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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Spare a Thought for Your Interpreting Teacher (Part 1 – Consecutive)

Teaching consecutive interpreting technique is hard. If you think mastering the art of note-taking is a challenge, try teaching it sometime!

I think that part of the challenge of teaching consecutive note-taking is that there is no single “right” way to do things. Some ground rules do exist, of course (see Rozan’s seven principles as a starting point), but ultimately every interpreter will develop his own way to take notes, and – here’s the rub for the teacher – whichever route that takes the student to the final goal must be considered valid. It’s not about leading students down the high road, the low road, the garden path, or even the road less travelled. It’s about helping them explore the terrain until they discover their own personal route to where they need to go.

Country road, take me home ...

Another challenge to the teacher lies in the fact that each student will face different obstacles on the way. If a teacher is to be able to address an obstacle effectively, she first must identify what it is. In the case of consecutive interpreting, this is not always obvious at first glance.

Some students will struggle with comprehension or analysis, others will find they have a hard time getting the ideas reflected on the page, and yet others will suffer with reformulating and presentation. Yet the student’s actual performance in class might not reveal exactly where the process is breaking down. So teachers have to be constantly investigating, asking questions, guessing and second-guessing, and proposing different solutions – and this in an individualised manner, for up to 12 students at a time.

Now, I’m not looking for anyone’s pity, here. The reason why I ask you to spare a thought for your poor consecutive interpreting teacher is that I think that an exploration of the difficulties related to teaching note-taking can ultimately offer valuable insight to those who are learning the technique. To illustrate this, I am going to share with you an exercise I did with my students at a recent seminar.

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