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!

#IntJC – first session. What did I learn?

Last Saturday was extremely busy. I was at a blog meet with other Swedish bloggers in Brussels courtesy Brysselkakan. And in the middle of that lunch our first Interpreting Journal Club started. For those still not initiated to the #IntJC read this decicated website or this blog. But despite eating cakes and going home on the bus I managed to participate fairly well. Thanks to Lionel there is also an archive of the discussions and I would like to dedicate this post to what I learned from the discussions.

The first meeting dealt with interpreter’s personality. We had all read the Nicholson-Schweda article and many of us had also done the Myers-Briggs personality test. First thing that struck me was that of all those who participated (15 people from all over the planet, so different culture, different languages and so forth) and had taken the test there was no clear trend of personalities, we were spread over all the different personalities. This further supports my claim that the Schweda-Nicholson study may say something about interpreting students personality (with that specific cultural background), but not about interpreters. The test may tell us alot about our personality, but not necessarily anything about us as interpreters. There are probably as many interpreting personalities as there are interpreters. The research paper also seems to be focussing on conference interpreting and the professional personality you use as a conference interpreter is not necessarily the same as the one you develop as a community interpreter.

As teachers we are longing for better screening or aptitude tests. It’s so sad that we have entrance tests where we really try to single out the student’s that will be successful and we still have a 50 % fail rate. There’s something we’re doing wrong there. HOWEVER, personality does not seem like the thing to screeen. Also, student develop at different rates. So does the entrance exams spot students with a potential to become interpreter or students who already possess the skill?

The problem with the study is that the MBTI test is grossly western oriented. But it’s interesting to find that there are many different personalities among student’s too. And of course the problem mentionnned above that only students are tested. The author of the study also uses many sweeping descriptions when she outlines her personalities. The interpreters present at #IntJC all found these terribly sweeping. Considering we are all of different nationalities living in different cultures, many of us living in another culture than the one you grew up in we are probably extra sensitive to these generalizations.

Many of the participants also said the went into the role of the speaker. Similarily to what an actor does. This also supports the fact that you would maybe not seem to be the personality you “truly” are. On top of that one of the participants said that he’d done the test twice and gotten different results.

We went on for an hour and twenty minutes and at the end of the meeting we got into stress. Lionel therefore suggested we’d discuss stress on the next #IntJC on September 24th. All the preparation is here.

So, once again – Thank you Lionel for organising this. It’s a great learning/networking/discussion experience. So well needed in our community.

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”.

The Interpreting Journal Club

Doesn’t it sound a little like the Pickwick Papers or Phileas Fogg’s Reform Club? Well it may be a little less romantic but it’s certainly a completely new initiative for the interpreting world. Lionel Dersot of the Liaison Interpreter has modelled a TweetChat event after the Twitter Journal club for Medical Studies. The idea as simple as ingenious. Interested parties prepare by reading an article and decide a time to meet on Twitter or in TweetChat to discuss it. The hashtag is #IntJC.
The first article to read is about interpreting personality. The article is written by Nancy Schweda Nicolson and can be downloaded here. If you would like to take the test too it’s here. I’m an ENFP, in case you wondered.
The time and date is set for September 10th at 10 pm Tokyo time which means September 10th 3 pm Brussels time.
You can read all the details at the site Lionel created for this event here.
As you can see from Lionel’s presentation the idea is that it’s going to be an open forum for people in the industry as well as for students and other interested parties. Interpreters of all kinds.
So do sign in and join the discussion next Saturday!

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

Every word counts

I regularly write short columns for the Swedish journal “Språktidningen“. Recently, I wrote a column on how much every word counts, especially in asylum interviews and asylum hearings. I wrote:

Imagine that you are interpreting a first interview for an asylum seeker. The man says in French: Je suis allé au Port Nouveau” – you interpret: ‘I went to Port Nouveau’, since you have learned that the verb “aller” in French is equivalent to the Swedish term “go”. Later in the interview it becomes clear that the man has walked by foot to the Port Nouveau. The migrations officer becomes suspicious: “How exactly did you go to Port Nouveau? Before you just said that you went there, but now you say that you walked. What did you really do?” Immigration Services assesses whether people are telling the truth. It is important that you suddenly just change your story. With a bit of luck, this small incident is quickly solved, but what if it doesn’t? What if your interpreting is a contributing factor to that the man not assessed as credible.

A more light-hearted but not less clumsy example happened to me when I interpreted at a meeting where the English term “piracy” unexpectedly came up. Since piracy in the term of copying products and brands illegally was most in vogue at the time, I understood and interpreted it to its Swedish equivalent. Then “we” started discussing different ways of fighting this and I followed, until the speaker started talking about the use of different countries’ corvettes (small warship). Strange, to stop piracy with corvettes, I thought, before I realized that “we” talked about the Gulf of Aden and pirates at sea, a totally different term in Swedish.

The interpreter must therefore be alert to any ambiguous words. However, making a mistake is most likely not a question of life and death, as long as you clearly recognize that the mistake is yours and gives the correct translation.

My examples in the column is as I said definitely not an issue of life and death. But when I read this article in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet I got a scary example of how important it may be. The article reads:

“The interpreter […] did not understand what I said,” says Ali Taleb. The statement that he had a cameraman with him when he filmed “Night of Baghdad”, is such a misunderstanding, because he often had camera man with him. But “Night of Baghdad”, he filmed himself. And the statement of a cameraman or not is now being used as evidence that Ali Taleb changed his story. The statement about the camera man gets completely out of proportion, says Clara Klintbo Skilje.

I couldn’t have given a better example myself of how important every word is.