Portrait of a Conference Interpreting Course

This week, classes started on the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna. By now, students will have received the course outline and schedule, met their fellow students and some of their teachers, and will have a rough idea of what to expect over the next nine months.

Since the next several entries in my blog are going to discuss various aspects of interpreter training using mainly this course as my reference, I thought it might be useful to share some of this basic information with my readers. What I’m going to do today is offer a general outline of the Master’s in Conference Interpreting (or MIC, as we like to call it). This “portrait” of the course will be more like a pencil sketch than a full-blown, life-sized portrayal, but my intention will be to add colour and detail to this sketch over the next few months.

The MIC started this past Monday and will run for 33 weeks, stopping only for Christmas, Easter and a couple of bank holidays. The first four weeks will be dedicated exclusively to memory exercises, after which there will be a five-week introductory module for consecutive interpreting. The introduction to simultaneous technique comes in the last week of November, and from then on classes will alternate between consecutive and simultaneous technique. The (non-eliminatory) mid-term exams for consecutive are held in February and the mid-terms for simultaneous are scheduled for April. The finals will be held in the first week of June.

Each week, a different topic will be the focus of the speeches and exercises given in class. This is to help students broaden their general knowledge and learn preparation and terminology-building skills. Topics range from such “light” matters as tourism, education or culture in the first few weeks to the “heavier” fields of science and technology, energy, trade, fisheries and agriculture nearer to the end of the course.

Every year, the MIC also includes a trip to Brussels to visit the EU institutions, student mobility exchanges with other Master’s courses in Europe, and classes and lectures by visiting trainers from the EU, UN and private markets.

A Week in the Life of the MIC

Classes on the MIC run from Monday to Friday, starting each day around 9 a.m. and running until lunchtime (which in Spain means around 2 p.m.). An average week will include classes in consecutive and simultaneous technique from all of the students’ passive languages into their active languages, as well as a lecture on the European institutions (first term) or Economics (second term). This year, I will also be running a monthly lecture series that I launched last year which looks at different aspects of the theory and practice of interpreting (you will be hearing more about that in future posts, I can assure you!).

Afternoons will generally be spent on self-study, either individually or in groups. This will be guided by teachers in the beginning, but students will increasingly be responsible for organising this self-study on their own.

The Student Body

The MIC generally accepts 16 to 20 of the 100-odd candidates who apply to attend the course in any given year. This year, there will be 19 students. The majority of students at the MIC work in the Spanish booth, but other booths (such as English, German and Italian) have also been trained at the MIC. This time around is no exception: I will have four English booth students to work with (picture Michelle rubbing her hands in anticipation)!

The passive languages offered on the course vary from year to year and depend on the students’ language combinations. This time, we will have German, French, Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and Greek; in other editions, the MIC has covered passive Polish, Slovene, Dutch, Danish, Czech and others.

An interesting note: the vast majority of students on conference interpreting courses are women, but this year there will be five men on the MIC, which means they will represent more than 25% of the total. That’s got to be some sort of record! Without wanting to reveal any personal details of individual students, I will add that the age range for this crop of students is between 22 and 41, with five students over the age of 30 (if you’re wondering why this matters, read this post I wrote on when to study). Also, the academic backgrounds of three of the students are in fields other than language studies or translation/interpreting.

One Portrait Among Many

Now that I’ve told you about the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna, I want to hear from you about other training courses. I know many of my readers either study or teach on similar courses around the world, or have done so in the past, and what I would like to know is what those courses are like. As you were reading the above description, what did you notice was the same as or different from the way things are done on your course? Please share your observations in the blog comments section below (or on my Facebook page, if you prefer).

On a related note, Lourdes, the conference interpreter responsible for the video series on interpreting to be found on YouTube at Lourdesaib, just recently interviewed one of the senior instructors on the MIC. Here’s the video, for those readers who might have missed it:

Starting an interpreter training course? Better (not) keep your day job!

So you’ve been accepted onto a postgraduate conference interpreter training course. Congratulations! That means that you’ve made it past the first hurdle and are ready to get down to the business of learning the skills you need to become a conference interpreter.

Classes will be starting in a few weeks at most of the courses held in Europe, which means that right around now you will be putting those final details into place: packing your bags, stacking your dictionaries, kissing your mom / significant other / pet goldfish good-bye, and setting off into the wild blue yonder.

Chances are you have also already done some thinking about how you will be making ends meet while at grad school. There are probably as many solutions to this problem as there are grad students in the world. Some (like yours truly) will have taken out yet another student loan, others will be drawing on whatever savings they’ve managed to sock away (yep, did that, too!). Some may have a long-lost uncle footing the bill, or a selfless significant other willing to help subsidize their beloved’s academic venture with their own regular paycheck. And a few misguided souls may be planning to keep on working on the side while they study… Oops!

As  someone who put herself through her own undergraduate (not postgraduate) degree working odd jobs (as a bookstore clerk, tour guide, research assistant, exam marker, you name it…), it pains me to say this, but it is virtually impossible to do paid work and study conference interpreting at the postgraduate level at the same time.

The sort of course you are about to embark upon is a full-time job in itself. You’re looking at 15-20 hours per week of class time, 10-15 hours of group or individual practice outside of class, plus preparation work, studying to expand your general knowledge – and don’t forget that all-important down time (taking in a movie, going for a jog or a swim) when you are supposed to be letting your brain rest so it can consolidate all the new information it has been taking in. Not to mention those eight hours of beauty sleep … When, for goodness’ sake, is a side job supposed to fit into all that?

Generally speaking, and for obvious reasons, the paid work that gets done by an interpreting student takes the form of freelance translation. For someone who has, say, just spent the last several years building up a client base as a freelance translator, it is extremely tempting to want to maintain those professional contacts while studying – you know, just in case. Not to mention the fact that (life savings, spouses and rich uncles aside) some extra income will surely come in handy in a city such as Geneva, London or Paris.

But the one argument that should outweigh all those speaking in favor of “keeping your day job” is the fact that if you don’t focus on what you came to do – i.e. learn to be an interpreter – chances are you won’t make it. And then all your efforts that brought you this far in the first place will have been in vain.

I have seen the results of this time and again: the student who consistently shows up late for class, hasn’t done the reading, doesn’t have any glossaries prepared, or might not even show up at all for a few days running, who ends up falling further and further behind the rest of the group until, alas, he reaches the point of no return.

On small, intimate courses such as the one where I teach, this sort of behavior does not go unnoticed. On the contrary, usually within a few weeks of classes starting, the coordinators have already identified those who are struggling with the coursework due to outside commitments and have taken them to one side to have a little chat about it (assuming they can find them, that is!). Very often, the culprits for the no-shows and late arrivals are those urgent translations “that just had to be done by Friday” or “got sent unexpectedly by this really important client”.

Life, The Great Juggling Act

Just to make sure there is no misreading of my intent here, let me explain the title of this post to any readers out there who might not be all that familiar with English idioms. “Better keep your day job!” is the sort of reply you might give to someone who has just told you about some rash, doomed-to-failure project that they’ve started out on (“So, like, I’ve started night classes at this school for trapeze artists because I heard the Cirque du Soleil is recruiting”). I don’t want anyone mistakenly thinking that I am implying that students of interpreting fall into this category. My message today is quite clearly “Better NOT keep your day job!”, for the reasons I’ve expressed above.

Of course, not everyone has a choice in the matter. You may genuinely need the income that your side job generates, or really not want to risk losing your business contacts. If you are one of those students who does plan on keeping your day job while studying interpreting, then all I would ask you is that you realize what you are getting yourself into. Obviously, nobody – not me, nor your teachers, nor your concerned course coordinators who only want the best for you – can dictate how you will spend your time while pursuing your interpreting degree. But do think about all the hurdles you’ve overcome so far (and all the ones you have yet to deal with on the road to becoming a conference interpreter) and please make sure that you make the most of your training by using your time wisely.

Happy New Year!

For one reason or another, my life has always followed the rhythms of the academic year instead of the calendar year. For me, September has always been a much more suitable time than January for taking stock, starting new projects – and yes, for making New Year’s resolutions! In keeping with this spirit, this September 1st post will share with readers my reflections on what this blog has achieved so far and announce what is going to come next.

So Far, So Good

When I launched The Interpreter Diaries a few months back, my intention was to offer a blog-shaped opportunity for people interested in interpreting to find information and discuss their questions and concerns. The feedback I have received so far is that this is more or less the role the blog is fulfilling. Yippee!

Here are some other brief reflections on what has happened here over the past six months:

The best part about writing a blog? Everything I’ve learned since I launched it – I thought I’d be sharing knowledge, but as it turns out, I think the biggest learner here has been yours truly. There is a lot of expertise out there, and some very interesting outreach work being done to spread it. The most interesting discoveries have found their way onto  my blogroll. What I have been learning will not only improve what I have to offer in this blog, but will hopefully also feed into my work as an interpreter and trainer.

Mission accomplished? Of all the numbers WordPress happily spits out at me on its statistics page, I am most proud of the one that tells me that my 19 posts have received a total of 267 comments so far! Even taking into account the fact that half of these comments are my own replies to messages left by readers, that still makes for an average of 7 reader comments per post. In addition to sharing information, I wanted to generate dialogue and debate, and it would appear that this is precisely what this blog has been doing.

Any regrets? Umm, can’t think of any at the moment … To be honest, my only regret so far has to do with my decision to use US instead of UK spelling conventions – hence all the annoying capital letters in the titles and headings (blame my Canadian fence-sitter’s heart for that one). I live in constant fear that I will get the two mixed up and end up using words like “colour” and “organisation” by accident …

The Master Plan

The results of a personality test I took recently told me that I am always finding (and creating) patterns. This is no less true in my blog. What may look on the surface like a random collection of blog posts actually has a very clear structure in my own (deluded?) mind. I am now going to explain this structure to curious (and possibly confused) readers.

So far, this blog has been mainly addressing general issues of interest to people who would like to find out more about the world of interpreting – possibly with a view to actually becoming an interpreter some day. The posts addressing this type of topic have been filed under the category “for aspiring interpreters”.

Of course, life is never as linear or organized as one might like it, and so other types of posts have been interspersed with this main thread (posts on resources, guest blogs, and so on). But that has been the main idea underlying what has been published on The Interpreter Diaries over the past several months.

This general, introductory section is now going to be wrapped up, and the next big section launched. What better moment than the start of a new academic year to start writing posts directed at interpreting students? That is precisely what I plan to do over the next several months. Upcoming posts will look at issues that come up in interpreter training, and will be roughly in line with what is happening on the course where I teach (although as readers will see, it will be anything but an online version of an interpreting course, nor will it discuss specifically what’s happening in my classes, to respect students’ privacy).

Once that’s done – say, in several months’ time – I plan to look at issues related to starting out as a working interpreter. That will comprise the third main section of my blog. And after that, who knows? Fortunately, that brings us far enough into the future that even my poor, micro-managing soul can handle uncertainty beyond that point.

And That New Year’s Resolution?

Amazingly enough, it’s not related to interpreting. It’s the same one I made last September – to spend more time at the pool and get into shape! I hope to have better luck this time around …