Would You Like Some Cheese With Your Whine?

Two months ago, my esteemed interpreter colleague Kevin blogged about studying for the interpreting exam. In particular he wrote, “If you are a complainer: quit complaining. If you are an interpreter who needs to pass an exam, dedicate yourself to skills building”
(www.najit.org/blog, 3/13/15). Never were wiser words spoken. Too often have I heard complaints about how the test is structured, given, and graded. Too often have I heard the bewildered lament of somebody who has been interpreting for near-on decades yet cannot pass the test. I have two words for you: RECORD YOURSELF. You might just discover what you need to learn. After that, remember that recording is just the start. Here are your steps to success:


1) Analyze First Draft: Listen to your recording carefully, with the original text in front of you and a pencil in hand. Cross out every word you omitted or mispronounced. Note every spot where you changed the gender or verb tense (watch out for conditional and subjunctive!) Pay special attention to Spanglish. For example, the “term of the agreement” is NOT the “término del acuerdo” in Spanish. Also pay attention to the lesser-mentioned but just-as-important syntactic calque. For example, take the common phrase “he was put in jail.” To interpret that as, “fue puesto en la carcel” is too literal. A much more natural way to say this in Spanish would be, “lo encarcelaron.” Study up on active/passive voice in both languages if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense. Then, listen to register. If you hear, “they threw him in the slammer” or “he did not so much as bestow a glance upon her,” can you maintain that language in your interpretation? Listen carefully! Then, listen again! If you cannot find a single mistake, then congratulations; the test graders must surely have erred.

2) Integrate Solutions: Just supposing that by chance you encountered some problems, your next step is (surprise) to find some solutions. Too often, prospective interpreters simply do an exercise once and then move on. I tell my students that in so doing, they are missing out on an important opportunity. Compare our profession to that of a musician: Yes, once on the stage the show must go on, but at home, pianists will practice even very small pieces of music over and over, until their hands can do the work on their own. We must do that as well. Once you listen to example interpretations and research vocabulary yourself, integrating the solutions again and again will allow your brain to remember what to do. Some of the vocabulary will become second nature, and as you become more familiar with the text you can begin to concentrate on the nuances. Which leads me to…

3) Polish it Up: Finally, when you can’t take it anymore, listen to your recording without a transcript or a pencil. Simply listen. If you were the client in court hearing the recording, would you understand the general topic and the details? Do you hear natural inflections or are there many stutters, hesitations and repetitions? Try recording yourself a couple more times and see if you can make yourself as natural as possible.

As you listen to your recordings, you will be working on improving specific words and phrases in a particular exercise. As you begin to feel more confident with your analytical skills, you should start to globally identify points of weakness. If names and numbers consistently present a problem in simultaneous, practice exercises that focus on names and numbers. If long utterances in consecutive throw you off, focus there and also seek out exercises for improving memory, visualization and note-taking. And last but not least, if test-taking itself is what throws you for a loop, simulate the stress with a friend who holds a timer and does his best to make you uncomfortable—interrupting, glaring, dropping things, etc. Practice taking a deep breath and continuing your interpretation.

If you train properly, you will find it to be a productive and humbling experience. It is so scary to see what we don’t know, yet it is important to recognize it so that we can improve. And it is also important to note what you do well! Not only will this be a boost for your confidence and allow you to learn and interpret with more ease, but it will also provide you a foundation upon which to build. We must be humble enough to see where we can improve, but confident enough that a mistake doesn’t wreck us.

I tell my students, “If you get thrown off, take a deep breath and keep going. Interpret like you are the best interpreter there ever was.” Sure, tests aren’t perfect and some people aren’t test-takers, but that’s why we have the 30% flexibility to not be our best that day. Trust me, practice makes perfect, and training our skills is surely more productive than complaining about the structure of what is actually a decently objective test. But if you’d like to keep whining, I’ll keep you company—I do so enjoy a nice slice of cheese.

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