MagnoliaWhen you find yourself in a high-stakes setting, how do you handle the stress?

This is a timely question for the MCI students. This week, our Year One students will take the Transition Exam. It will determine if they will go on to Year Two of the program. Also, in two weeks’ time, the Year Two students will take their Exit Exam. It will determine if they earn the MCI degree and if they can then enter the professional market as conference interpreters.

It is also an important question for interpreters who are on the market. It seems that we are forever being assessed. Want to interpret for the United Nations? You will have to take and pass a test. Want to interpret for the European Union? You will have to take a pass a test. Want to interpret for the Government of Canada? You will have to take and pass a test. Also, when you get right down to it, every day of work as an interpreter is a kind of exam. Whenever you take the microphone, someone will be listening and evaluating the quality of what you do.

In short, the stress isn’t going anywhere. So how do you make it more manageable?

Spring01One technique is to “toggle”.

Let me explain. In a previous blog post, I wrote about using mindfulness meditation to help control anxiety. What’s more, following a recent trip to Monterey, I described the work of my colleague, Julie Johnson. Julie teaches a course on meditation for interpreters, and she is writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject as well.

I told Julie about the ways that I have started to incorporate meditation into my interpreting classes, and I asked her how I might take things to the next level. She said that practice was key. Interpreting students should engage in regular practice to “toggle” — that is to switch consciously — from their regular state of mind to a mindful state.

[tweet_box design=”box_10″]Regular practice allows a student interpreter to “toggle” into a mindful state.[/tweet_box]

What exactly does this mean? Imagine that you’re in a particularly stressful situation. Perhaps you are taking one of the MCI’s year-end exams. Or perhaps you’re about to take an interpreting test so you can freelance with a major international organization. In any event, you might be feeling very anxious.

Mindfulness meditation can help. If you can enter a mindful state, it will make it easier for you to focus on the task at hand, and it will help you to worry a little bit less. However, don’t think that you can simply “pop” into this state of mind on the day of the big exam! This would be akin to thinking that you could win the 100-metre dash at the Olympics without any training at all. You will need to rehearse entering a mindful state over and over again before the big day.

So how do you practice? Here are two thoughts for you.

Spring021. Strengthen Your Focus

A good meditation technique will allow you to sort out what is happening here and now from guilt about the past or worries about the future. It will also help you to accept the now without passing judgment. But being present and remaining non-judgmental is harder than you might think!

The mind is prone to wandering, especially when the here and now is worrying, stressful, or even just plain boring. Also, it’s hard to silence our inner evaluator. We’re forever thinking that this is better than that, or that we prefer one thing over another.

You will need to build your focus the same way that weightlifters strengthen their muscles in the gym. Below is a five-minute guided meditation. It is very simple. It’s designed to help you direct your attention to physical sensations like your breath or feelings in different parts of the body. Try to use the meditation once a day for a couple of weeks. See if it gets easier for you to focus your attention.

Spring032. Simulate a High-Stakes Event and “Toggle” 

After you have gotten used to the simple meditation above, try something a little more challenging. Take a moment to visualize how you will feel on the day of your big exam. For example, imagine the look of the booth you will sit in, the sound as the door closes behind you, the feel of the headset on your ears, etc.

Next, think carefully about how being in that situation will make you feel physically. Consider what sort of thoughts might be running through your head.

When your mental simulation of exam day is ready, listen to the second guided meditation. It is just over five minutes in length, and it is designed to help you be observe your physical and mental reactions in a more mindful way.

Practice doing the second meditation every day for several weeks leading up to your high-stakes event. If you have rehearsed it carefully, your focus on the here and now should be stronger, and you should be better able to manage the nervousness and anxiety you will no doubt feel.

Do you have a stress-management technique you would like to share? Or has meditation contributed to your interpreting performance? Drop me a line in the comments field below.


9 responses to “When the stakes are high, learn to toggle.”

  1. Jeff Staflund says:

    Andrew, a quick note to say how much I enjoy your blog. I regularly share your posts with our staff interpreters here at the Government of New Brunswick. The issues you address are relevant for all of us.

    I’m not a big fan of high-stakes evaluations for interpreters (or any performance-based work for that matter) because performance can vary so much from day to day based on a host of factors. High-stakes evaluations have the advantage of being practical to administer, but on-going and varied types of evaluation give a much more reliable picture of someone’s skill level.

    In New Brunswick, we’ve started a practice whereby each staff interpreter has to assess each colleague at least once during the year. We’re a small team of only five in-house interpreters, but it means that each of us gets evaluated at least four times during the year at different venues. At the end of the year during performance reviews, I ask to see the evaluations. It helps to identify what the issues are and where further training is needed.

    Incidentally, I particularly liked your post on Wild West interpreting and am adapting your guidelines to this year’s evaluation exercise.

    Thanks again, and keep up the great work!

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Jeff! Thanks too for letting us learn a little more about interpreting at the Government of New Brunswick.

      I understand what you are saying about high-stakes evaluations. There definitely can be issues with reliability — how do you know whether a poor performance (or a good one for that matter) was not caused by conditions that have nothing to do with ability, like the temperature of the room, for instance? Other professions look at “test/retest” reliability, or at very least compare the reliability of separate administrations of a test to different groups. This allows them to gain a sense of whether a candidate’s “true score” is impacted by some form of measurement error.

      Unfortunately, interpreter tests aren’t run with large numbers of candidates. This limits what we can do in our profession in a reliability analysis.

      So your practice in NB is a nice solution. In essence, you are building a kind of “portfolio” of interpreting performance, one that is made up of several samples. It does give you more certainty that you are assessing the interpreter’s true competence. And connecting it to a yearly evaluation and ongoing training opportunities is a nice touch. It’s at once human and pedagogical. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. ali says:

    Dear Andrew,

    I really enjoyed your blog every week you send me, however I just started to work as a casual court interpreter here in South Africa. I am really interested to join Glendon university for MCI program, unfortunately I am currently studying English at witwatersrand university here in johannesburg. Thank you for your kind blog.

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Ali. I’m very glad that you’re finding the blog useful. Good luck with your English studies, and say “hello” to our friends at Wits!

  3. Carla Koch says:

    Really enjoyed this article, Andrew. I shall follow your blog in the future.
    Hope to meet you in person, one day.
    Warm regards,

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Carla! I’m glad to know that colleagues in the industry find the content useful.

  4. Wow, great advice. This is definitely something I’ll try to practise before my final exams in a little over a month. This reminds me of visualisation techniques a bit, actually, as well as some emotional intelligence techniques that were featured in Todd Sampson’s Redesign My Brain. It definitely sounds like you and Julie are onto something!

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Glad you found this post helpful, Jonathan. Good luck with your exams, wherever they may be!

  5. Lola Bendana says:

    This article on #interpreting, mindful meditation and stress is brilliant, most #translators and #interpreters have very few tools to lower their stress. #translation and #interpretation can produce anxiety and stress, it is fabulous to read our academic institutions are introducing techniques that will support our interpreters to have a better quality of life. Kudos Andrew!

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