The comfort zone dilemma in interpreter training – my view

The 16th conference DG Interpretation – Universités was held on March 15 and 16. Unfortunately, I could not follow the proceedings, but there has been a lot going on via Twitter, thanks to @GlendonTranslate both days have been archived here and here. And Matt Haldimann wrote two blog posts on it over at 2interpreters. In one of the posts he discussed Brian Fox’s presentation where one of the issues was that stress is an important factor behind candidates not passing the EU accreditation test.

I’d like to follow up on Matt’s post and my own experience of the comfort zone in interpreting training. But, first of all, the European institution’s problem that students graduating from interpreting school do not pass the accreditation tests is not a new one. I’m not sure that you actually CAN pass an EU accreditation test immediately after interpreting school. I’m not saying that to discourage anyone, but just compare any graduate from any training. You don’t graduate from a Political Science program and start as a senior ministry official, ministries usually have internships, training programs and so forth. You don’t graduate from law school and become a lawyer immediately. Medical doctors are required to be interns before they practice. The institutions have started running training programs for prospective interpreters which is great, but of course schools should prepare interpreting students as well.

Traditionally, interpreting training is very tough. I don’t remember much of comfort zone from my own interpreting training, and ask any interpreter and they will tell you horrible stories about austere teachers literally decomposing students. Students sometimes feel that they are thrown into the water and those who swim survive. Much of these feelings stem from the fact that you are trying to learn a very complex skill that is also closely linked to both your personality, your voice and your language so clearly it is hard.

As a teacher I would not describe the way I practice as throwing students into the water and see who comes up. In fact, I work very hard to be a coaching, positive teacher. Yet, I know that my students also seem to be struggling like I did.

Matt suggests to build on trust, and to work with other skills such as public speaking, he mentions his own experiences of improvisational theater, and last but not least – mock conferences. I think these are great ideas and it also points to something that we may need to refine even more – modular learning. I know that several schools work with modules. The most obvious module being of course that first you work with memory exercises, then with note taking, then with consecutive and so forth. But modules can also be broken down into for instance: interpreting figures, conveying sadness, interpreting names, conveying anger and so forth. And it can of course also be used to train: interpreting under stress, interpreting with text, interpreting at an exam and so forth. And everything does not have to be dealt with in interpreting class; managing stress, voice coaching, public speaking can, together with contemporary social and environmental studies, terminology, study technique and so forth, be done in separate lectures. The social side of interpreting is also often a sadly forgotten business – we should teach students how to deal with clients, how to behave in the booth, how to establish yourself on the market and so forth.

But – and here comes the big but – many interpreting schools have classes specializing on interpreting two or four hours per week. And classes can be huge. If you are the only interpreting teacher for 30 students 4 hours per week, it is very likely 90 % of your students will never make it to interpreters. Maybe 80 % of them just took the course because they heard it was not much reading required. So you teach them how to teach themselves how to master the skill and those who wants to and take it seriously hopefully benefits from that and use the time appropriately. So in order to be able to give our students all this support we need: more teaching hours, smaller groups (if groups are big), access to other teachers who can work with us for the interpreting students, and maybe even access to specialists who could work with the students on an individual basis (voice coaching, stress).

I have two good bets; teacher training and more money. How does that sound?

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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.

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.

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!

A few things that should be compulsory in PhD training in Translation and Interpreting Studies

Through my PhD studies (four years done, 18 months to go) I have been blessed with very good supervisors, solid training, interesting conferences and great networking opportunities. But I have not followed a PhD training in Translation Studies and many of the great things I’ve been able to do has been thanks to particular people and to my supervisors’ great flexibility. And therefore I would like to list a few things that I think should be compulsory in PhD training in Interpreting (and Translation) Studies.

Supervisors. At least two who are not competitors. I have three, and I consider myself very lucky. They are not competing for funding or project plans so they are all very positive and supporting to my project. I have one extremely devoted main supervisor, the other two act as supporters to her. They cover different fields and can give feedback from different angles. At least one of your supervisors must be working in the same field as your PhD project

Summer school. Possibility to participate in at least one longer summer school in your field. It gives great opportunities to meet peers in your field and hopefully also to meet good and inspiring professors in your own or neighbouring fields.

Methodological training. Whichever field you are in or whatever methodologies you use you need to get hands on training in different theories and methodologies. How are you otherwise supposed to know which approach, analysis or methods you are going to use with your material. The risk if you do not get this training is that you end up either blindly following your supervisor or making it up as you go along and thereby risking a new invention of the wheel or something similar. The program I follow has a great training unit, unfortunately it’s in bilingual studies and not in translation studies.

A conference a year. At least! Start going to conferences as early as possible. Again, great networking. You also get to test your material and your results on a bigger audience than your supervisor, and most researchers in Translation Studies are both kind, interested and curious of what other people are doing.

Publish. If you would like to continue as a researcher, you have everything to gain from publishing early. Make sure you pick good publishing channels though, with good I mean serious. They don’t have to be THE journal in your field, but having published in peer-reviewed, scientific publications usually weighs more heavily in your CV than your local news letter.

Organize a conference. Not the whole conference of course, but being part of an orginizing committee for a bigger conference or workshop or seminar is also extremely good for learning how these things work, how you apply for money, how administration works at your university and so forth. And lastly, again, great networking opportunity.

Edit a book. Provided you get help, e.g. being one of two or several editors, this is probably one of the greatest learning processes there is in academia. You get to read draft papers from other scholars, you get to see feed back from their peers, you have ample possibility to discuss the contributions with your co-editors. You get an understanding of the whole editing process. You work with publishers and proof readers. Takes alot of time of course, but well worth it for your future academic career.

Make a study and write an article with your supervisor. Really work together with your supervisor, not just him or her co-signing something you did. A very good learning process and a hands on exercise in how your supervisor works and thinks. Will most likely develop your own research skills alot.

Teach. The best way to really learn your topic is to teach it. So if you can get teaching hours that are in Translation Studies and not in English linguistics. Take them!

Now you probably understand why my PhD studies take a little longer than usual. The other reason for this is that I started without funding and worked parallell to my PhD project. Finally, two things that I have not been able to do, but that I also find important.

Get pedagogical training for teaching at University. Different from teaching at secondary school. Good for future job seeking, and also makes you see your own learning process from a different perspective.

Learn how to apply for funding. Yep, that’s the sad current state of at least humanities today. You have to be very good at looking for funding, and make your projects look sexy for funders…

Read the posts tagged “Sorcerer’s apprentice” at the Cogtrans blog for more tips on PhD in Translation Studies.

Thanks to Maria Cristina de la Vega’s good comment I have to add one more thing:

Teaching interpreting workshops in conjunction with local language/interpreting associations. They are likely to be more accessible and probably thrilled to have you. That could also serve as a training ground for the conferences you might submit your papers to, and help you to refine your focus.

As you can se it’s a verbatim of her comment I can only agree. It is a very good experience, more easily accessible and usually a very positive audience, but with tricky and intelligent questions.

Reading tips

So many good and interesting blog posts to read this week that I just have to pass them on. First of all read Bootheando’s post on Sibel Edmonds. If you don’t read Spanish scroll down and watch the video.

Then Rainy London Translations has a really interesting and above all funny post on Interpreting Wars, survival tips for the booth.

The Interpreter Diaries continues her postings on becoming an interpeter and interpreting training. Now the time has come to deal with “The aptitude test.”

The Liaison Interpreter has a post on fees (it’s form last week but still worth reading) that largely inspired my own post on the same topic.

Unprofessional Translations turns 82 (years! not blogposts) this week and celebrates with a post on translation and aging. Many happy returns, and thank you for all the interesting posts.

And finally, in Swedish and a few weeks old, the Swedish community interpreter Tolken (just as me), who writes about the Assange court proceedings and the critical comments that the interpreting has gotten there. One of the reasons that Assange can claim that the Swedish rule of law is toothless, is that he has not gotten proper access to translated documents and qualified interpreters.

Do you really need interpreter training? A few reasons for not closing the Interpreting MA at the University of Westminster, UK

Bilinguals interpret all the time, for friends, family and others in need. Children who have grown up bilingually are used to interpreting. And since everybody is learning English nowadays anyway, why bother to train new generations of interpreters?

I’m not sure whether this was the way the University of Westminster reasoned when they decided to close down their MA in conference interpreting.

This is a course that has a long, and well-founded good reputation. It was established in 1963 (at the Polytechnic of Central London), actually one of my colleagues went there in those early years. Since then the school has produced many more colleagues working for the EU institutions of course, but also for the UN and even Canadian governement. Other than Swedish and English booth they have also trained colleagues for the French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian, Irish, Maltese, Russian and Chinese booths.

In the announcement from the University it says that the interpreting course

is a well-respected course that has been recognised by the EMCI, AIIC, the EU and the UN in various ways for the quality of its graduates. The closure of the course is not a decision that has been taken lightly and it has not been taken because of any quality, teaching, management or recruitment problems.

OK, so a good course, highly reputable. One of the oldest interpreting trainings in Europe. No problem when it comes to applicants, management of quality and yet it has to close down. Why?

Well, it’s not making enough money…

English interpreters are soon a scarcity. The European Union, for instance, fears that it will not be able to cover their need for interpretation into English in 5 to 10 years. Fewer and fewer people with English mother tongue learn foreign languages and therefore the access to people who can even be considered to become interpreters is decreasing. And on top of that, Westminster chooses to close down a good, well-functioning interpreting school.

So, I guess that since the school is not making enough money, we’ll just go back and rely on people who grew up bilingually and who probably learnt the trade when they were in diapers. Or, hey, maybe language students can do it as a student job, that way they can exercise their languages as well. I would like to quote my colleague Victoria who blogs at http://www.tolken.se when she speaks about growing up bilingual:

And if you were “born” with two languages it’s even better, then you know everything, don’t you? Personally, I remember how my dad always used to talked about things like “enter into force”, “temporary asylum accommodation”, “tarsus”, “fenced pasture”, “percutaneous coronary intervention”, “the Administrative Procedure Act” and similar words, when I was a little girl. The languages ??just came flying at me, of course it was completely effortless.

Interpreting is a highly qualified job. Future conference interpreters are screened for interpreting aptitude, they have to pass entrance tests covering both language skills and general culture. It helps to have grown up bilingual, but it’s far from enough. After that they are trained in different interpreting techniques. If you have the language skills and interpreting aptitude it takes at least a year and you’re probably better off with a two-year-course. Despite language skills, aptitude and training there is still a high level of failure at the final exam. Between 50 and 70 % of the canditates make it to a diploma.

Unfortunately, very few community interpreters are screened and trained in the same way, I believe they should be, because their work is just as, if not even more, important.

And in a time where there is a growing lack of interpreters with English mother tongue, an increasing need for upholding standards and every reason to boost and improve our interpreting training programs; The University of Westminster chooses to close down one of the oldest and most well-reputed interpreting schools. It is a shame!

If you want to have your say on the closure of Westminster’s interpreting course you can do it here.

You can also read what other bloggers have to say about this at Bootheando, Interpreting Diaries, Traducción e investigación, Aventuras de una traductora-intérprete en Madrid and Dos Palabras.