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.

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What about Interpreters and Stress? Is stress in interpreting a myth?

I have colleagues who have night mares about looking for the booth, running around in maze-like corridors without ever finding your way to the booth. I cannot remember night mares like that. On the other hand I remember real life situations when I was completely stressed out sitting on a bus, in a taxi, on a train that does not simply arrive on time. So much for stress around the job, but what about stress on task.

I think the worst stress situations for me in the interpreting event is when you sit in the same room as you clients and you realize that they for one reason or another do not believe what you say. And you have to take back your clients trust.

So much for my personal reflections. Interpreters and stress was the topic of the second Interpreting Journal Club #IntJC. You can read the chat here #IntJC Session 2, September 24th. I have been meaning to write up my impressions and what I’ve learned from the second Tweetchat for quite a while now but time flies as usual. Maria Cristina de la Vega wrote a very nice report here. My participation record of #IntJC has not been splendid. I was particularily annoyed to miss out on the one about ethical issues. I will try to write up blog posts on the different issues dealt with based on my own experience and the protocols from the chats.

People’s general perception of interpreting is also that this must be very stressful, people hear you are an interpreter, and often respond – “but it must be very stressful”. So what did the interpreters present at the discussion think about it.

First of all, to a certain extent stress is positive, but the interpreter easily crosses the line to negative stress. Stress – or maybe excitement – is positive if you can cope with it. It keeps you on your toes and several participants felt that it helps you deal with the situation at hand, but when stress takes over it makes you “freeze”. @DosParules defined positive stress as the fuel that makes your engine react and negative stress as the one with you cannot cope and makes you freeze. @avic1 beautifully said when excitement turns into anxiety that’s when the stress gets negative. Stress also affects your performance. If you’re stressed your performance decline, you have to cope and stay serene.
It turned out though that these interpreters stress less about the actual interpreting and more about the stress around work, technology, working conditions, documentation, location of the meeting and so forth. Stress also comes from many things that are not necessarily work related (personal situation, environmental factors etc). Interestingly enough, stress form speakers and colleagues can be contagious. @MariaCdelaVega2 rightly pointed out that you should not waste your time on the imponderables. So true, but so difficult not to, if you ask me.

Different ways to deal with the stress in the situation were voiced, those were breathing, sticking to the topic, imposing a calm attitude, stay neutral. Different participants also had different ways of how they behaved under stress, it could be cognitive, subjective or behavioural, i.e. people’s performance goes down, they get moody and they start to move around.

It can be very stressful to see that you are not understood, or to not understand what you have to interpret. In some situations the interpreter can be used as scape goat, a situation which is stressful for the interpreter. Another issue is clients’ unrealistic demands, since you’re the interpreter of X-language you can probably interpret Y-language too. When you are not in the booth, but next to your client, your clients perceive your stress and that becomes stressful too. Only @lioneltokyo had the experience of working in a crisis/conflict situation, but all interpreters agreed that those situations are likely to be extremely stressful but in another way than the “usual” work stress.

Preparation can be stressful too, for instance when you have difficulties preparing yourself or when you are not enough prepared. Preparation is more stressful for beginners than for experienced interpreters. Jobs that come up last minute are very stressful and some even say no to them because of stress.
Is interpreting more stressful than other jobs? The participants said that it is more stressful than many jobs, but it does not deal with life and death or other extreme jobs.

On the issue of how interpreters deal with stress on a more general level, we all agreed that having a life outside interpreting was important. Participants also stressed an active life, running yoga and so forth.

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!

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!