Passing the Stress Test

Mid-term exams are coming up on many conference interpreting courses, and so it’s time for students to start preparing for the moment when they will be asked to show the examiners everything they’ve learned.

All that class time dedicated to honing note-taking technique, all those hours spent reading up on different fields, all that glossary preparation and work on their passive and active language skills … It’s time to pull it all together so that, in the space of a few short minutes, students can show that board of external examiners that yes, they have what it takes to become conference interpreters.

I think it’s fair to say that most students will have dutifully done their homework, diligently prepared their topics, learned their lessons, and even gone through that all-important List of Dos and Don’ts for Interpreting Exams. So, by all rights, they should make it through the upcoming exams in one piece. So why is it that so many are lying awake at night, worrying about the exams and wondering if they are going to survive the ordeal? To me, it can all be summed up in one word.

Even the best-prepared students will have an added factor to deal with on exam day. Call it stage fright, call it performance anxiety – the fact is that many people suffer from this performance-related stress, and interpreting students are no exception. I want to make sure that all students have a fair chance of dealing with this stress when the time comes, and so I’ve decided to share a few ideas with readers on what can be done to “pass the stress test”.

The three ideas I want to explore today are not new. Pretty much everyone will have heard about them at some point. Still, I think it’s useful to review them here, so that interpreting students can see how they apply to their situation in particular. So here goes:

1)  Remember to Breathe

It sounds so easy, right? Well, it should be. And yet, our minds get in the way when stress rears its ugly head, and make our bodies do silly things like hold our breath, breathe shallowly and rapidly, or even hyperventilate. And this affects our ability to perform.

The good news is that this feedback loop between mind and body works both ways. This means that with a little effort, its effects can be reversed. Just as feeling stressed will cause you to take rapid, shallow breaths, forcing yourself to to take long, deep breaths will actually send a signal to your brain to calm down. Try it and see for yourself. In particular, try it when you’re standing out in the corridor before your interpreting exam, light-headed and oxygen-deprived. The technique works wonders.

To get a better idea of how breathing and stress management are linked, check out this article with breathing exercises for stress relief. Or why not give it a whirl using this short audio track with a basic breathing exercise? If you prefer video (and understand Spanish), then watch this one by Lourdes of AIB on relaxation techniques for interpreters:

Now that we’re all relaxed and breathing deeply, it’s time for …

2) The Power of Positive Thinking

Great, that old chestnut, you’re thinking right now. That’s the one that says if you believe in something strongly enough, it will happen. Sure, whatever. If that were true, we’d all be driving Porsches and married to Hollywood starlets, right?

Well, not quite. I’m thinking more of the concept of creative visualization. Granted, it’s only slightly less hokey, but since it seems to work for me (and for many elite athletes), I thought I’d share it here.

The plan is this: in the days running up to your interpreting exam, spend some time each day picturing yourself doing a great job. In your mind, go through the various stages of the exam again and again, and each time, picture yourself doing exactly what it is expected of you and more. The idea is that this positive reinforcement will actually lead to you doing better on the exam day itself.

There is some evidence bearing out the effectiveness of the technique (at least if you ask the followers of Dr Edmund Jacobsen). And at a basic level, it seems to make sense. People who imagine they will succeed generally should do better than those who are convinced they will fail, shouldn’t they?

Anyway, the good thing about this technique is that it can’t hurt to try it. At the very least, engaging in a bit of creative visualization might go some way to turning all those nightmares about flunking into dreams of success.

3) Stress Can Be Your Friend

Finally, I’d remind students that a little bit of stress is not necessarily a bad thing. The idea is not to apply the deep breathing and positive thinking techniques described above to the point where you end up walking into the exam room so completely chilled-out and mellow that there’s no getting a complete, legible sentence out of you.

Far from being your worst enemy, that “edge” you feel on the day of the exam is probably exactly what you will need to give those examiners the performance of a lifetime. And remember, a little bit of stress is likely to be a constant presence in your professional life as an interpreter as well, so you might as well get used to it. In a previous post (“The Right Stuff?“) I looked at how an ability to deal with stress seemed to be one trait shared by all professional interpreters (also, read more about interpreters and stress in this blog post by Tulkur).

So to sum up: don’t fear stress needlessly, or try to completely ban it from your life. You need to learn to work effectively with it. Hopefully, the ideas I’ve shared with you today will help you do just that – and then you too can be sure that you will “pass the stress test”.

7 thoughts on “Passing the Stress Test

  1. Hi thanks for this post !

    I remember vividly what impact stress can have on you and your performance.

    What really helped me go through the ordeal (and get my hands on my degree) : I had a friend of mine coming to my exam (in my country, interpreting exams are open to the public). That friend did not understand the source languages, which allowed me to “forget” about all those excellent interpreters listening to me and really focus on the fact that I was “working” for someone in the room, a friendly face who needed me.

    Wanted to share that, because it really saved me !

    Bye !


    • That’s interesting! I’m glad it worked for you. I usually try to do the same thing: find a “customer” in the room and tell myself that I am working for that particular person. It takes the abstraction out of the job.

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