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:

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Videos on Interpreting: The Masters Series

I’d love to write a post introducing the interpreting profession to newcomers, another looking at the basics of consecutive note-taking, and a third giving tips to students starting out in the booth – but why bother, when there are three excellent videos already out there covering precisely those topics?

I’m referring of course to the videos done by Dick Fleming, conference interpreter and trainer, for Lourdes de Rioja, producer of the Lourdesaib channel on Youtube.  I don’t believe either of these individuals requires an introduction, but just in case there is somebody out there who hasn’t heard of them yet, allow me to do the honours.

Dick Fleming is a former staff interpreter with the European Commission’s DG Interpretation (DG SCIC) and was the organiser of the Commission’s in-house interpreter training course (“stage”) that produced so many excellent interpreters in the years that it was running. He has been involved for many years now in training for trainers as well.

Lourdes de Rioja is a freelance conference interpreter for the European Insitutions and a Key Trainer at interpreting schools in Denmark and Spain. In her spare time (!) she also produces videos on the interpreting profession, which she shares on her Youtube channel and which have proven a big hit amongst the interpreting community (by the way, this channel just got a facelift, so if you haven’t visited it recently, I recommend you check out its new look).

What I want to share with you today is a series of videos that Lourdes and Dick produced together. Many of you will have already seen them, or at least one or two, but I thought it would be useful to bring the three videos together in a single place, for anyone who might have missed out.

The first video in the series, “The eloquent detective”, looks at the interpreting profession in general terms, and draws some interesting parallels between the work of the interpreter and detective work.

The second video, “Consecutive note-taking”, looks at how best to avoid the potential pit-falls of poor note-taking.

By the way, that video has been selected as the basis for discussion at the upcoming Interpreting Journal Club chat on consecutive interpreting. The title for the chat is “Consecutive is dead! Long live consecutive?” and if you have any views about the future (or lack thereof) of the consecutive mode of interpretation, you’re welcome to join the chat tomorrow (more details here).

The third and final video, “Starting simultaneous interpreting”, offers some basic tips to students just starting out in the booth. This was the topic of the training session Dick held with my students in La Laguna this week, and is also related to the Training for Trainers seminar he ran for the ULL’s trainers on Tuesday, which looked at techniques for teaching simultaneous (very useful seminar, it was – I’m still digesting all the information!).

So there you have it, my “Masters Series” of videos on interpreting. Enjoy!

There’s a long weekend starting now in Spain, so I’ll be tuning out for a few days, but I’ll be back soon enough with more interpreter training fun…

Interpreting Myths: The Video

Yes, I’m still on holidays. By the time this post is published, I will have celebrated two family birthdays and engaged in some serious R&R, Canadian-style. Soon, I will be back at home and ready to get blogging again for real (just when everybody else turns off their computers for the summer and heads off to the beach – what’s wrong with this picture?).

Anyway, this week’s post looks at a video I did for Lourdes of AIB many moons ago (I’m guessing by the fleece sweater I’m wearing that it must have been filmed sometime around Christmas). In the video, I look at a number of common myths surrounding interpreter training. If you haven’t seen the video yet, then you might want to take 7:41 minutes of your time to do so.

Below, I am also including the original script that I wrote for the video. Anyone who is too busy to watch the video can skim the script for the main ideas. Readers interested in seeing how far an interpreter trainer can go off track when trying to improvise on a theme on the basis of written notes can compare the written and recorded versions of the speech. Also, students wanting to test their consecutive note-taking technique can try to take notes from the video, as it is pretty much in line with the kind of speech I would give in a consecutive class, in terms of length, structure and difficulty of the subject matter (although it might be lacking in figures).


Top misconceptions about training to become an interpreter


Many believe you don’t need any training at all, you just have to speak a couple of languages to become an interpreter. This misconception possibly arises from the fact that when you watch a good interpreter in action, it all appears so effortless. This may lead the uninitiated to think that anyone can do it that easily.

This is absolutely FALSE. It’s like saying anyone who can use a thermometer can be a doctor, or owning a pair of skis will make you a ski jumper. While the thorough knowledge of languages is absolutely essential to becoming an interpreter, it is not enough in itself. The reason why it all looks so easy is because the interpreter has spent years training and practicing the skills required to do his or her job.


Here, the idea seems to be that some people are born with a “knack” for interpreting and others don’t. It is true that a certain number of “in-born” traits will make it easier for one to learn the skills required to become an interpreter. For instance, it helps to:

– be a good communicator
– have a quick and well-organised mind
– have the ability to concentrate and focus, especially in stressful situations
– have strong nerves
– have intellectual curiosity
– be adaptable to new situations
– be a people person (although not all interpreters are extroverts)
– be a team player
– show personal integrity

However, even having all of these things won’t automatically make you a “born interpreter”. In the ten years that I have been training interpreters, I have seen many a promising student show up on the first day with all of these traits, and still not make it as interpreters in the end. The fact is, if you don’t apply yourself and work hard to learn the specific skills related to interpreting, you will never make it.

Which brings me to myth number 3…


This one is actually a bit mystifying for me, since most people seem to agree that pretty much every other profession requires training. You want to build a skyscraper? Go and study architecture. You want to run a multinational? Sign up for an MBA. You want to become an interpreter? Apply to a postgraduate interpreting course.

The idea here behind the myth that interpreting can’t be taught would appear to be that since the whole interpreting process all happens so quickly inside one’s head, there is no way to actually figure out what’s going on in there and then teach the techniques required. This is particularly the case for simultaneous translation, where observers see the interpreter listening, mentally analysing and translating the message, and speaking all at the same time.

I’m pleased to say that this belief is also FALSE:

Decades of theoretical research into interpreting have led to well-developed theories of interpretation which show that interpreting is not just an instinctive activity that can only be “learned by doing”. Hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books have been published on the subject. All this has led to a theoretical and practical understanding of just how the interpreting feat is accomplished – and this is what is taught to aspiring interpreters.

During an interpreter training course, the interpreting process is broken down into different phases and skill sets. Each is tackled separately first, and then brought together to create the final product. I liken the process to learning how to juggle. It’s a matter of first learning to throw the balls separately, and then gradually managing to keep them all up in the air. Inevitably, a lot of balls will end up on the floor as the learning takes place, but the end result will be students who are able to do all of these skills apparently “at once” and perform the act of interpreting.

The whole process of becoming an interpreter, far from being impossible to learn, is actually very long and painstaking, and students themselves often complain that one year is not enough (this is the usual length of a postgraduate degree in conference interpreting). This stands in stark contrast to the views of laypeople, who seem to think that no training at all is required, or indeed, even possible.

If you are going undertake training as an interpreter, you had better make sure that you are at the right place, where the job is going to be done right.

Which brings me to my fourth and final myth about interpreter training:


This is simply not true. Just as I’m sure you would do a lot of research before applying to an executive MBA, I highly recommend prospective students research various interpreting schools before making their choice. They shouldn’t necessarily just pick the course closest to home, or the one at the university their friends plan to attend.

What to look out for? According to the AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), which has drafted a list of best practice for conference interpreting training programmes, a course should be at the postgraduate level, be at least one year long, be taught by conference interpreters, include an aptitude test, and teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques.

The AIIC’s recommendations, as well as a number of other tips for prospective students of interpreting, can be found on the website of AIB, along with a lot of other useful information about the profession. AIB offers objective, useful information and debunks a lot of myths, including the four I have talked about today.

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