Booth confessions

Interpretation Booths

Interpretation Booths (Photo credit: TEDxMonterey)

As I just finished a week in Strasbourg, I also finished several hours of booth time. The confined space of a booth is a very interesting microcosm. How the interpreters arrange themselves in the booth, who sits where and who sits next to whom, and so forth. Most booths on the private market only have two consoles, so your choice is basically just left or right. But do you prefer to sit near the door or in the corner? Which of the places have the best view? And where are you close to a socket? And do you have a colleague with an extremely strong preference (you really don’t want to spoil someone’s day). At the European institutions there are three pulpits (and interpreters) which means that someone has to be in the middle. I know that I share the aversion of the middle seat with many colleagues, make sure to be on time if you want to avoid it. If I’m first in the booth and have the privilege to choose I look at three things: socket, view, side. I don’t have any colleague I dislike or have had an argument with, but it has happened that I decided to sit in the middle because I knew the two colleagues I was about to worked with were not best of friends, to put it mildly.

How much and what you spread is also important. The booth is our work place so obviously we bring stuff to the booth, but that does not mean that your colleagues would like to share your lip-stick smeared, half-drunken, cold coffee, or that they appreciate having half of the Guardian rustle over their console (actually, the client may not appreciate that either). I had one colleague who was absolutely obsessed about eating in the booth. “This is a booth” she used to say, “not a train compartment”. And I don’t believe she’s entirely wrong either (although I admit to eating, discretely, in the booth), I don’t think your listeners will appreciate slurping over the microphone, neither from you nor your colleague.

I have another bad, although silent, habit in the booth – I put my lipstick on. I’m not really sure the listener really likes sharing my make-up routine. I try to combat this more tic-like behavior.

But it wasn’t really booth manners I wanted to share, but rather booth talk. When we’re on air there’s not much conversation going on between colleagues, and admittedly during some meetings there is not one spoken word exchanged between the interpreters, the meeting is just too dense. But when we’re not interpreting a lot is going on. I have touched upon the topic already here, but I wanted to reiterate it, because, this week,  I really felt how important it is. First and foremost there’s background and terminology check of course. But when working with colleagues you like, it’s amazing how quickly the conversation gets deep and intimate. It is as if the very intense work, the secluded space, and the short moment of time spark important discussions. I don’t mean that every time I meet somebody new I give or get long revealing confidences. But over the years I’ve heard all types of life stories, been part of important decisions, shared deep sorrow, great joy and much more. I’m amazed how many interesting jobs, travels, families and hobbies interpreters have. Provided you like other people and take an interest in others’ life this is really an upside of the job. And interestingly this does hardly ever happen outside the booth, it’s as if the booth is a perfect mix of space and time.

Oh, and a final word. Don’t forget to take your trash with you when you leave the booth. Leaving trash is disrespect for colleagues and technicians.

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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?

Self assessment

Although I often like to picture my students as readers when I blog, this post is in particular for you, dear students. The idea came after a very pleasant lunch with an aspiring interpreter. We shared ideas and experiences, personally I was probably very close to a perfect personification of the benevolent granny: “I remember when I was…” Anyhow, I realized that my future colleague could use a few hints on self asssessment and out of classroom practice. I have touched upon practice and learning consecutive earlier. But this post is particularly aimed at giving tips on practice and self assessment.

If you are going to improve and grow as an interpreter practice and self-evaluation is essential. You have to listen to yourself critically, identify areas that can be improved and work on them. Here’s my own step-by-step guide to how to do it. This guide assumes you have gotten basic notions of interpreting and what interpreting teachers are looking for. I will give you ideas on how to correct yourself, but you can probably not follow this guide as a DIY interpreting school. I should also say that there are a million ways to practice and assess yourself, these hints are just a few of my personal ideas that have worked well for me and for my students (or so they tell me). They are a mix of tips I got myself and things that I found out worked for me.

One – Equipment
Get yourself a good mp3 memory, small in size but big in memory. It should be small, with a good mike and good recording quality. Always carry your memory (charged or with extra batteries) with you.

Two – When and how much?
Take every opportunity to practice. If you’re lucky enough to get into a dummy booth, just take out your memory and interpret away. But don’t forget to put on your mp3 memory. If you find yourself in a situation where you can take consecutive notes, then do. Maybe you will have the opportunity to interpret just a little later from your notes. And by all means have your friends, girl/boyfriends, and family give you speeches. And practice often! Every day in short units. But don’t overdo it either, your brain needs som rest as well.

Three – Get the original
Ideally you would want to get the original speech to compare to your own interpreting. There are several ways to do this: a) ask a friend to read speeches to you that you take off the Internet. The Internet is such a wealth of speeches, for instance, most governments and organizations post speeches from their front figures on the web for the press to use. But remember that if your friend reads it, s/he has to adapt the speed. Read speeches can literally be impossible. b) Use the internet and listen to uploaded speeches, news, interviews that you can interpret either simultaneously or consecutively – think You Tube. c) News flashes on the radio. 3 minutes every hour or half-hour and unless something big happens they tend to be the same several times in a row. You can interpret one and then listen to the next one and compare your notes and interpreting(again, remember it’s fast).

Four – Assess
The most painful part of this exercise is to listen to yourself. The first thing here is to get used to listen to your own voice, most people are not used to listen to themselves and find it difficult. You just have to get over it, just like ballet dancers have to get over looking at themselves in the mirror. Then you have to get used to listen critically, and now we are getting to the really crucial point about self assessment.
1) Listen to the overall presentation. One of my friends once complimented another colleague by saying, you sound like a skilled story teller reading from a book. This is what you want it to sound like. No “ahms” or “uhms”, no excessive use of “ands and buts”, no extra sounds. If you’re not producing real words you close your mouth – full stop. And speaking of full stops – finish your sentences! You don’t want to leave your listeners wondering what’s coming next. You can break up the speaker’s sentence in several shorter ones, but make sure to finish them. Also listen to how you come across when it comes to intonation, do you sound sure of what you say or unsure? Do you give a trustworthy impression or not? Do you take your listeners by the hand and guide them through the presentation?
2) Now you have to listen to what you actually convey. Do you interpret what the speaker say or something else? You listen for terminology of course, but also for nuances. Do you interpret what the speaker says or are you perhaps changing the message slightly. This is NOT about using all the words and the same words. I guess we already agree that a word for word interpreting is not the ideal here. You want to say exactly what the speaker says, but in your language and your own words.

Five – Keep a log
Keep a log book of your evaluation. Doesn’t have to be very detailed, but you want to keep a record of what type of speeches (e.g. general politics, easy, 10 min, French>English), your goal (e.g. interpret without interruption for 10 minutes/use a political register/avoid using “and” in the beginning of the sentences) and how you succeeded.

Six – Ask for feed back
Ask your fellow students to help you, ask your family to listen to you, and, if you have the possibility, ask a professional interpreter.

Seven – Set goals for your improvement
Based on your assessment you set goals for the next exercise. Tangible goals such as: “I’m going to interpret without interruption for five minutes” or “I’m not going to use any extra-sounds this time” or “I will use the new vocabulary (word X,Y and Z) or the new set phrases I’ve learned”.

And a final word, you start with easy texts and as you feel more confident you add difficulty. If you are aiming for a conference interpreter test you will want to be able to interpret effortlessly in consecutive for more than six minutes and in simultaneous mode for 20 minutes.

And remember the old story about the tourist in New York who was lost and unknowingly asked Arthur Rubinstein “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”. Rubinstein answered: “Practice, practice, practice.”

Good luck and Go for it!

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.

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 06 A Day at Work

A day at work differs a lot if you are on a community mission or conference mission. Your community interpreting day will typically start with you gathering all your dictionaries and word lists (not too much though you will carry it around for the whole day), you will absolutely need a pen and your note pad (actually it may be better to have all that packed up the day before), you also need to know where you are going, names and possible contact numbers (sometimes places can be difficult to get in to). Once you’re ready off to, for instance, the court house.

If you’re lucky it’s a day long hearing and you don’t have to move around that much, otherwise you’re out of the court house after an hour usually (that’s fairly average for shorter law suits or cases, a witness hearing may be even shorter at least where I work), after that you’re off to a midwife for a pregnancy check-up. After the pregnancy check-up you hopefully have time for some lunch and then you’re off to the migration board for an information meeting for newly arrived refugees.

Usually there is little time to prepare, you are lucky if you get a file from the court. For medical appointments you usually just know the name of the person who booked you. Regular meetings at for instance the migration board are good, because usually you do them more than once and will know in general how they are done. You have very little contact with your colleagues, simply because as a community interpreter you rarely work in teams. This also means that you are pretty much on your own for terminology and so forth.

For a conference interpreting mission the day at work starts already a couple of days before your job. Longer before if you are not familiar with the topic, maybe just the afternoon or evening before if this is a routine job. When you start preparing you surf the internet, your read up on the topic, you make word lists and so forth.

The evening before you check all the practical details; where are you going, how long does it take you to get there (if you’re working out of town or out of the country you may be traveling the evening before), do you have your contract, dictionaries, power point etc. If the meeting is very specialized the speakers are usually kind enough to send you their power points.

You get to the meeting at least 30 minutes before you start. An interpreter is NEVER late. In my 15 years of interpreting I have never been late for a private market meeting. I have been late to meetings at different institutions a couple of times, mainly due to flight problems (snow, strike and so forth), it is of course just as inadmissible to be late to an institution, but usually they have a back up team of interpreters so it’s a little less damaging. On the private market you can ruin the whole meeting.

As you get to your meeting you take out all your aids, i.e. dictionaries, word lists, computer, note pad and pen. Pen is also a no, no to forget. You say hello to you colleagues, check last minute changes, have a coffee and… you’re on air.

In the booth you take turns with your colleagues, 15-30 minutes at a time. When you’re not on air, you have to maintain a certain level of concentration as you may need to help your colleague with different things such as; technical mishaps (the sound disappearing is a nightmare), terminology, difficulties to catch names, get the right page in a power point or document and so forth.

At lunch you just want a calm moment and a chat with your colleagues, sometimes it’s good to check terminology with your delegate. No interpreter loves to continue interpreting during lunch conversations and speeches, if interpreting is needed during lunch it is wise to provide extra time for interpreters to recover. You cannot be a top performer all day without proper resting time.

The afternoon you’re back in the booth with basically the same tasks as in the morning. Don’t forget to bring a cup of coffee to the booth for the grave yard slot, you know the first speaker after lunch when everyone is tired.

After a day of interpreting be it community of conference you are worn out. Of course you develop stamina after years in the business, but the fact is that it is a very demanding task where you have to stay alert and concentrate intensely for long periods of time. So what you are longing for after a day of interpreting is a bit of rest and… silence.

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

What kind of interpreter are you?

An old received idea on interpreters is that they are invisible transmitters of meaning or message. This is the kind of interpreter I was brought up to be. You leave your feelings outside the booth or the meeting room, you just transmit the message. As I learned the profession I have also come to question this statement more and more. Is it possible for any human being to be perfectly neutral in any situation?

By this I don’t not mean that I, in my role as an interpreter should go in and give personal comments on the message, but what I mean is that I do believe that just the way I am transmitting something affects my neutrality, my choice of tone, voice, tense. Where I chose to start or stop interpret, in a smaller setting, where I cut in to deliver my interpretation.

There is a Swedish researcher, Cecilia Wadensjö, who wrote a book called “Interpreting as Interaction”. She calls interpreting a pas de deux for three. Claudia Angelelli is an American researcher who wrote “Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role”. In the end of that book she has a letter from one of the respondents in the survey she made who says that interpreting is everything but to “just translate what he says”.

You could also ask yourself if your client wants a perfectly neutral interpreter. In some settings my struggle to be neutral can be seen by my client as a strong hint that I am part of the establishment too, rather than the go-between.

I don’t have any answers to this of course but I find the issue more and more fascinating.