Language combination and the retour debate in interpreting

According to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) [1], the interpreter’s working languages can be divided into A, B and C languages, as well as into active and passive ones. Active languages (both A and B) are those the interpreter works into, while passive languages (C) the one(s) s/he only works from.


A, B and C languages can be defined as follows:

  • A language: the interpreter’s mother tongue (or equivalent), towards which s/he interprets from all the other working languages;
  • B language: an active language into which the interpreter works, generally only from the A language, and which s/he perfectly masters, despite not being his/her mother tongue;
  • C language: an interpreter’s passive language s/he has a full understanding of and only interprets from (not into).

Interpreters’ language combination can vary very much from case to case and do not have to include necessarily a B or C language, e.g. as in the case of a bilingual interpreter with English and Spanish as A languages. The most standard language profiles required when entering a Master’s in Conference Interpreting are generally one of the following:

  • A-B-C: (C > A, B < > A; e.g. Spanish A, English B, German C)
  • A-C-C-C: (Cs > A; e.g. English A, Spanish C, German C, French C)

Again, these can be modified according to the interpreter’s working languages, for example into A-B-B or A-B-C-C, etc.

An aspect that tends to be disregarded by laymen, and even by interpreters-to-be sometimes, is the importance of the A language. Interpreters always try to improve as much as possible their mastery of their B and C languages, but should never neglect their own mother tongue. This is a key aspect especially when working for institutions like the EU [2] or the UN, where interpreters normally interpret only into their A language. This is also the position maintained by AIIC.

Even though working merely into one’s A language is among the best practices in the profession, the truth is in the private market you hardly stand a chance unless you work in both directions. As always in life, there are wonderful exceptions. Yet, most interpreters I know work into their B language on a regular basis in the private market.

Matthew Perret focuses on this topic on the blog “A word in your ear” by the Spanish interpreter, Lourdes de Rioja, in the post “The abc of retour” [3] (retour is the interpretation from the A language into a B language):

retour interpreting“The theory behind this, known as the théorie du sens, was
developed by Seleskovitch and Lederer of the Paris school ESIT. Seleskovitch maintained that interpretation into the interpreter’s
 A language is always of higher quality. As Clare Donovan points out 
”a B language is by definition less versatile and flexible than an
 A language” and interpreters working out of their mother tongue 
find the process more tiring and stressful than into their mother
tongue as they do not have the same intuition and confidence of 

Still, in the same article, Perret also recaps many interesting and breakthrough theories suggesting the positive aspects of retour. Among the many renowned interpreters and interpreting scholars he names there, Daniel Gile states that “interpreting directionality 
preferences are contradictory and based on traditions rather than
 research”. Gile also pinpoints that those opposed to simultaneously interpreting into a B language, do it regularly in the consecutive mode, “maintaining that consecutive has a 
higher status than simultaneous. For Gile, they are thus guilty of
 flawed logic.”

Finally, according to another general argument Perret mentions, paradoxically, it may be easier for the interpreter to work into a B language due the cognitive convenience of having “fewer options to choose from in the expression phase”.

If you’d like to know more about retour, you definitely can’t miss Matthew Petter’s 7-minute video, “The A B C of retour”.


[1] International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). “Language combination”.

[2] EU: “The conference interpreter’s language combination

[3] PERRET, Matthew. “The abc of retour“. A word in your ear (blog by Lourdes de Rioja)  

GODIJINS, R. and HINDERDAEL, M. (eds.). Gent: Communication and Cognition, 2005.

What do you think about retour? Do you make any distinctions between retour in simultaneous and in consecutive mode? Any interpreter’s personal opinion on the retour debate is more than welcome!


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