Reliving Past Trauma

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.

The Heat is On

How can you tell it’s final exam season? Nerves are on edge, tensions are running high, and the university libraries are packed with students busy with last-minute cramming. My own students on the MIC will be taking their finals in about a week. This is a good thing: they’ve worked hard over the year, and it’s time they had a chance to show off everything they’ve learned.

It’s hard to know what sort of advice to give to interpreting students who are about to go into their exams. They’ve heard all the tips at least a thousand times already in class, and saying it once more isn’t going to help them at this point: either they’ve internalized the message or they haven’t. Over the past few days, my main message to students has been that it’s time for them to stop worrying so much about the length of their décalage or the breadth of their terminological knowledge and start thinking about getting into the right mindset for their exams.

This means what? Well, among other things, it means getting enough sleep, eating well, and taking regular breaks, in order to let what they’ve learned sink in. One fellow instructor told me I should order them to go to the beach! Not a bad idea …

Did I mention we had a heat wave last week?

If you happen to be preparing for your own final interpreting exams these days, then you probably already know that, in addition to the sage advice offered above, exam preparation also means thinking about such issues as stress management (which I featured in a blog post a few months back), channelling your nerves (the topic of this video interview with interpreter trainer Helen Campbell) and engaging in some positive thinking. However, it does NOT mean making radical changes to your lifestyle or consumption habits.

I mean it: now is not the time to start experimenting with memory-enhancing herbal preparations, energy drinks or the like. If you haven’t been a regular drinker of Red Bull, popper of brain booster pills or consumer of Rescue Remedy in the past, the day of your final interpreting exam is NOT the time to start playing with these things. Likewise, if you are having a hard time falling asleep the night before the big test, do NOT decide to borrow one of your roommate’s sleeping pills, no matter how badly you need to get some shut-eye.

There’s a simple reason for this: you don’t know how you will react, and the last thing you want is to experience an adverse effect (lack of concentration, upset stomach, trembling hands, double vision) during your exam. Even having one or two more coffees than usual might put you off kilter. At this point, it’s best to just stick with what you know.

But how will I stand the heat?

If you’re feeling the pressure of trying to get through the exams and wondering how you are ever going to survive the stress of the working interpreter’s lifestyle, don’t lose heart. Instead, I urge you to check out the following resource by the National Network for Interpreting. It’s entitled “Stamina”, and when I first saw the title, I thought it would contain advice along the lines of “practice all alone in the booth for hours on end, then half-hour turns will seem a cinch in comparison”. Of course, it doesn’t. Instead, the NNI offers some sensible advice about eating right, staying fit, and basically just taking care of yourself over the long term. Wise words. After all, we all want to lead healthy, happy lives as interpreters, not burn out under all the constant heat, right?

Stamina, by the National Network for Interpreting

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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