Tag Archives: interpreting

Halfpenny thoughts no.3 – ROW: the new ratio we all need


I earn my living as a conference interpreter, which means that I spend a lot of my time having words enter my ears through earphones and words in another language coming out of my mouth, in the constant hope that there will be some relationship between the two flows.
Often, while engaged in this activity, I have been struck by how many different styles of public speaking there are. And once, at a meeting where people kept on referring to business ratios such as: ROA, return on assets: ROE, return on equity: ROI, return on investment (there are several more), it occurred to me that there was another one we needed – ROW return on words.
ROW by the way is pronounced the same way as what you do with oars to propel a boat.
I haven’t quite worked out the mathematics yet, but this is basically the formula:


Just to give you an example, here is a sentence which I have heard about a thousand times at the opening of a conference:


We have been able to organise everything splendidly except, unfortunately, for the weather.

This has a ROW of 1/13 or 0.077.

Whereas a more succinct phrasing of the meaning:

It is raining.

scores you an impressive 0.333 ROW.


It would be useful I think for public speakers to be listed with their ROW next to their name, like a batting average, that way you could tell how carefully you need to listen to someone even before they open their mouth.

Some people have an ROW which is amazingly close to zero. Repeating the same concept over and over again is one way to achieve that. At times, when I have been exposed to this kind of speaking, I have thought that it might be a good idea to put a price on words, so that the more you use the more you would have to pay. One drawback is that this would mean that the rich would have a near monopoly on expression.

As an alternative,  about a day – every month or even just once a year – on which words are rationed? You would  be allocated a fixed number for a twenty-four hour period. It would be interesting because each of us would have to choose what we felt were the most important to say. And this would probably give us some appreciation of what the most important things in our lives are.

What about you? Are you high-ROW or low-ROW? Get your ROW checked today.

Memories of Pyongyang

North_korea_bannerIn the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.

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Say it in Terpreting

signalling instructor

(This piece first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Communicate!a webzine for conference interpreters and the conference industry: Those who aren’t acquainted with the ins and outs of conference interpreting might be baffled by some of the details of the job but will surely be able to empathise with the general feeling of bewilderment.)

Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Say it’s Tuesday and you are comfortably ensconced in your booth. You have absorbed all the vocabulary you need and the meeting is so routine that most of your mental effort is directed towards using words which are anagrams of the Chairman’s name.

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