Are interpreters or subtitlers better at respeaking?
I was asked this question at ATA’s 60th Annual Conference in Palm Springs by our Distinguished Speaker that year, Pablo Romero Fresco.
My answer, “Interpreters for sure.”
Less than a year later, I got certified by the Universidade de Vigo as an interlingual respeaker (live subtitler).
If you had asked me that same question after that, I would have answered the same way: that interpreters would make better respeakers. This was based on my experience during that fascinating
semester when I learned how to respeak, not only Spanish-Spanish content (intralingual), but English-Spanish (interlingual), too. And this was after never having been trained as a simultaneous interpreter.
I asked my teacher Hayley Dawson for her opinion, and she sent several articles my way that touch on that point. I found that the answer is not so black and white. Agnieszka Szarkowska and Łukasz Dutka, in their presentation at the Rome Respeaking Conference, reported that during their 2014-2017 respeaking project they found no conclusive evidence that interpreters are better respeakers (Szarkowska et al 2015).
In a subsequent article, the same authors wrote that interpreters did receive higher scores, but differences were not as pronounced as they expected. To them, both the high performing interpreters and the high performing subtitlers turned out to be good interlingual respeakers (Szarkowska et al 2018).
Also, Hayley Dawson and Pablo Romero Fresco stated that successful respeaking training is dependent on the individual’s performance and ability to learn the task-specific skills, and not on their professional profile (Dawson, Romero-Fresco 2021).
Advantages and Skills to Learn
For me, the clear-cut difference between translators and interpreters is that the former need to be professional writers, while the latter need to be professional speakers. It’s writing and speaking skills that make them the linguists they are today. And respeaking falls smack dab in the middle of these.
During my certification, the advantage I held as a subtitler was that I already knew segmentation, truncation, and punctuation rules, as well as how to utilize ID and sound effect tags used in SDH files (subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), and how to use subtitling software.
When you dictate to Dragon, you have to pause for the program to start writing. This is where knowing how to segment (where to break the text lines) comes in very handy. Truncation is needed to shorten what you are hearing because you have to respeak much faster than the original speaker. And my punctuation skills proved invaluable because when you dictate, you need to state all the punctuation marks orally, like this: “Hi comma ladies and gentlemen period capital letter When I was born comma there were clouds in the horizon period capital letter Do you think it will rain today question mark.” And you do this while the speaker keeps talking in the background!
On the other hand, the advantage held by my interpreting colleagues were the skills that I had to acquire: a working memory, listening and speaking at the same time, enunciation, and simultaneous interpreting theory and concepts. The enunciation bit was very surprising to me, because I found that I slur the endings of words, which meant that Dragon misrecognized most of my verb conjugations (I did get better eventually).
Both subtitlers and interpreters needed to learn new skills, like how to use and train Dragon, how to create and import terminology lists (like the vocabulary to respeak soccer matches!), how to speak with a flat tone (my interpreter colleagues had been trained not to do this), and to pause every couple of seconds either to allow Dragon to catch up or to correct misrecognized words on screen.
According to Hayley, the task-specific skills necessary for interlingual respeaking are research mining, knowledge of current affairs, cultural knowledge, multitasking, live translation, dictation, language, source language comprehension, target language expression, error correction, editing, short-term memory, critical analysis, and reflection (Dawson 2020).
If you asked me the same question today, I would say that both interpreters and subtitlers, given the proper training, would make great interlingual respeakers. Respeaking is just like playing an instrument, you just need training and then practice, practice, practice.
If you are interested in getting certified, two universities currently train respeakers online: the Universidade de Vigo in Spain, and the University of Antwerp in Poland. These programs will open doors not only for working audiovisual translators, but also for those interpreters that want to explore this new profession. All the authors I reviewed think that interpreters would do a fabulous job as respeakers and would find great job opportunities in this new field.
A special shoutout to all of those interpreters who want to broaden their horizons, go kayaking in the new audiovisual waterway and have a terrific time during the adventure. And don’t forget to invite your friends, the subtitlers!
Szarkowska, Agnieszka & Dutka, Łukasz & Chmiel, Agnieszka & Lijewska, Agnieszka & Krejtz, Krzysztof & Marasek, Krzysztof & Brocki, Łukasz. (2015). Are interpreters better respeakers? An exploratory study on respeaking competences. Presentation at the Rome Respeaking Conference.
Szarkowska, Agnieszka, Krzysztof Krejtz, Łukasz Dutka, and Olga Pilipczuk “Are interpreters better respeakers?” The Interpreter and Translator Trainer (2018), 12:2, 207-226, DOI: 10.1080/1750399X.2018.1465679, https://doi.org/10.1080/1750399X.2018.1465679
Dawson, Hayley, and Pablo Romero Fresco. “Towards research-informed training in interlingual respeaking: an empirical approach,” The Interpreter and Translator Trainer (2021), DOI:
Dawson, Hayley. “Interlingual live subtitling a research-informed training model for interlingual respeakers to improve access for a wide audience,” doctoral thesis, University of Roehampton, London, (2020).