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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The Aptitude Test – Overcoming the First Hurdle

It’s that season again – the interpreting schools, close now to winding up the academic year with their final exams, are already starting to prepare for next fall. Yes, it’s aptitude test time. Over the next few lines, I will be giving you a rough idea of what to expect if you have applied to take an aptitude test for a post-graduate interpreting course – and possibly reviving some traumatic memories among those readers who have already been through it!

The purpose of an aptitude test is to identify which applicants to a course would appear to be most suitable for training as interpreters. Since this is virtually impossible to determine from a paper CV alone, it is necessary for universities to hold face-to-face interviews with candidates. These tests constitute the first of many hurdles that need to be overcome on the way to becoming an interpreter. I won’t bore (or depress!) readers with details of all the various hurdles right now – there will be plenty of time to tackle them all one-by-one on the pages of the Diaries.

What? No obstacles? If only it were that easy ...

In keeping with the diary theme of this blog, I think it’s appropriate that I introduce readers to this topic by sharing the story of my own aptitude test (which was more years ago than I care to admit, although not as long ago as some might think). The test that I took at the University of Westminster (sniff!) may have changed over the years, but at least back when I took it, it comprised a personal interview, memory exercises, written translations and a general knowledge quiz.

My most vivid recollection of the interview component of the test was that it seemed to be a hair-raising blend of job interview, personality profiling and all the oral exams I had ever taken at university. I was sat down before a panel of four examiners (all of whom I came to know well later and who actually are extremely nice people!), who proceeded to pepper me with questions (in four languages) about my life, my experience and why exactly I thought I might want to become an interpreter, anyway. I was expected to code-switch between all my languages, replying to each question in the language it had been asked. And of course I had to remain cool, calm and collected throughout – not to mention try not to say anything stupid!

After this friendly multilingual chat, the examiners put me through some memory exercises. Ironically enough, I don’t remember a thing about what that was like. I have completely blanked out the whole affair. That just goes to show that it is short-term, not long-term, memory that counts in an interpreter. But I imagine they were just like all the other memory exercises that I have done (or inflicted!) since: 2-3 minute speeches on a given topic that candidates are expected to recall (without notes!) and then reproduce in their mother tongue, with as much detail as possible and ideally following the original structure.

After that was done and I had been given some time to catch my breath, I was sat down with the rest of the candidates, given some texts in my various passive languages and asked to provide a written translation of each into English. This part is also a bit of a blur now, but I do recall wishing I had a dictionary when I came across the word “colza” in the French text and hadn’t a clue what it was (rapeseed! Grrr… I’ll never forget that again).

After the translations, all candidates were asked to fill out a general knowledge quiz. This part of the aptitude test, we were assured, was not eliminatory. In other words, if we performed well on everything else, we would be forgiven for not knowing the difference between the Koran and the Taliban (which I didn’t – my excuse now being that this was long before 9-11!). I still remember the words of my examiner when I was given the results of my general knowledge quiz: she said that my answers “hadn’t been quite as abysmally bad as that of my fellow candidates” – words which I took as the highest form of praise at the time (and made me wonder what sort of answers the others had given!).

Interestingly, one of my most vivid memories of the whole aptitude testing ordeal was the “buzz” I felt when I came out of the test. It was a completely new sensation for me, but I have since come to recognize it as the feeling you get when you have nailed a particularly difficult speaker or made it through an especially challenging meeting. I think this “buzz” is probably one effect of the interpreter’s great friend, the adrenaline rush (which I talked about last week).

Oh, my goodness – are they all like that?

No, actually. It must be said that not all aptitude tests are the same. Far from it: some universities run group sessions instead of individual interviews, others leave out the written translation component. At the University of La Laguna, for example, candidates are tested in groups of eight at a time in sessions that last three hours each. These sessions include the dreaded memory exercises, general knowledge questions and language-switching components.

But the ultimate aim of all aptitude tests, whatever form they take, will be the same: to test the candidates’ ability to express themselves clearly and eloquently in their mother tongue, their comprehension of their passive languages, their ability to deal with stress, how they work with memory and, of course, their knowledge of the world.

For those with a more academic interest in the subject, I would encourage you to read a 2008 comparative study on aptitude testing in interpreting schools. It’s available for purchase from St Jerome Publishing.

You said something about hurdles …

If you are an aspiring interpreter, what I’m sure you really want to know is: what are my chances of actually passing the aptitude test? Well, like all interpreting trainers worth their salt, I believe in throwing in a few figures at the end, so here goes …

I am told that at most interpreting schools, roughly 20% of the candidates who are invited to participate in the aptitude tests will ultimately be offered a place on the course. At the University of La Laguna, the course I know best for obvious reasons, some 95 applications were received for the 2011-12 course; 75 of these applicants have been invited to take the aptitude tests; the number of places available on the course is 16-18. Specifically, for the Spanish booth, it is expected that perhaps ten of the 45 or so candidates might make the grade.

How can you make sure you will be among that 20%? Well, my main message would be “remain calm”. It’s only a test, after all. And if you don’t make it, that might just mean you aren’t cut out to be an interpreter, for whatever reason – a message you are better off receiving now rather than later, when you have invested more in the process.

Why do people fail the aptitude tests? I’d hazard a guess that the most common reasons for not passing an aptitude test are proficiency problems in one’s passive languages, inability to perform as required on the memory exercises (whether due to stress, not understanding the original, or other reasons), and insufficient fluency in one’s mother tongue (problems with choice of register or poor active vocabulary). But I have no statistics to back this up, it’s just my own impression.

As to specific forms of preparation: in other posts, I look more closely at how much “general knowledge” you will be expected to possess at an aptitude test (and at other stages of your training) and what “language proficiency” means from an interpreting perspective. That information, plus my reflections in the last post on the typical character traits of an interpreter, will hopefully give readers an idea of what it takes to overcome this first of many hurdles.

“The Right Stuff?”

Before I get down to the issues everyone wants to talk about – passing exams, finding jobs, etc. – I feel there is one more underlying matter which needs to be addressed first. Controversy-seekers, take note, because the topic for this week is: is there such a thing as an ideal personality profile for interpreters?

NASA is looking for people with advanced degrees in engineering or physics, 1,000 hours flight time as a jet pilot, and excellent physical shape. Any takers?

If you want to become an astronaut, NASA will happily inform you of the ideal candidate profile. The same thing holds for air traffic controllers, stockbrokers, and a host of other professions. Now, I am by no means implying that conference interpreting is in any way comparable to these other professions (you’ll be surprised to hear what profession it does resemble – more on that in a moment). But I do think it is valid to ask whether there are certain character traits that will help you achieve the goal of becoming an interpreter.

To find an answer to this question, instead of just dusting off all the old clichés and half-truths going around about interpreters, I decided to start by taking the empirical approach to the question: I looked around in the booth to see what sorts of personalities I found there.

At this point, I was reminded of a questionnaire I was asked to fill out recently for the kindergarten my daughter will be attending in September. On the form, I was asked to indicate whether my little interpreter-in-waiting (or not!) was:

–  Sociable or withdrawn
–  Chatty or taciturn
–  Passive or assertive
–  Adventurous or hesitant
–  Fun-loving or serious

… I’ll spare you the rest of the descriptors on the list, since they mostly had to do with table manners and toilet training.

What I did was think about all of the interpreters I have worked with over the years to see if I could find at least one who fits each of the above descriptions. And I can assure you that I had no trouble at all finding examples of each! Good news for the shrinking violets among us – and bad news for the empirical method.

Since I still needed an answer to my question, I then tried to determine the ideal interpreter personality profile by elimination, i.e. by trying to figure out everything an interpreter is NOT and then assuming that the opposite is what makes a good interpreter. I had considerably more luck when I applied this reverse method, because I did manage to determine that:

– I have no colleagues who seem uninterested in the world
– I don’t know any interpreters who can’t handle stress.

Let’s just pause briefly to examine the two traits identified by the above process of elimination.

Intellectual Curiosity

All the interpreters I know really do appear to share an insatiable curiosity about the world. I’d argue that this is possibly the most important trait an interpreter can have.

Conference interpreting is not like some other careers, where you first dedicate an initial period to learning your business and then spend the rest of the time practicing it. As the practicing interpreters among my readers witll know, interpreting entails a constant learning process – with every new client, conference, or meeting comes a new learning curve – and so anyone who doesn’t have this desire (whether inborn or acquired) to always learn more will probably not be able to handle the sheer breadth and depth of information that needs to be absorbed over the course of an interpreting career.

Learning about different languages and cultures at the level required for interpreting obviously takes a lot of time and commitment as well, and I would think that this is easier to muster in an enquiring mind.

Of course, in today’s world, one could argue that most professions require lifelong learning. If that is true, then at least interpreting is no exception to this rule.

Dealing with Stress

To the all-important issue of stress, now. Yes, the job is extremely stressful. AIIC’s recently published Workload Study confirms this.  Having said that, I would disagree with a claim I once heard many years ago that interpreters suffer the same stress levels as air traffic controllers – I may experience stress in the booth or on the field, but I do not hold the lives of thousands of people of people in my hands when I work.

Now, I’m sure a lot of other professions are characterised by high stress levels as well. Just finding a job can be pretty stressful in today’s world! But I think it’s clear that if you want to become an interpreter, you should not be the type of person who deals poorly with stress.

Anyway, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without stress to activate the release of adrenaline and the subsequent “fight or flight” response, humanity would probably still be several steps back in the evolutionary process.


On that note, I think it’s safe to say that in the booth, stress should probably more often lead to “fight” than to “flight”. It should be more likely to put your interpreting senses on edge and allow you to perform the necessary multi-tasking effectively than to send you shimmying up a tree.

The Right Stuff, Indeed

To sum up, lifelong learning and stress management will always be part of an interpreter’s job, so those who have personalities that suit this profile will probably have an easier time of making it as interpreters.

Of course, that’s not all it’s about. Being able to use a fork and spoon correctly and knowing when to ask to go to the potty will probably help, too… But seriously, AIIC has published a complete list of personal traits that it considers useful for interpreters, which I would encourage you to consult if you want to know more.

For those with a bit more time on their hands who are curious to know more about the research that has been done into the personality profiles of interpreters, take some time to read this academic paper on the subject, which debunks many of the existing myths in a most scholarly fashion (here comes the reply to the question raised at the beginning: one of the author’s conclusions is that interpreters share the same personality type with… librarians!).

So there you have some reflections on what might be considered “The Right Stuff” for interpreters. I can’t wait to hear what readers have to say.