Distance teaching from a (not too) distant teacher

Last #IntJC was dedicated to distance teaching. Now it may sound as if I’m only blogging about #IntJC topics, but hey, if the topic is good…

When I took up my PhD post it involved teaching an introductory course in interpreting. I’m commuting to Bergen so I wanted to plan my course in blocks. The idea was to have for instance four blocks of teaching, each one over a couple of days displayed evenly over semester. But there was another problem too, students taking French in this BA program had their Erasmus exchange the same semester as I gave my compulsory course. And those students were supposed to follow my course, although they were in France for seven weeks.

The solution was to teach on a distance platform. I cut down the on site teaching to two times two days, and the rest has been given on internet for the past three years. As said, #IntJC was discussing distance teaching last time and I’ll take this opportunity here to dwell on my experiences from these past three years.

The course has first and foremost been a theoretical course. It’s an introduction to interpreting. We have had a few hours of practice, but it has been done on site. The course schedule included two days in the beginning of the term with lectures and introduction to interpreting and note-taking, then a lecture series over seven weeks on internet, and a last meeting of two days at the end of the term. Parallel to the lecture series students also had practice in dialogue interpreting.

The fact that we do it on distance has many advantages. Obviously, students (and teacher) can participate regardless of location, but since we also record it and put it on our intranet, every lecture, with power points and discussions is available for students afterwards. When they prepare their exam paper or other compulsory tasks, they can access all the lectures they need. This is very powerful compared to only relying on your own notes or hand outs from the teacher.

I have planned my courses fairly traditionally, a text to prepare before the course, sometimes with questions, sometimes without. Then, during the lecture, I started with introduction to the text and after that hopefully a discussion. I say hopefully, because the discussion part has been the most challenging every year. In my experience I usually get a few questions via chat during my presentation, but when we come to the discussion part both chat feed and demands for microphone are troublingly silent.

Obviously, I have thought about what may be the reason behind this. Presumably, the learning experience will be better if we have (preferably animate) discussions about the topic. I have a few ideas, but so far I have not managed to overcome the lack of discussions.

First, the tech problems; although most students of today are labeled digital natives (I’d say average age of the group I teach is 20-25, I must admit that the tech side is challenging. I dedicate one hour at the start up, on site, seminar to introduce the platform. We have used the Adobe Connect platform which I find a fairly easy to use and straight forward platform. We don’t use the video-mode in order to minimize tech problems. And in order for everyone to have easy access to the lectures we keep one of the computer rooms on site open so that all students should have easy access to a computer. Still, we spend at least half an hour of the first class overcoming different tech problems, the most common being problems with sound.

Second, the medium; maybe the fact that we are on the Internet and that the simplest questions will be recorded is intimidating. We record all the sessions, and they are saved in its entirety – chat, audio, power point, notes, and so forth. This is put on an intranet server only accessible to our students, but still… Maybe it’s hard to have the impression that you ask stupid questions, come with “wrong answers” or just speculate when it’s on tape and can, and probably will, be viewed by teacher and fellow students.

Third, the power balance; when we chat over #IntJC we are all equal. Some are seasoned professionals, some are students, but we gather there to discuss a text that one of us chose and everyone is curious to hear everyone’s opinion, no grades are given, there is no right or wrong answers. Whereas, at my online course, I’m the teacher, I grade their papers, and although I don’t want to see it that way, they seem think that I have a final judgement on what is right or wrong and they probably feel they need to produce the “right answer”.

I’m not sure what the course will look like next term, but I have a few things I would like to test from #IntJC;
a) I will systematically produce a couple of discussion questions for every text.
b) I will dedicate part of the class to chat discussion only.
c) I will try to couple my texts with other material (other texts, you tube videos, news articles of films).

When I started teaching this course three years ago, I was desperately seeking the Internet for examples, background, things to deepen my students understanding. I think it’s safe to say that there was not much around. I found some good stuff, but it was by no means evident. Since then I’m happy to say that interpreting discussions on Internet has exploded. Every year I have more stuff to choose from and since #IntJC and #EPT started, together, of course, with a lot of great blogs (by all means go through my blog roll), I can safely say that I will have great material for my background readings and contrastive texts.

So, I’m excited for next version of the course. I’ll keep you posted.

Advertisements

So what have I been up to

I realize I’ve been very silent the past couple of weeks. I don’t lack ideas, just time. Here’s a short overview of what I’ve been up to. I will try to get back on track on the blog as well.

First of all, I’ve finished my Interpreting Theory course at the University of Bergen. My studetnts have completed their compulsory work and are now doing their exam paper. I had some really interesting term papers and I’m looking forward to reading the exam papers. Way to go! You’re doing a great job guys, I’m so proud of you!

I gave my second and last class on terminology for the conference interpreting students at TöI in Stockholm. There too I was happy to see that students are serious about what they do.

Second, I was part of the organizing committee for the Text-Process-Text conference in Stockholm. The conference topic was process research in interpreting and translation studies and it was a huge success. At the conference we also officially handed over this volume to Birgitta Englund Dimitrova for her birthday.

Directly after that conference I co-organised AIIC Nordic countries’ regional meeting. We were very happy that Miriam Shlesinger agreed to stay for our regional meeting, she gave a talk that was very appreciated by the interpreters present. Personally, I think I have to make a mental note that it can be very burdensome to organize two conferences one after the other even if you are only a co-organizer.

I have also had the opportunity to interpret a few days and also meet The Interpreter Diaries IRL.

So now you know a little about what I’ve been up to during my silence. What have you been up to during November? For interpreters and teachers, one of the busiest months!

Bad interpreters or bad system?

The Swedish Tolkprojektet (interpreting project) has been working since 2008 to shed light on the situation of community interpreting in Sweden. They presented their conclusions and rounded off their project at a conference i Stockholm at the end of August. Their conclusions got quite a lot of press in Sweden, especially since they said that too many unqualified interpreters are used in court trials and hospitals. The news even made it into the Facebook and Twitter discussions. You can read articles in Swedish here, here and here. Read the conclusions here (in Swedish)

This is no news, for quite some time qualified and certified interpreters in Sweden have been struggling to get different Swedish authorities to understand that they need to raise their demands on interpreters’ qualifications. The Swedish system for recruiting community interpreters got a severe blow in the early nineties when interpreting was sold out from the municipality agencies in order to be exposed to competition. Instead of municipal interpreting agencies users of interpretation now had to deal with private agencies with a strong desire for gain. The interpreters were still the same people but now procured through different private agencies. Since agencies desired to raise their own income (private companies usually do, nothing wrong in that) and users of interpretation (hospitals, police, courts etc) were unhappy to pay more for the service, agencies started recruiting less qualified interpreters in order to lower the cost of interpreting fees.

The final blow came with the EU directive on public procurement. Interpretation services were administrated by purchasing staff also responsible for procuring paper, chairs, pens and so forth. Needless to say a ruthless race to the bottom began. Quality was nothing, low fees everything. Of course, agencies committed to always send a certified interpreter if available, but since it was more expensive for the agency to send a certified interpreter, it rarely happened. Actually interpreters reported that as they got their certification assignments went down. Another horrible tale about the agencies I heard during this period was that interpreters who were favored by the interpreting agency also were given assignments to top up their month (i.e. being able to almost survive on interpreting), the top up assignments were not necessarily in the interpreter’s working lanugages, it only had to be languages that he most likely mastered.

At that time (after the EU directive) I met with several procurement officers in my role as regional representative for AIIC trying to convince them to stress (and pay for) quality in their procurement, and they all had the same message: If the quality of the service delivered was poor, then the users would complain, the procurer had then broken his contract and would have to adapt, and worst case for the next round of call for tenders the situation would be solved.

Now, the problem with that argument is that:
1) users of interpretation rarely complain, because a) they are immigrants with little power and lack of knowledge on how to complain or b) they are stressed professionals (MDs, lawyers, social officers etc) how just deal with the situation as well as they can.
2) the conclusion that most Swedish users of interpretation draw when interpreting breaks down is often “interpreting doesn’t work” rather than “the interpreter was bad”. This is due to little experience with and exposure to interpretation.

People tend to just live with it and do the best they can. A few years ago some journalists and media started to discover the alarming situation and there were some articles, but the debate never really took off. Mostly, I believe because, again, the big group of individual users of community interpretation is a weak group with no strong public voice.

Now, it should be said that a lot of work has since then been done in Sweden to improve community interpreters’ competence and to certify as many interpreters as possible. There is also ongoing discussions about the agencies and their role in interpreting quality. Buyers of interpreting services have also increased their demand on the service delivered. But we are far from a well working, stable and situation, and for at least 10 of the past 20 years regression rather than development has been the term to describe the interpreting industry in Sweden.

And thanks to Tolkprojektet the spot light is now put on the absolute strict demand that we need to put on both courts, hospitals, police (society in short) and interpreting agencies as well as interpreters to make sure we provide good, secure interpretation for people in need of it. And of course also making sure that professional interpreters have a descent chance to survive on what they do for a living.

Update:
Read this post about outsourcing in the UK. And The liaison interpreter’s post about being “bad”.

Welcome to my new students

Thursday and Friday this week marked the start of this years introduction to interpreting course at the University of Bergen. So I would like to say welcome to my students. Welcome to an interesting course. I hope this will be a term filled with refections on communication, interpreting, ethics and language.

In this blog you can find posts relating to issues we’ve discussed during class. All those posts are marked with tag “TOLKHF“. Please feel free to discuss or ask questions.

You may also find my list “30 days on interpreting” interesting. I’m half way through now. You can view the list here.

Interpret everything – or not…

Mary from AIB Interpreters guest blogged at The Interpreter Diaries about Franz Pöchhackers presentation at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A line in her post inspired me to write about what it is to interpret everything.

a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.

In most guidelines or professional codes for interpreters, there is a paragraph or article on interpreting “everything”. In the Swedish one‘s it says: Under tolkningen skall en auktoriserad tolk återge all information så exakt som möjligt (a certified interpreter shall, when interpreting, render all information as exactly as possible), and in the Norwegian one: Tolken skal tolke innholdet i alt som sies, intet fortie, intet tillegge, intet endre. (the interpreter shall interpret the content of everything that is said, conceal nothing, add nothing, change nothing).

In her Sense Theory, Dancia Seleskovitch says roughly that the interpreter grasps the sense beyond words in one lanugage and clads that sense in the words or the other lanugage. Thereby she elegantly tackles both the problem of word-for-word translation and also what exactly “everything” is. But “everything” is so much more than just the meaning or the sense of the utterance. If you take “everything” beyond utterances that are directed to the interlocutors, for instance.

There is of course no answer to the question “what is everything?” and “should you interpret everything?”. But there are a few interesting reflections one can make. Firstly – when conference interpreting, do you interpret everything you hear through the microphone even if the comments were not made to the audience. Everyone who understands the language in question will also understand that private comment, is it therefore my duty to interpret that in order to put all the listeners on equal footing? Or should I understand it as private an not interpret it?

In a social setting, let’s say a medical appointment, the doctor’s telephone rings or a nurse enters the room. Should you interpret what you can hear of the telephone conversation or the exchange between the nurse and the doctor? A person with the same language as the doctor would have understood it. It’s not polite to eavesdrop of course, but fairly impossible not to hear if you’re sitting right next to a person engaged in another conversation.

Another thing about “everything” is innuendos or what you read between the lines. Sometimes interpreters and translators “explicitate” to explain something to their readers or listeners that isn’t immediately understandable from the interpretation or the translated text, but which was understandable for native speakers of the source language. But how much should you explicitate? Are you sure you read correctly between the lines? Would the speaker prefer it not to be spelled out directly?

Do you interpret “everything” and how much do you explicitate?

More about Sense Theory (Interpretive Theory) from Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Translation Studies here.
And more about Explicitation also from Routledge here.

Interpreters make mistakes

Kovács and Kováts have a blogpost on an interpreter making a mistake in the European Parliament Plenary session. Painful of course and possibly not very professional (I say possibly, because I don’t know the reasons behind it).

Many things influence interpreting quality, technology (sound quality, other technology, the speaker and the speaker’s delivery, and of course the interpreters proficiency, language knowledge, health and so forth). Still, needless to say interpreters make mistakes. One of the more infamous mistakes were made by the Japanese-English interpreter in the negotiations between President Nixon and Primeminister Sato in the textile conflict in 1970. Sato apparently replied to Nixon’s demand by saying in Japanese “Senshu Itasimashu”, literally meaning “I will do my best”, but with the more figurative meaning “I will look into it”. What the interpreter actually said is apparently not known, but Nixon went hope believing that he had a promise from Sato and when things didn’t happen as expected, Nixon got extremely upset and it sent Japan out in the cold for years to come.

As one of the bloggers in the meeting with the Hungarian Presidency said: “Interpreting is stressful because so much can be at stake”. Your interpreting may be the reason for somebody believing that he or she is dying when in fact it’s only a routine examination. Your interpreting may be the reason for deep misunderstandings between heads of states.

On the other hand it is also stressful because people used to interpreting will use the interpreter as a good excuse for not upsetting the counter party. If the other party’s reaction showed that he or she did not appreciate your comment you will immediately rephrase and add “I’m sure the interpretation got it wrong” – very handy excuse which most interperters will faithfully translate without comment.

But what can you do as a speaker to avoid mistakes?

1) Use your mother tongue more, i.e use interpreters more: If there is a constant demand for interpreting to and from a certain language the interpreters will get very skilled and more skilled people will train to become interpreters. On top of that you are probably a better speaker in your mother tongue.

2) Provide the interpreters with plenty of documentation and briefings: Rule of thumb: the more prepared the interpreter, the better the interpretation.

3) Pay your interpreters: Just as for any service or product, you pay for quality.

4) Demand trained interperters with good credentials: Interpreting is not something language students do for fun. Most professional interpreters have degrees or have passed certification or ackreditation tests. If an interpreter cannot show such professional credentials chances are you’re not dealing with a professional interpreters.

5) Complain: If you have done all the above and you are still not satisfied – complain. If you complain you have a chance to improve the interpreters preformance or understand the reason for why it did not work as expected.

And what do the interpreters do to avoid mistakes?

1) We prepare: Interpreters spend a lot of time preparing, reading up on back ground information, keeping generally informed, making word lists and so forth.

2) We help each other: At least if we are working in a team (unfortunately not very often for court, medical or social interpreters), colleagues help each other with terminology, figures and misunderstandings.

3) We are always honest with our mistakes: If we discover that we have made a mistake it is our duty to inform our customers. In simultaneous interpretation you will hear either “sorry, it should be…” or “the interpreters corrects…”. In court or social it is easier to interrupt and explain that a mistake was made.

4) We don’t take assignments that we are not trained for: In the interpreting Code of Ethichs it is very clearly stated that we should not accept an assignment that we are not trained for either linguistically or thematically. Of course we do not have to be trained lawyers to do court interpreting, but without basic knowledge of court we should not accept court interpreting for instance. The European Union spend much effort to train their interpreters in EU-matters.

Of course interpreters still make mistakes, but the lesson to be learned is to be attentive to it, and immediately correct it.

When is it right to refuse to interpret?

Translating and Interpreting has a recent post on what assignment you would decline on a moral or ethical basis. Would you for instance translate a user manual adapted to children for a rifle knowing that the target audience were children soldiers?

The translation guy’s blog started the discussion (based on input from a company presentation he had listened to) but discussed whether you would translate porn or any defense or military work.

For me as an interpreting teacher this is always an issue that comes up. Can we at some point say: no – this is my limit, I will turn off the microphone. Last autumn I taught a course on consecutive interpreting to already seasoned community interpreters, several of them mentioned the difficulty of translating very crude language or swear-words if you are deeply religious. They said they had several colleagues who would refuse to translate such things. I argued then and I have also argued earlier that insults and swearing is not an excuse to not interpret. People have the right to be angry and they have to their own language use. Although, culturally you may have to adapt the insults of course(e.g. Scandinavians use less insults with sexual connotations than southern Europeans).

Then there is of course the situation where your speaker may have a completely different conviction than yours. It may be political, religious or moral. You may not agree with your speakers very right or left wing political views, you may not share the same faith or you may not agree with the sexual abuser who is totally convinced that his behaviour is perfectly normal and that the abused woman is only a drama queen. It does not matter, they all have the right to a voice. I have a very personal relationship to my speakers, even if I don’t agree with their views I still put my heart into their story and interpret it the most faithfully I can. I have turned of the microphone to let out some steam though, but I’m convinced my different opinion did not show in my interpreting.

But what to do when it comes to situations where you find it absolutely impossible to interpret, where you believe that it’s morally, ethically or personally wrong?

First of all, on a very practical level I think that interpreting agencies have an obligation to send the right interpreter to the right place. You don’t send an eight-month-pregnant interpreter to interpret a case of sexual abuse of very young children, for instance. This happened to me once and I can tell you that it was not only awkward for me. I fulfilled my obligation to interpret of course but it was clearly a very bad matching of interpreter. Had my agency cared to ask about the nature of the interpretation or had they cared to tell me I would not have ended up there. The same goes for male interpreter to a gynaecologist and similar situations.

Secondly, you must decide beforehand if you are going to decline an assignment, you cannot do it ad hoc. It’s very unprofessional to do it on the spot. Either you decline beforehand or, if you’re already there you fullfil your obligation, but decide not to take that type of assignment again.

I have to say that in my whole career I have not had to decline one single assignment for moral or ethical reasons (I actually only know of one colleague who has done it, and I would have done the same in that case), I have declined assignments due to very bad working conditions though or clear breach of contracts from the hirers side, but that’s a different story.

Update: I have just noticed that this discussion is also going on at interpreting.info. The thread is here