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As an interpreter, I am aware of the divisive debate on directionality. The constant discussion on whether or not to interpret into your native language (A language) or your second language (B language aka the retour) does not show any signs of appeasement. Early investigation into the subject revealed a dogmatic viewpoint of interpretation in favour of the mother tongue, the A language. Interpretation into the non-native language, the B language, should be avoided and only be considered in exceptional circumstances. As such, opinions in favour of interpreting into a B language are few and far between.

The movement against interpreting in the retour finds its arguments in the quality of the interpretation. Indeed, this quality seems ascertained on the basis of interference. As the act of interpretation is considered so demanding, suppressing interference requires proficiency and in some cases extra effort (1). The dominant conviction is that this suppression can only happen flawlessly in the mother tongue. From my own observations as a student, interference seemed a substantial challenge, not only for me but also for my fellow interpreting students. Particularly, false friends proved difficult. Thus, as my research question matured, the two elements – retour and false friends – converged. Consequently, I wondered if interpreting into a B language would increase the risk of interference, particularly with respect to false friends.

To comprehend bi-directionality and its controversies, we must first recognise the classification of an A and a B language in conference interpreting. AIIC (2) maintains that the A language is generally the interpreter’s mother tongue or language in which the interpreter feels most comfortable. It is an active language into which the interpreter will work from all his other working languages.

Generally, the B language is a non-native tongue ‘spoken with sufficient proficiency for the speaker to be accepted as a native speaker by that language community’ (3). It is worth noting that defining a B language can be complex and that its command can vary depending on several factors. Is the interpreter a seasoned professional or a graduate? When and in what context was the B language acquired? What is the linguistic environment the interpreter is predominantly exposed to? An interpreter may be very competent in a B language in a specific mode of interpretation or in a specific setting, and less proficient in others.

What is considered a solid B language is a debate in its own right and beyond the scope of this blog entry. The AIIC definition of a B language seems is very adequate:

‘A B language is a language in which the interpreter is perfectly fluent, but is not a mother tongue. An interpreter can work into this language from one or several of their other working languages, but may prefer to do so in only one mode of interpretation, either consecutive or simultaneous (often in consecutive because it’s not so fast). It is also considered an active language for the interpreter.’ (4)

It begs the question: what is the norm versus the (market?) reality of the retour? I am afraid that this will be food for a next instalment.


1. Gile, D. (1999) “Testing the Effort Models’ Tightrope Hypothesis in Simultaneous Interpreting – A Contribution” Hermes, Journal of Linguistics 23, p153-172
2. AIIC is the International Association of Conference Interpreters (Association International des Interprètes de Conférence)
3. Donovan, C. (2005) “Teaching Simultaneous Interpretation into B: A Challenge for Responsible Interpreter Training” in Godijns, R. et al. Directionality in Interpreting: the Retour or the Native? Ghent: Communication & Cognition, p147-165
4. The definitions are available on the AIIC website