Last night, my four-year-old daughter had an accident. Playing in the living room before supper, she tripped, fell against a hard corner of the couch and knocked one of her front teeth loose.
Once the flow of blood had been stanched, the tears dried and the ice pack placed firmly against her swiftly swelling lip, I shared with her the story of a similar accident I’d had when I was about her age. I’d been fooling around near the TV when I tripped and landed hard against the edge of the TV stand, pushing one of my teeth through my lower lip. I told her I could still remember the shock, the pain, and especially all the blood.
I also shared with her the story of how her big brother, just a few years ago, had scraped his nose on exactly the same part of the couch where she had just left a smear of blood. I told her how he’d cried, and been scared, and how it had taken most of the rest of the summer for the mark to fade.
While these little stories didn’t make the pain go away or put her tooth back in place, my daughter seemed to derive considerable comfort from hearing them.
Last week, my students at the MIC had their final interpreting exams. As I sat there in the examination room and listened to the proceedings, I was reminded of my own final exam experience.
I recalled the dreams I’d had in the run-up to exam week, in which the booths were falling down around me, there were students crawling in and out of the windows of the (fifth floor) exam room, and the sound was coming through my headphones all muffled, and yet I managed to soldier on (I guess that’s the power of positive thinking at work!).
I remembered how I’d felt so light-headed before going into my first consecutive exam that I’d had to squat on the floor in the room next to the exams and put my head between my knees so I wouldn’t pass out. I remembered desperately trying to recall those deep breathing exercises that our voice coach had drilled into us over the previous weeks and months, and wondering where everything I had learned about stress management had gone.
I remembered hearing the sound of my voice coming through the microphone, about three octaves higher than usual, during my first simultaneous exam and wondering if the examiners could make out any words in all that squeaking.
And finally, I thought back to the topics of the speeches given at my exams. As I listened last week to speakers giving exposés on the evils of Lactobacillus casei and the benefits of letting your kid play with a power drill (not in the same speech, of course), I remembered the speeches that had been served up at my own finals.
In one speech, I got to hear about the Bosman ruling (a heady mix of football jargon and EU regulations on the free movement of workers). In another, it was the recent IPO of a promising German tech start-up that took center stage. Another speech was about the Elgin Marbles (which a classmate misheard as “les fraises du Parthénon”, leaving her wondering why all the fuss about a bunch of fruit). Yet another speech discussed the Maltese duck hunters’ opposition to joining the EU. And there were a few more that I’ve completely blocked out.
Last week, as I remembered all of this, I decided it was important to share my own traumatic exam experience with students and readers. Because let’s face it: even when you pass your interpreting exams, they’re still traumatic. One dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”, and I think that just about sums up how I felt.
So yes, I suffered through my exams. Yes, I was nervous and stressed. Yes, I had crazy exam dreams. Yes, I had a few of those black-out moments when I thought the speaker was speaking Chinese (which is not in my language combination, in case you’re wondering). And you know what? Every single other conference interpreter I have ever discussed this subject with did, too. And we all lived to tell the tale.
So what’s next?
Now that the final exams are over, students may hope that the worst is behind them. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Equally, if not more, traumatic experiences may await them as budding conference interpreters. If they plan to work at an international institution, they will have to go through the stress of a formal exam situation all over again, and then withstand the pressure of regular peer reporting. If they plan to work on the private market, they will have to prove their worth over and over again, every time they get into the booth or pull out their notepad for a new client. So it’s not all smooth sailing from here on in.
Just like my daughter is likely to get a few more bumps and bruises as she navigates through her remaining childhood years, my former students, most now graduates with a diploma under their arm, still have their share of interpreting-related trauma to undergo. Hopefully, knowing that they’re not the only ones to go through it will make the journey a little more bearable.