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!

Being a travelling interpreter, mom, spouse and friend

The interpreter diaries commented in my post about what we talk about in the booth. She said that as a mother she often discussed issues around managing your life as mother and interpreter with colleagues who had a similar situation. I said then that it is an issue that deserves a post of its own, so here we go.

I started off as an interpreter 18 months before my first child was born. So clearly being a mother and an interpreter has been very intertwined for me. I interpreted (locally) two days before I went into labour and I started again when my daughter was three months old. When she was five months we went on our first assignment abroad.

Interpreting and free-lancing is a great job when you have children. I have been able to be at home with them for all their holidays. I spend eight weeks of summer holiday, two for Christmas, one in November, one in February and two over Easter – every year. On the other hand it’s horrible. I have lost count of the number of birthdays, school performances, medical appointments and sick days I have missed. For my son’s birthday this year I participated over skype. You feel utterly horrible when your child has a fever and you have to rely on relatives, au-pair girls or at best that your husband does not have an important meeting or is travelling as well. I felt horrible this morning when I had to take my daughter to the emergency room as she had hurt herself and she quite naturally comments: It’s a good thing it didn’t happen on Wednesday when you were away.

The same thing goes for spouse and friend. You need to have a patient partner who is secure in his own role and you need to have good friends who don’t mind waiting. You are the best spouse and friend when you’re not on mission. Long nice lunches with the girls, dinner’s ready for hubby and children are already done with homework and other tasks. Lot’s of time to fix things and hold everything together. On the other hand, when you’re away, you’re simply not there. Hubby becomes the sole provider of dinner, homework support, sick days, parent-teacher meetings and your friends can wait for weeks without a phone call. Now, I’m naturally very bad at remembering birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates, but travelling does not help things.

So, how do you make it happen? Well, first of all rigorous planning and equal amount of flexibility. You have to plan everything minutely and be totally open for all the plans to fail when a child is ill or a flight is cancelled. Secondly, good support around you. My parents passed away early so I have not been able to count on them for support (and maybe that’s not too bad, I hear my colleagues say that they put a burden on their parents they don’t feel comfortable with), but since my second child was six months and the first 18 months I’ve had very nice au-pair girls. Although, having an au-pair girl (or boy) is like having a distant relative living with you. You develop a very close relationship, but it’s still someone working for you. Tricky – but of the ten au-pair girls who has stayed with us over the years I have only had two who resigned early, another two decided to stay for an extra six months. Nowadays, the children are bigger and they prefer taking care of themselves when we’re not around, so far it works out well with homework and so forth. But I also have friends and neighbours who are absolutely great and who come running to our support when things just don’t work out. Like when I was in Spain for 10 days and my husband had a minor catastrophe at work and had to work 12 hour days and week-end. Dear, wonderful Mitt Belgien came every morning at seven to give the children breakfast and see them off to school and came back in the evening to help with homework and put them to bed.

Interestingly enough, the children dislike my travelling more as they get older. When they were very young travelling was sort of something natural and part of what mummy did, but as they grow older I guess they start seeing how other families function and maybe they also get better at putting words on feelings. Maybe they need you in another way when they are older. I have a colleague who once took a term off to support her 13-year-old. Unfortunately for me, they also go to a school where many of the mothers are stay at home mums, so I guess I struggle in headwind there. But as my supervisor once said encouragingly: “You are really being a role model for your girls”. And in case you wonder – Yes, it’s worth every minute of it and all the planning, and all the bad consience. The job is extremely rewarding and I very much like the fact that I can be there for the children so much more than I would have been able to as an employee, although I would probably have a higher “being there on birthdays”-score.

Day 15 – My goals as an interpreter

Goals are interesting. In the expertise approach in psychology (the one that says that skilled performers deal with their task in the same way regardless of their field of expertise, i.e. a tennis player has the same mental way of preparing him/herself as a chess player), goals are part of the success. The fact that you have clear and pronounced goals and also that you define each part objective on your way to the BIG goal.

But what goals can you define as an interpreter. Do you have a goal for your career? Or for each interpreting? Do you have goals to learn new languages? Pass accreditation tests? Get new clients? And are these goals part of improving your interpreting skills or your career?

Personally my goals were fairly worldly as I started out, the main problem was to get enough days of work as a young interpreter fresh out of interpreting school. So my goal back then was simply to get 5 days of work per month, every day over 5 was bonus. This also went hand in hand with being professional i.e. the goal of being up to date in my languages, well prepared when arriving to meetings and a good colleague (word travels quickly if you are unpleasant to work with).

In the beginning I had to struggle with less serious agencies too, so one of the goals was to not take work where working conditions were poor or where I was not qualified. More than once I have arrived at a meeting only to discover that the language combinations were completely wrong, colleagues unqualified or missing, or that there was no booth although we had agreed on that.

So there are goals on different levels: short term; long term; interpreting wise; language wise; customer related; and related to professionalism. A person that has described this very well is Gun-Viol Vik-Tuovinen in her PhD on interpreting on different levels of competence. Her PhD exists only in Swedish, but she has several articles in English.

And my personal goals then? Well, for every meeting it is as one of my colleagues so elegantly put it: “I want to understand and to be understood, that’s the only thing that matters”. And the strive to understand goes hand in hand with being well prepared, know your languages and so forth. “Were you a good interpreter today?”, my husband asks when I get home in the evening. And the days when I can answer “yes” are the days when I reached my goals. (Maybe I should add a saving clause here saying that the fact that I’m not satisfied with my interpreting is not necessarily the same thing as your clients or colleagues being dissatisfied, you are your own harshest judge.)

And the long-term goals? First of all I love my job, I love research too, and I would really like to combine the two. Most interpreting researchers do actually. Interpreting is too much fun to just let go. So, to stay on the market is an important long-term goal. My second long term goal is to continuously improve. I want to feel that I get better every time or every year. And thirdly, I want to learn a new interpreting language. I have been striving with Dutch for years, very extensively but still. And getting a language up to interpreting level is not something that is done in five minutes with Berlitz. You can read Interpreter Diaries’ very enlightening post on that here. Considering my PhD, my struggle with Dutch will continue to be extensive for a couple of years still but then…

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Day 14 – One thing you didn’t know about interpreting

Well, a couple of things actually…
What do interpreters talk about when they meet? You may think (at least if you suffer from a slight persecution mania) that we discuss our clients alot. We do talk about our clients of course, but probably not what you think and most likely not as much as you think.
If we discuss our clients it’s usually their performance as a speaker. We comment on speaking speed because speed is important to our own performance. We love good speakers and comment on that. But very few interpreters I know make personal comments about their clients, they are our clients and all interpreters I know are very consiencious about the professional secrecy.
When we debrief over a coffee or beer it is usually our own failings we discuss. When did I not live up to my own standards, what did I miss in that presentation, when did I have to stop my client/rely on my colleague to check a word? Why couldn’t I render exactly what s/he said?
We also talk a lot about terminology. Terminology is probably our pet subject. What do you use for this? I think it’s so hard to find an equivalent to that.
Sometimes we also talk about ethical problems – what would you have done in a similar situation?
And last, a personal confession, at smaller conferences or in a social setting I sometimes get the impression that my clients think that I am just as interested and engaged in their topic/area/problem as they are. I’m sorry to disappoint you here, but I’m rarely as engaged in my clients’ problem as they are. I usually find it interesting, sometimes fascinating as an interpreted situation, I may enjoy interpreting it and I will always be faithful. But I will not go home at night and continue to solve their problems.
This is of course my personal list. The things I experience with my colleagues. If you don’t agree or if you would like to add something. Please comment.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Day 12 In my suitcase

Conference interpreters travel a lot. Public service interpreters also have their fair share of traveling. I have worked outside the country I live for most of my professional career. The past 15 years I have commuted to work more often with airplane than with commuters trains. Yes I know, my carbon footprint is horrible. Anyhow, I consider myself a professional packer. I pack very quickly, I know what to bring and I always manage to squeeze in the necessary stuff.
So, what are the most important things in my suitcase? Well, I always bring my bed of nails, very popular Swedish mattress with plastic nails on it, you use it to relax, perfect after an intensive day. It also works very well on my bad back.
I have already mentioned how important my computer and my little black book are.
Then, a part from my clothes of course, my suitcase is filled with books. Books to read, books on interpreting, books on int

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Day 09 I really believe that

All interpreters are entitled to good training and that all interpreting clients are entitled to trained interpreters. I also believe that interpreting should be properly paid. Interpreting is a profession and should be treated as such.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Day 08 A moment in the booth

There are many memorable moments in the booth. Some moments you would prefer to forget, but sadly they seem engraved in you memory. Other moments you cherish, either because of a brilliant and interesting speaker or, because you felt that you really made a difference.
I remember interpreting a woman who told her story about being trafficked, sold and abused. She cried as she told her story, I almost cried too. I have interpreted for union representatives who would not have been able to express their opinion to the management had it not been for the interpreters.
I have also interpreted great speakers, when everything is just flow, and you feel like an excellent interpreter just because your speaker is so good.
If I have to pick one moment… It’s probably the moment just before you enter the room, or just before ju put on the microphone, when your body is full of adrenaline and anything can happen.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.

Why don’t interpreters blog?

There are so many good blogs on translation. I list a few in my bloglist. But very few interpreters seem to blog. I list all the ones I have found and that are active in the languages I can read, and it’s not more than a handful. Is there a particular reason for the absence of interpreters in the blogosphere? Interpreters are language professionals, just as translators. Interpreters are eloquent. Many are teachers too. Some have written books (such as Andrew Gillies, Ebru Diriker or Roderick Jones), but very few blog.
Secrecy could be an issue of course. Interpreters hold their professional secrecy very high. But having a blog does not necessary need to breach the professional secrecy. Maybe fear of the written word, since interpreters work with the spoken word. But then interpreters would not write books either.
I cannot find a good reason to the lack of interpreters in the blogosphere.

Day 07 My best colleague

First of all you have to define best. The one who is the best interpreter or the one who is the best supporter?
There are some really awesome conference interpreters out there. Interpreters who interpret so that you have the impression to listen directly to the speaker. And on top of that every single nuance or word is there. But if you are a splendid interpreter and does not help your colleagues your excellence is reduced to half. When you work in a booth, you are a team, and the team is not stronger than its weakest links as the defense guys like to put it. The listeners get the impression from one booth, not from individual interpreters. Therefore you need to act as part of the team, help your colleagues with terminology, be attentive to figures, help to find the right power point page and so on.

In community interpreting, you are not surrounded by colleagues. But your best colleagues are those who keep in touch, who are there to debrief, who supports you against interpreting agencies and so forth. As I have said earlier, interestingly enough the public service interpreting client seems to be more interested in an interpreter who is personal rather than neutral. Although that may not be desirable for other reasons (the interpreters social health among other things).

I have not met Erik Camayd-Freixas, but from what I have read about him it is a colleague I admire very much.

So, my best colleague is not a definition of how well somebody interprets (every professional interpreter have to live up to a certain standard of course), but rather how the interpreter acts as a colleague and a fellow human being. I have a colleague who is an excellent interpreter, a very warm person, extremely professional as a team member, and on top of that has energy left to be a committed teacher and mentor. I think that is my best colleague.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can see the whole list here.