cold in its tracks.

Sleep with a humidifier

When you are sick, water helps thin out the mucus so it passes quicker with less impact to your throat. But when you sleep, you are spending 8 hours not drinking anything. The humidifier will help lubricate your nose and throat.

Blow that snot out

Do.Not.Sniffle. You don’t want that snot going anywhere near your throat. So, blow it out, don’t sniff it back!

Gargle with salt water

A teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water does wonders for the throat. (Gargle, don’t drink!) It helps ease inflammation and loosens mucus. You can do this several times a day, before each meeting if you want. I usually gargle with salt water when I get up and before I go to sleep if I am sick.

Drink more water

Water becomes even more important when you are sick. It will help to thin out the mucus and flush it through your system. If you are having trouble with water, try adding lemon and honey to some warm water.


When you lose your voice

Ask your doctor for steroids

Again, I am not a medical professional. However, my voice always gets better when I have steroids. My doctor even prescribed me an inhaled steroid that I can use in emergencies when I absolutely have to speak. This links back to explaining to your PCP how important your voice is before you lose it.

Do a day of vocal rest

One technique singers use is a day of vocal rest. This means absolute vow-of-silence level quiet. Don’t say a word for the whole day and your voice will be remarkably better the next day. Just be sure you have a pen and notebook handy for when people try to talk to you.

Unless it is the last day of an assignment, don’t push the little voice you have

If you only have a few more hours to interpret, it may be alright to strain your voice a little, as long as you can take vocal rest the next day. But, if you are on day 1 of a multi-day assignment, you need to call your agent and let them know you are losing your voice. Then get to the doctor right away. The more you strain your voice, the longer it will take you to heal.

Don’t whisper!

I can’t say this enough. Whispering is the worst thing you can do for your voice. If you can’t speak in a normal volume, don’t say anything at all.


In the end, everyone understands illness. It may be inconvenient, but your clients will understand an hopefully your agent will have someone else who can fill in. Don’t beat yourself up about it, but do treat it immediately before it becomes a bigger problem.

Practice along with me: Word Chaining

Practice along with me: Word Chaining


In my last post, I explained how to use Word Chaining to practice memorizing random words; which will help you get better at interpreting.

I stumbled upon a website that is great for that. Brain Connection’s Word Recall Game will show you a series of random words – each for a few seconds. Then it stops and asks you to write down as many as you remember, before showing you the answers. It is the perfect format for practicing Word Chaining. Give it a try today!

Book Review: 同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法

Book Review: 同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法

Best Book Ever

I recently finished reading this book, 「同時通訳者の英語ノート術&学習法」by 工藤 紘実 and I have to say that it was probably the best introduction to interpretation that I have ever read. While it is titled as a simple note-taking and study book, it is so much more than that. It explains a lot of the foundational skills of interpreting that I had to learn the hard way.

Upside: This book covers a lot of the basics of interpreting like- when and how to take notes, how to study as an interpreter, how to manage vocabulary, how to get jobs and maintain clients as a feelancer, and how to manage your own time and stress.

Downside: I do wish it had had a little more on how to gain background knowledge and how to study for a particular job, but that may be too far out of the scope of this book.

Conclusion: Go buy it now! (You can even on kindle!)

One Rule in Practicing Interpreting: Just do it!

One Rule in Practicing Interpreting: Just do it!

I came across this article that I wanted to share with you all. A pair of sisters (twins!) who work together as simultaneous interpreters wrote about the most important rule for practicing interpreting. Stick with it. When you decide to interpret a video or audio recording for practice, don’t give up halfway through. Commit to it and keep going, no matter how bad the interpretation comes out.

Read more here:


Levels of Language Acquisition

Levels of Language Acquisition

As a preface to this post, I think it’s important that I point out that I am not an expert in second language acquisition. I have studied it, but this post is mostly based on my own observations.

At the recent IJET conference in Tokyo, I was struck by something I had not realized before:

There are people who make a living translating Japanese into English, who cannot speak Japanese.

This astounded me. 

I always thought that language skills were developed somewhat evenly: you could speak as much as you could write (output based skills), or listen as well as you could read (input based skills). However, much to my surprise, that is not the case. From my years of teaching non-native speakers English, I really should have known this. So, I would like to propose a hierarchy of second language acquisition, as it relates to translating and interpreting. 

We will assume for the sake of argument that the person in question speaks English as their L1 (native language) and Japanese as their L2 (second language).


I. Translation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Written L2 Input Comprehension 

  “I can understand written Japanese.” This is a great first step. Many people get to this level after a few years of study in an environment that is lacking in auditory input.

  Level 2: Written L2>L1 Translation Capability

  “I can put what I read in Japanese into English.” Some people have this ability without ever being able to produce output in their L2. They have a high level of comprehension of their L2 and proficient L1 writing skills. Truly, that can be all one needs to translate Japanese into English. (I am not endorsing this method, but there are plenty of people who make their living that way).

  Level 3: Written L2 Output Capability

  “I can express myself in written Japanese.” This is the logical next step, but sometimes one that learners do not attain. The ability to understand what one reads and the ability to translate what one thinks (L1) into one’s L2 are not always synonymous. 

  Level 3: Written L1>L2 Translation Capability

  “I can translate English into Japanese.” It may go without saying that your understanding of you L1 is almost always higher than your L2, but that doesn’t always make it easy to translate E>J. Translating someone else’s words into your L2 is much more difficult than translating your own. In your own head, you often have both languages floating around. You can grab words you know and look up words you don’t (assuming you aren’t at the level where you think exclusively in your L2). However, when you are simply reading your L1, you have to think a lot more about the intentions of the writer, what they are trying to convey. 


I. Interpretation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Spoken L2 Input Comprehension

  “I can understand spoken Japanese.” The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 here is the difference between, let’s say, listening to a lecture and giving a lecture. There are people who can listen and comprehend what is being said in a lecture (on a topic they are familiar with), but who could not stand up and give their own lecture off the cuff and be understood. Now, let’s be fair. That is also true of native speakers of any language. Some people just need more time preparing before they speak. While it may seem unkind, I would posit that those people, regardless of L2 capability, should not be interpreters.

  Level 2: Spoken L2 Output Capability

  “I can speak my own thoughts out in Japanese.” See above.

  Level 3: Spoken L1>L2 Interpretation Capability

  You may wonder why I switched things up here. While it is true that, L2>L1 is easier in translation, that is often not the case in interpretation. When you have time and a dictionary, you comprehension of your L2 is higher and you can craft a better composition in your L1. When you have no time to process or look things up, it is often easier to take something that you understand fully (your L1) and express it in your L2. Even if you do not know the correct Japanese term for something in English, you can work around that by using words you do know. If you were going L2>L1 and something was said that you didn’t understand, you would have to either take a guess, omit it, or stop the speaker to ask. 

  Level 4: Spoken L2>L1 Interpretation Capability

  While I am listing this as a separate skill, because of the difficulty level I explained above, I think it’s important to point out that there are very few, if any, interpreters who have the luxury of working only in one direction. Even when a presentation or conference is held all in Japanese and the interpreter is only responsible for conveying that into English, there are still pre and post events that they interpreter must attend. Get-togethers, introductions, cocktail parties in which the presenters and attendees mingle and ask questions of each other. With most events, there will be some back and forth that requires the interpreter to, as it were, go both ways 😉 But each will have her strong suits. 


Keep in mind that none of these skills are mutually exclusive, nor does one necessarily lead to the next. There are people who are great at phrasing Japanese into English, but their general comprehension is poor. There are people who can express themselves in Japanese, but cannot interpret someone else’s words. There are people who can translate English into Japanese, but cannot write well in their own native language. Each person, let alone translation professional, has their own strengths and weaknesses. But there is something that each can do well and that is how they earn a living. Being able to read fluently but not speak, doesn’t mean you are less of an accomplished learner of Japanese; anymore than someone who trips over their own words in their native language who might be an avid reader. 

Getting your first job

Getting your first job

Getting your first job as a translator or interpreter can be hard if you don’t have any experience. This is a basic guide to help you know when you are ready, prepare for the job, and sell yourself to the company. 

Language Skills

  • Translating: There is no hard and fast rule about how much language you should have studied before you become a translator but I am going to make a subjective judgement and say at least 5 years of regular classes. Once you have completed 5 years of college level Japanese, you have a good foundation. Most college programs put you somewhere in between JLPT N3 and N2 after 4 years. There is still A LOT that you don’t know and translating will be a challenge for you. But a lot of the information that you need is stuff that you will not learn in a classroom anyway. The more you read on a variety of topics, the better you will be at translating.
  • For interpreting, I would put the bar much higher though. You will need to understand at least 80 to 90% of what you hear in business situations. If the news gives you trouble and you can’t watch TV shows without subtitles, you are not ready.


  • For most in house translation jobs, you don’t need any certifications per se. However, if you have never translated before, certification will only help you.
  • Most jobs say they require JLPT N1 but you can get some jobs with N2 or with a lot of experience but no JLPT. The American Translators Association has a translation test but it is expensive and grueling. The only other option, that I know of is an online test from the Japan Translation Federation but this is given during the day in the Japan and therefore overnight in the US.

Selling yourself when you have no experience

  • If you are serious about becoming a translator, get some experience before you graduate. Volunteer to help translate for a local organization. Do some translation on your own. Research the area you want to translate in. Translate manga or sub anime for free. If there are Japanese companies in the area, contact one and ask them if they would be interested in hiring an intern. Anything you can use to say, ‘I have experience’ will be a plus. Likewise, if you want to be an interpreter, go to your school’s international student office and see if they have any Japanese students who need a little help registering for classes or getting a driver’s license. Be upfront with them, tell them you have never interpreted before but you want to practice. Most people will be understanding.
  • When you apply for your first job, be sure to emphasize the skills you have on your resume. There are lots of things other than language skills that go into being a good translator. Show them that you take initiative and can manage projects on your own, that you have computer skills, that you can stay at a job for more than 3 months, that you are motivated and dedicated to improving your Japanese skills. These can all be shown through various activities like study abroad, part time jobs, volunteer activities, and clubs. (ie. If you were the president of the Japanese club while you volunteered to tutor international students and holding down a part time job, you are probably a go-getter.)
  • When you get an interview, come with a translation sample in hand. It should be short (about a paragraph) and on a general topic. Something like a news brief would be appropriate. (Make sure you cite the document as well.) If your lack of experience comes up, you can tell them that you prepared a sample translation for them.
  • Do as much research about TRANSLATION as possible before the interview. Remember that they not only want to know that you can speak Japanese, they also want to know that you will be a competent translator. Emphasizing that you understand how important it is to stick close to the original meaning while producing a smooth native text, or talking about how Japanese cannot be translated word for word because the nuances come across differently in English, will make you sound like you know what you are talking about.

Doing other things

  • If you have tried over and over and still can’t land a job, it may be that you don’t have the right skill set or that you just don’t have enough experience. Look for some other jobs in a Japanese speaking environment. You could try a Japanese grocery store or restaurant, or you could look for a different kind of job in a Japanese company. Sometimes, Japanese companies will often look for engineers, secretaries, accountants, or HR people and say “Japanese skill is a plus.” If you can get a job like that it will help you grow and might give you a leg up on your next attempt to get a translator job.
  • If you have the means, ie you have a job that supports you but your hours are flexible, then you can try going freelance. Sometimes it can be a little easier to get a job this way. If you quote fairly cheaply, you can probably get a job. Then once you get one, it becomes easier to get more. Just do some research before you dive in. Make sure you know how to quote and try to keep to your area of expertise or to general topics. It would be better not to get a job than to get one and screw it up, turn it in late, or make a mistake that costs the client money to fix. If you want to research more about freelancing, ProZ has a wealth of information on the subject.


I noticed an odd idiosyncratic in the way English and Japanese work in relation to the words 親 and 子. In English, you can say that an 親会社 is a “parent company” or a “mother company.” However, the Japanese子会社 has to be a “subsidiary” in English.

On the other hand, in my field we use the terms 親部品 and 子部品. A 子部品 is a “child part” but an 親部品 is, inexplicably, a “level one part.”

I wonder why English chose to eliminate this consistent pattern from our language.