Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 2 – Simultaneous)

We all know that simultaneous interpreting is a great juggling act. Many readers have probably already seen the video that illustrates this in such an entertaining fashion. Others may have read this post by Dolmetscher-Berlin that so eloquently expresses the multi-tasking aspect of our job. Or maybe you’ve delved into one of the many papers and articles that describe the processes involved in the task (there are plenty to choose from: for a start, try checking here and here).

In any case, I think by now it’s clear that the task of the student of simultaneous interpreting is an enormous one. Students have to learn how to juggle all those balls, which include listening, understanding, analysis, synthesis, reformulation, production, monitoring of output – and if you ask Dolmetscher-Berlin, also include such minor matters as remembering to breathe, taking the occasional sip of water and jotting down terminology – without letting any of the balls drop.

Okay, so now put yourself in the place of the interpreting teachers responsible for monitoring the acquisition of these juggling skills. We not only have to be able to tell when a ball has been dropped (that’s the relatively easy part), but we also have to be able to determine why it fell and advise the apprentice juggler on how to make sure it doesn’t happen next time.

Put this way, it makes me want to abandon the whole business of teaching simultaneous right now and go take up knife-throwing, or tightrope-walking, or something considerably less nerve-wracking. But no, I’m an interpreter trainer, and so like it or not, my business is to figure out where the simultaneous interpreting process is breaking down and try to remedy the situation.

Of course, I already partially dealt with this in a previous (self-pitying) post on the related topic of the challenges of teaching consecutive interpreting. Today, I want to look at the same question from the standpoint of teaching simultaneous.

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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: