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not follow the proceedings, but there has been a lot going on via Twitter, thanks to @GlendonTranslate both days have been archived here and here.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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