Last year, at the end of the year, we conducted a series of student focus groups. It’s something we do on a regular basis, in order to figure out what we need to improve in the program, and what’s already working well.
When asked what she liked most about her training in the MCI, one student responded by saying, “curated interpreting practice”. I asked her what she meant by “curated”, and she said this: “Putting all the right pieces in place, carefully and deliberately.” Her words came to mind this week, and I thought I would expand on them here.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have written before about adaptive expertise and deliberate practice. In a nutshell, if you want to speed up the time it takes you to become really good at interpreting, you need to throw curve balls at yourself, and you need to always reflect on how you can do a better job of handling them when they come your way.
In other words, constant change and constant reflection are the cornerstones of your interpreting practice. Bear those two points in mind as I walk you now through some of the other “right pieces”. These are the things you need to consider in order to become a better “curator” of your own development as an interpreter.
1. Objective Setting
I know I’m not being original by raising this point. After all, this is hardly the first time I have mentioned it in this blog. But the fact of the matter is that you should not ever interpret without first setting a specific objective for yourself. Objective setting should be the cornerstone of your curated practice.
The basic idea is this. Interpreting is a horribly complex task. If, as a student, you try to do all at once everything that a professional interpreter is required to do, you’re going to feel frustrated. You’re going to feel like you’re not making progress. So make matters simpler. Pick one priority for yourself — or ask others to help you identify a priority. Then set out to work on that priority.
Over the course of a week or several weeks, you will cycle through a set of different objectives, so that you work evenly on all the different facets of interpreting. But you will tackle these facets one at a time, so that they are more manageable.
After every interpreting performance, there has to be an assessment. That’s one of the most important ground rules. What’s more, I always have the person who interpreted take the lead. Most notably, I ask the interpreter to assess, with evidence, whether she or he reached the objective that was set beforehand.
Often, students are vague when they respond. For example, when asked to set an objective before a consecutive interpretation, students will sometimes say, “I want to note down all the main links during the speech.” Subsequently, when asked to assess post-interpretation whether they achieved the objective, they will often say things like, “I sort of feel like I did not do all that well.” It’s at this point that I will ask them for a specific example of a place in the speech (or in their notes) where they did not get the link.
The point here is that you need to drop the plumb-line down. You need to get specific. Only by looking at an actual and concrete problem can you look for real causes, and for real solutions.
3. Peer Assessment
After the interpreter has spoken, I usually turn to the peers and ask them to assess. Most of the time, I ask the peer assessors to limit their comments to the interpreter’s objective. But sometimes this isn’t easy.
For instance, if the interpreter says, “I want to write less and analyze more when taking notes,” it’s difficult for her or his classmates to say whether this was achieved. In a Year Two class, we can all lean over the shoulder of the interpreter and take a look at the notepad, although this is awkward. But in our Year One classes — which are taught online — matters are more complicated.
As a result, we often ask peers to assess other things, like language quality. It’s helpful to have a few comments about how well the interpreter used the target language, and this is especially true when the target is the interpreter’s B language (and perhaps the peers’ A language). The trick here is moderation. A few comments are helpful. An entire grocery list starts to get overwhelming. But if the peers have done their job well, when they have finished, there is little of importance left for me to say.
4. Pure Customers
Up until this point, I have been assuming that all the students present share a pair of working languages. But it’s also great fun to mix things up a bit, language wise. In the MCI, English is usually the one language that people have in common. So I like to have practice sessions where we have a “menu” of speeches in different languages, and where people all work into English.
For example, we might start off with a speech in Mandarin, which is interpreted by a member of our Chinese team. But some of the people in the room commenting might be from our Arabic team, or our French team. They don’t understand the original, and so they really are counting on the interpreter to help them understand. Like any client in real life, they are “pure customers”.
A pure customer can give you feedback of a different sort. A pure customer can draw your attention to places in the interpretation where you are not coherent, and to places where you sound uncertain. As one Year One student said after interpreting for pure customers recently, “it made me think about my interpreting in a whole new light.”
5. Ever-Broadening Circles
Of course, a new perspective is not the only thing you gain from working in mixed-language groups. You also get new information!
Every language team in the MCI has topics that have to be on their professional radar. People who work with French in Canada need to be familiar with our constitutional debate. Mandarin-booth interpreters need to know a thing or two about territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Any Arabic-booth interpreter worth their salt must be conversant with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. MCI students generally know the issues that are important for their booths, but they tend not to know the issues that are key for other booths.
I try to change this with my choice of speeches in mixed-language groups. I’ve listened as French-speaking interpreters struggled with the name of current Chinese president Xi Jinping, and I’ve heard Mandarin speakers — people who have lived in Canada for many years — get nervous when discussing Quebec’s Distinct Society. I believe it’s important to take interpreter trainees out of their comfort zone, and I think it’s great to see student expand their circles of knowledge. You can do this too by working on speech material that has been designed for classmates from other language teams.
Looking to reap the benefits of curated interpreting practice? Use these five factors as your foundation, and the time you spend with classmates — both those that share your languages and those that don’t — will be more productive.
Got a point to share about how you curate your own practice? Thoughts on what the “right pieces” are for you? Drop me a line in the comment field below.