Language Skills-Building for Interpreters

Interpreters face somewhat of a conundrum upon entering the profession. That is, we are expected to have “native-level” discourse and comprehension skills in all of our languages. Advertisements boast “perfect fluency,” and respectable interpreting courses necessarily steer their content away from language acquisition. Yet, of course, secretly we realize that none of us is perfectly fluent in any language; not even close. So, I think it’s time for us all to admit that we have some work to do in the area of language and that there is nothing shameful about this.

That brings me to today’s topic.

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The Final Frontier

I kind of feel like my fall should be entitled, Conference Interpreting: The Final Frontier. Because (that’s right, drum roll!) on September 10th I begin classes at Glendon College, York University, for the Master’s in Conference Interpreting (MCI) program.

The start of my classes will mark the culmination of over a decade of work. It´s been sixteen years (half my short lifetime) since I started learning Spanish and French. I’ve already blogged about sweating over the subjunctive, all the hours spent on interpreting tests and several years working as a staff interpreter, so I won’t do it over now. Suffice it to say that it’s been a very long time since I told my professors that I wanted to work at the UN one day. This fall we will see if I’m even close to meeting the challenge.

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Team Interpreting Standards: Are We Ready?

I remember it well. I had just begun my interpreting career, and I was placed with a more experienced interpreter to provide services for a competency hearing. I had been interpreting simultaneously for a while, and now it was my partner’s turn. She switched to consecutive as the judge began to question the witness. And then suddenly, I heard my colleague say something in English that was an absolute misinterpretation of the original Spanish, and vital to the judge’s decision-making. My heart started to thud in my chest as I frantically tried to decide what to do.

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The Real Life of Interpreters

My identity crisis started almost exactly two years ago when I left my job as a staff interpreter in New Jersey and headed into the Great Unknown (Montreal, Canada, to be exact). My plan was to work on my French so that I could add it as my third language and really take the plunge into the world of conference interpreting. When money ran out, I could always go home and freelance. (Aren’t we interpreters lucky?)

So, I arrived in Montreal on a July afternoon in 2016, with a not-very-solid plan and a very realistic-seeming fantasy. I knew exactly one person in the city, and I wasn’t qualified to work as an interpreter in Canada. To top it off, it turns out that it is hard to improve your French when you have exactly no-one to talk to! To say that I went from excited to depressed would be an understatement. It was frequently difficult to get out of bed in the morning.

I happened into the field of online training when I re-connected with Agustín from de la Mora Interpreter Training (they have tons of great classes, and I still teach for them. Check them out here.) I slowly started getting to know the city and the people and began making minimal progress on my French. Then one day, some interpreters from my old courthouse reached out to me for help.

Hey, I know you’re a nerd, and I really need to pass this certification exam…could you help coach me privately?” Okay, they didn’t call me a nerd. But in reality, that is what I was, and suddenly it seemed that my years of neurotic studying had paid off. I had tons of material already from having taken every interpreting exam available to me. Then I created my website, put the word out on Facebook, and suddenly, a business was born.

It turns out I love training interpreters. I love it possibly even more than I love interpreting, which is saying a lot. It has given me a new sense of purpose in my new home, and over the last year and a half I have transformed from interpreter into coach. My ear has become even sharper while listening for the kind of subtle changes to meaning that students don’t realize they are making, and my knowledge base has grown along with my students’.  I celebrate their successes with them and encourage them past the bumps they encounter along the way. Recently I started traveling for in-person training sessions (I’m actually on a plane as I write this) and I adore teaching face to face. It has gotten easier to get out of bed in the morning.

I spend my days coaching my students on several very important facts:

  • Interpreting is stressful. Anxiety is common. You can’t expect it to go away.
  • Therefore…you must practice dealing with anxiety productively.
  • You must recognize the feeling of confidence and calm, and learn to re-create it in more stressful situations.
  • You will often fail before you succeed. Failure only counts as failure if you let it stop you from achieving what you want.
  • There is no such thing as perfection. I repeat: Such. Thing!
  • You must believe you are the best interpreter there ever was. Then, practice until you are.
  • Most importantly: Don’t forget to breathe!

I spend almost as much time on this “anxiety management” as I spend teaching interpreting technique. So, what’s all this got to do with interpreters in real life? Well, it’s not easy to rebuild a life from scratch. While I help my students to improve, my own interpreting skills and immediate vocabulary recall are beginning to grow a bit rusty from disuse, causing my professional identity to feel a bit precarious. When I’m teaching, I feel great, but there are moments when I have a hard time with my own anxiety and self-confidence in my personal life. And after months of telling my students the same thing over and over, it occurred to me I really have to start practicing what I preach in real life. Because life, just like interpreting, is unpredictable. We must learn to handle changes and unexpected turbulence with grace, breathing through our anxiety and insecurities. Most of all, we can’t expect ourselves to be perfect.

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Georgia Peaches and Interpreting Conferences

Last week found me in Atlanta, Georgia for a whirlwind weekend with the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT). Local organizations are vital to keeping our profession alive, and it was an honor to be able to attend and present at this one. I wanted to share my experience with those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be there. (And okay, so I don’t think peaches were in season, but the rest of the food in Atlanta was so good that I may find an excuse to start interpreting there!)

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