A Closer Look at Distance Learning

The other day I had the opportunity to participate in a videoconference organised through the distance learning project run by the European Master’s consortium (EMCI). It was the third such videoconference I’d taken part in, and I have to say that the experience is starting to grow on me!

The session used a live video link to bring together the students and trainers of the Master’s course (MIC) down here on Tenerife with a number of evaluators from the European Commission’s Interpreting Directorate (DG SCIC) in Brussels. Many videoconferences, including the other two I took part in, link universities with other training institutions, but in this particular case it was the SCIC at the other end of the line.

The session went more or less like this:

1) A speech was given by either a trainer in La Laguna or an interpreter in Brussels
2) One of the students in La Laguna provided a consecutive interpretation of the speech
3) Feedback was provided by the evaluators in Brussels
4) The whole process started over again, until four speeches had been done.

Basically, you could say that it was just another consecutive class – with the minor detail that there were some 3,000 km separating the students from the evaluators.

Right, so …

Why, you might ask, would one bother with all the fuss of setting up remote classes such as these? Well, there are a number of good reasons.

If you ask the students, I’m sure they’d say the best thing about it is the chance to get feedback from someone other than the same old broken-record teachers (and here I include myself) they hear from day in, day out during the course.

If you ask the participating universities, they’d probably say it’s a good way to deepen their cooperation and exchange knowledge while making the most of scarce training resources for certain less common languages (e.g. one speech yesterday was given in Greek).

And if you ask the SCIC (which I haven’t, although I imagine I could), I’d guess they’d say that it offers them an opportunity to contribute hands-on to the training of their next generation of interpreters (click here for more details of how the SCIC helps universities).

If you’d like to get a better idea of what such a videoconference class might look like ¡n practice, the EMCI has obligingly posted a number of past classes in the Pedagogical material section of its website (under the heading “Webstreamed classes”). One, a videoconference consecutive class between the University of Lisbon and Charles University in Prague, is very similar to the other two sessions I participated in, which linked the University of La Laguna with its counterparts in Ljubljana and Lisbon. If you have 104 minutes to spare and speak Czech and/or Portuguese, you might just want to click here to check it out.

Possibly more compelling for readers is the series of webstreamed interpreting master classes and lectures offered by the ETI in Geneva. Their channel is called “Live ETI / En direct de l’ETI” and can also be found on the Pedagogical material page on the EMCI site, but for the sake of convenience, I’ll just give you the direct link here. The next live master class is scheduled for February 24, 2012 (so mark your calendars!).

Live ETI also has a sizable archive of past classes, which constitute a valuable training resource. There, you can find such gems as the speech on “Neurological diseases, and a possible treatment for Creutzfeld Jakob disease using aminotiazols” as part of the class on Health Challenges for the 21st Century, as well as the much more boring-sounding session on social media entitled The Many Faces of Facebook. Many big names in the field of interpreter training, such as Roderick Jones, Barbara Moser-Mercer and Clare Donovan, can all be found on the lists of participants.

Haven’t Been There, Not Done That

So far I’ve been talking to you about the EMCI distance learning initiative, which I have been involved in directly. Of course, there are more interpreter training initatives out there taking advantage of new technologies to bridge distances.

One example that immediately springs to mind is the new series of online lectures on interpreting offered by the FTSK Germersheim. There is one series of classes is aimed at professional intepreters and another that targets beginners. Classes are held online once a week and run for 8-10 weeks through the winter term. To get an idea of what a class might be like, check out the course description for the introductory module on note-taking (all the information is in German only – sorry! – since the courses are meant for people with German as a working language).

Closer to home, the postgraduate course in community interpreting (EUTISC) offered by the University of La Laguna now offers part of its coursework via the virtual platform Moodle. The idea is to make the course more accessible to people who work during the day and can’t attend classes on a regular basis. Finally, a great deal further from home (mine, at least) is the recently announced online interpreting course in Virginia in the United States.

What other distance learning opportunities have you heard about in the intepreting world? What do you think about teaching interpreting at a distance? Take a moment between bites of turkey this festive season to drop me a line and let me know!

Franz Pöchhacker at the UPF

A few weeks ago, Franz Pöchhacker of the University of Vienna held a public lecture at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. My colleague at AIB, Mary Fons, was fortunate enough to be able to attend the lecture, and generously agreed to tweet the event using @AIBInterpretes.

Following the tweet report, there was a request that Mary publish a summary of the lecture for those who were not able to attend the talk. Since AIB doesn’t have a blog of its own (yet!), I offered to publish the report here on The Interpreter Diaries. So here it is! Thanks, Mary – and happy reading!


Franz Pöchhacker, Interpreter Studies: Evolution and State of the Art – 30 May 2011, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Pöchhacker was an engaging lecturer with a sense of humor. He managed to cover the history and present trends in the field of interpreter studies quite comprehensively in the relatively short time available.

 I, on the other hand, will be unable to give a good summary of his presentation (I suspect reading his book is probably best). We interpreters may be good at multitasking, but frankly, tweeting AND summarizing AND asking questions AND followup questions is a bit too extreme for me to handle. So all you’re going to get is what struck my fancy and some ensuing thoughts.

Just Do It

First, I liked this quote: “Our primary concern [as interpreters] is being able to do [the job], rather than make interpreting an academic study, but the two should go together.” The first half of the sentence is the part that made me want to cheer, but that’s probably because I wasn’t persevering enough to complete the research section of the excellent trainer training course run by Barbara Moser which I attended back in the 90s. I enjoy hearing about research, reading conclusions and sifting the evidence to see if I agree, but actually doing research myself, and doing it properly, is not the kind of hard work I seem to excel at, since interpreting itself with all its adjoining tasks (studying, invoicing, record keeping, networking…) keeps grabbing my attention.

Interpreters In Ancient Egypt

A historical tidbit to bring up in conversations – the title “Overseer of Dragomans” was used in 3000-year-old Egyptian documents (6th dynasty, for those of you in the know). This means that not only did interpreters exist – they must have been around for ages, however informally, whether mentioned or not – but they existed as some sort of profession and, moreover, overseeing their work warranted a lordly title. Chairing a meeting of interpreters these days has been unfavorably compared to herding cats, but it’s got to be easier when the interpreters are, in effect, your slaves or subjects – perhaps we should ask some of those agencies we all love to hate.

As an aside, I wonder what the overseeing was like… for some reason I keep imagining Python-esque or Les Luthiers-like scenes in which the interpreter is either mis-corrected, beaten up as the bearer of bad news or required to interpret increasingly disparaging statements about himself. (Yes, it’s typically a “he” in these sketches.)

Theory: A Definition

The meat and potatoes in the presentation was Pöchhacker’s description of modern theory and research, with a historical overview followed by a representation of paradigms. Most interesting was the proposed definition of interpreting – “a form of Translation [please note capitalization] in which a first and final rendition in another language is produced on the basis of a one-time presentation of an utterance in a source language”. It’s based on the ideas of Otto Kade and worded to include signed interpretation – and live subtitling, for that matter.

Still, some things fell between the cracks. As the speaker explained, the definition leaves out the “fake consecutive” or “simultaneous consecutive” technique that involves recording the speech and then doing simultaneous interpretation from the recorded version. (I’d be terrified to try this without backup note-taking, being all too familiar with equipment malfunction!) I also add upon further consideration that it leaves out those situations in which we are asked to interpret videos for which there is no script and, in order to accommodate the client, we watch them once or several times over in advance to get the typically fast-paced content straight and hopefully filter out background noise or music. Anyone who tries to tell me that’s not interpreting is picking a fight!

What To Study And How

Pochhacker is quite rightly of the school that “Interpreting is interpreting” but of course differences have to be acknowledged and accounted for. Different techniques, different settings and power structures, different technologies, different locations and different degrees of language relatedness (my addition) have a bearing on how we work, live and are assessed or assess ourselves for accuracy and ethics. We do well to use research to learn about issues we have never consciously come across and consider whether they should have a bearing at how we go about our work. (For instance, a video of a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.)

I really must bring this piece to a close, so I recommend reading Pöchhacker on the memes and paradigms that pervade interpreting studies. I do think it’s somewhat excessive to speak of paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense when referring to the different perspectives brought to bear in interpreting studies – sociological approaches do not cancel out neuropsychological ones, abandoning either would be a great disservice to the profession and to science, and they all use the methods of long-existing disciplines. Ultimately, the main thrust of the presentation is that ideally we interpreters should be aware of current research trends and findings obtained from many different perspectives and involving many different manifestations of interpreting.

Walking The Talk

We all love to theorize, expatiate, and recommend, and often neglect our own recommendations when our roles are shifted. For instance, I shocked myself by instinctively tapping on the mic before asking a question! All through the presentation, which lasted a couple of hours altogether, a student interpreter was slugging away in a tiny booth. Someone tweeted that I should relieve her, but I didn’t see that tweet until later and it never occurred to me to step in that way, as her teachers were in the room. However, in hindsight I realize that I should have commented on the matter. After all, unless this was done deliberately as part of some interpret-till-you-drop-and-check-results research project, we do know it’s not a good idea to keep interpreting simultaneously for hours on end, and having students do it is probably a mistake on many levels. My midsummer resolution will be to point out this sort of situation in the future whenever I’m among the audience and not in the booth – especially when the interpreters are students.


Mary Fons is a Barcelona-based conference interpreter, member of AIIC and one of the founding members of AIB. She is a regular contributor to Communicate!, the AIIC webzine.