I hope I am a conscious competent

Did you read this great post by the Interpreter Diaries? It sent me right down memory lane. I will share some secrets with you from my early days as a budding interpreter, and follow the four stages of learning that Interpreter Diaries uses so wisely.

1. Unconscious Incompetence
I hope you understand that I’m really sharing a confidence here, so don’t tell anyone. The first time I actually saw simultaneous interpreting live was when a friend’s husband was kind enough to show me his job. I had been curious of course, that’s how he ended up telling me that I could visit him one day at his work. There was a dummy booth (i.e. a silent booth, one that the delegates cannot tune into) in the meeting and the head of the team agreed that I could sit there and try for myself. And did I try! I was so good at this, actually I didn’t find it very hard to interpret from English into Swedish or into French or from French into English or anything really! Piece of cake! I am embarrassed to this day that I even told my friend’s husband that it wasn’t difficult at all, not even into foreign languages. He’d probably heard about the four stages of learning, because he never held that against me, instead he encouraged me to go into interpreting school, which I did.

2. Conscious Incompetence
And I surely hit the wall – with a supersonic bang! It’s like one of my students recently told me: “Now I know exactly what interpreting is and why I cannot do it”. It taught me a lot of humility too. In the beginning I struggled to understand what it was I was expected to do. I was a very eager learner, but I had some difficulty understanding exactly what I was expected to learn though. I mean, of course I understood learning symbols for note taking or doing consecutive exercises. But what was all this about “gist” and “sense” and how did you actually know that you had transferred that “meaning”, and why were my teachers never satisfied. Today, I see the same confusion in my students’ eyes, and I begin to understand exactly how difficult it is to teach it too, not just to learn it. (By the way I LOVE the fact that English has one word for teach and one word for learn.) . For me it was somewhere between the end of interpreting school and the first years of experience that I went from the feeling of constant incompetence to some competence.

3. Conscious Competence
It is so hard when you think you master “it” and your teachers keep telling you: “It takes at least five years to become a professional interpreter”. I mean you graduate from interpreting school, you even pass a freelance test for some important institution, and your older colleagues will still go round telling you that in a few years’ time you may be mature. On top of that there are days when you stumble out of your interpreting job, be it a booth, in court or a medical appointment and feel – incompetent. But it is also somewhere at this point when you realize what you need to do and how to do it. When I graduated from interpreting school, I continued to do consecutive exercises with a friend regularly for over a year. My bag when going to meetings weighed tons, because when I started lap-tops and electronic dictionaries were unheard of (well – at least, way too expensive). “I see you’re still using crutches” one of my older colleagues kindly commented when I unpacked dictionary after dictionary.

4. Unconscious Competence
I’m not sure any professional interpreter would tell you they master their skill to perfection. Or if they do, you should be suspicious. On lucky days it’s tangible, you’ve got flow, interpreting is really like that second nature. Anything uttered can be clad into another language’s shape. But then again, we work with new topics, new languages, new contexts, new speakers, and then you’re back again to the third stage. This is also part of the expert nature (you know the expertise approach I have been talking about here for instance). The deliberate practice part of the expert personality challenges you to go back and evaluate and refine your performance, constantly. Another important part of this (maybe only for me in my researcher hat), is the implicit, or tacit, knowledge. This is comparable to an excellent rider who just “has it” in his or hers hands, seat and legs. You just “know”, without necessarily knowing what exactly it is you know or how to verbalize it.

So, I do agree with Interpreter Diaries on the four steps, and hopefully today, I think I have developed into at least step 3 and on some days maybe even step 4.


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