The Long Dark Summertime of the Soul

“That’s it for this season! I won’t be back in the booth until mid-September.” These words were spoken by a colleague of mine almost a month ago now (on June 17, to be exact). Her comment got me thinking about one of the things at the top of freelance conference interpreters’ minds around this time of year: the dreaded summer break.

Now, don’t get me wrong: freelance interpreters like their summer holidays as much as the next person! The problem, really, is that we tend to get far too much of them. Take my colleague, for example. Let’s assume (reasonably, I think) that she, like many freelance interpreters in Europe, won’t be getting back into the booth until the second Strasbourg session in September, which starts on the 26th. That gives her a whopping one hundred days of summer vacation between interpreting jobs.

That figure, while falling just short of the 104 days that Phineas and Ferb made famous, is still considerably more than most other professionals would consider necessary to recover from a busy spring season. This year, my own summer break will start tomorrow (which explains why I am writing about holidays today) and will last until my first fall contract on September 12th. That gives me a total of 65 days to do … what?

I know it’s from the wrong book, but still, it fits here, don’t you think?

Well, first I’ll spend some time recovering from a grueling spring season that saw me travel 83,599 km and spend 62 nights away from home (I know this for a fact, because I have this little app on LinkedIn that actually keeps track of my travel times and distances – depressing, really). I also plan to refamiliarize myself with where everything is kept in my kitchen and bathroom at home, not to mention reintroduce myself to my kids.

A big highlight of my summer will be the trip I’ll be taking back to the homeland to see my family and celebrate both my mom’s birthday (the big 65) and my Oma’s birthday (the big 100). That trip, which starts this weekend (yay!), will take up what’s left of July.

Then what? Well, it would be great, having fully recharged the ol’ batteries and caught up with my family, to be able to get back down to work upon my return home on August 1st.

Of course, we all know that’s impossible. I can hear my readers laughing uproariously already. Everybody knows the entire European continent shuts down for the month of August while its population heads for the beach or the mountains, and there’s nothing that you or I or anyone else can do to change that. This is where the bright, happy summer break starts turning into a very long, dark summertime indeed.

Wowbagger, eat your heart out…

A conference interpreters’s working life – being concentrated, for obvious reasons, into the periods when people hold conferences – is highly seasonal. In Europe at least, the busy seasons for interpreting are surprisingly short, with one peak from March to May and another from October to November. The Germans have a good word to describe the lengthy bit in between: they call the dip in activity seen in many industries in August the Sommerloch. For interpreters, I’d say it’s not so much a “hole” as a gaping chasm.

The Long and the Short of It

Despite the seasonal nature of our work, interpreters, like all other people, have to pay the rent or mortgage, the car loan, and all the other bills on a monthly basis. So what does this mean? Well, for me at least, it means working like even more of a madwoman in the short high season so that I have something left over to make it through the long summer. For others, it might mean taking on other types of work to bridge the gap.

The good news here is that the translation industry seems to work in reverse to the interpreting industry. Companies seem to tend to get their big jobs ready to ship out for translation just before they shut down for the summer – and expect to have the translations sitting on their desks waiting for them when they open up shop again on September 1st. This summer translation peak is manna from heaven for those interpreters who also translate. They get to spend those empty days actually earning money instead of just watching it disappear from their bank accounts. A bonus here is that many full-time professional translators also choose to take some time off over the summer, meaning that companies are more likely to call upon “standbys” to fill the gap.

Of course, not all interpreters can or do translate (I touched briefly upon this point in my recent article for IAPTI, Confessions of a Conference Interpreter). Similarly, not all interpreters are lucky enough to be able to work “overtime” in high season to compensate for the lack of earnings during the rest of the year. I guess everybody has to find their own way of coping with the lack of income over the summer season, and there are probably as many solutions as there are interpreters in this world.

Busy, Busy …

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that conference interpreters sit around doing nothing at all during their extended summer break. On the contrary, interpreters are notorious for finding ways of keeping themselves busy, and so I suspect there are precious few out there just sitting around all summer bemoaning their underoccupied fate.

One excellent way to fill up those long summer days is to use them for professional development. Learning new languages or brushing up on the ones they already speak are probably among the favorite summertime occupations for interpreters. This can be done in any number of ways: by arranging stays in countries where the language is spoken, ensuring their summer reading list includes books in those languages, or signing up for extra language classes.

Professional development can also come in the form of one of the many summer courses targeted at conference interpreters. This year, there are refresher courses for practicing interpreters being offered at Cambridge, Lisbon, Heriot Watt University in Ediburgh, Germersheim, York University in Toronto, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,  and probably some other places I’ve missed. There was supposed to be a refresher course this summer at the University of Westminster, too, but we all know what happened to that plan. Also, there is a Training for Trainers seminar scheduled for early September in Budapest and run by the incomparable Dick Fleming. The UIMP summer school is not specifically targeted at interpreters, but is a popular summer destination for colleagues planning to add Spanish. And there are probably many more courses that I haven’t heard about.

Anyone looking to network in person this summer might want to check out the FIT’s XIX World Congress in San Francisco on the topic of “Bridging Cultures”. Conference interpreting highlights on the conference agenda include keynote speeches by Olga Cosmidou, Director General of Interpreting for the European Parliament and Benoît Kremer, President of AIIC. Funnily enough, the World Congress is being held in August. I don’t know whether this is an admission of the fact that interpreters have nothing better to do at that time of year, or if it is because other unwritten rules apply to the U.S. conference season that I know nothing about.

As for my own long, dark summertime of the soul, I imagine that I will be forced to spend much of August emptying my inbox, which currently boasts almost 2000 unsorted emails and is sure to have doubled in size by the time I get back from my three-week-long, largely internet-free holiday (just for readers’ information, I have prepared and scheduled blog posts throughout the month of July, so there will be something coming out every week while I am away). Also, my Portuguese teacher has come up with the brilliant idea of holding a test in the first week of September, an event for which I am woefully unprepared. Well, I guess I’ve got 65 long, summer days ahead of me to remedy that …

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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 University of Westminster closes its training program

The Announcement

This is the news I woke up to last Monday morning:

“It is with deep regret that we are writing to inform you that the University of Westminster has decided to close the MA Conference Interpreting course.  It is a shame that a respected course so close to its fiftieth anniversary should be wound up.  As you doubtless are aware, the Coalition government recently made severe cuts in Higher Education funding, leaving the University with difficult – and sudden – decisions to make about how to effect savings.  We were informed of this in early April, made a counter-proposal for a streamlined course, with full staff support, but it has not been accepted.”

The news of this closure dropped like a bombshell on the interpreting community. Readers who may not be familiar with the interpreter training course at Westminster may wonder why. To help you understand the situation better, I’ll just briefly give you some background information on the course that has just been disbanded.

The interpreting training course at the University of Westminster was established in 1963 at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London. Westminster was a founding member and the original coordinating institution of the EMCI (European Master’s in Conference Interpreting) consortium. This is a group of 18 universities that cooperate in the post-graduate training of conference interpreters through student and teacher exchanges, resource sharing, videoconferences, and liaison with the EU institutions. Westminster is also one of only two courses in the United Kingdom recommended by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Countless graduates of the PCL/Westminster training course have gone on to successful careers as conference interpreters as staff or freelancers at the UN, the EU and other institutions, as well as on the private market. There is currently even one alumnus working for the Canadian government! Some alumni have reached important positions in interpreting administrations, others are active as trainers, and many also contribute actively in other ways to the promotion of the interpreting profession.

Despite being located in the UK, Westminster does not train only English booth interpreters. The course follows the tradition of other illustrious schools such as the ETI in Geneva and ESIT in Paris, training a broad mix of interpreting students with different language combinations. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian, Russian and Chinese interpreters have all been trained there. Westminster was also the first school to train interpreters in the Maltese and Irish booths. The school has also organized short courses for working interpreters as well as for the SCIC (the Interpreting Directorate of the European Commission) and the European Parliament.

The Justification

Anyone who, like me, wanted to find out more about the closure would have quickly come across this notice posted on the official course website:

Statement for Applicants on Closure of MA/PG Dip in Conference Interpreting

MA/PG Dip Conference Interpreting is a well-respected course that has been recognised by the EMCI, AIIC, the EU and the UN in various ways for the quality of its graduates. The closure of the course is not a decision that has been taken lightly and it has not been taken because of any quality, teaching, management or recruitment problems.

The training of conference interpreters to the level to which the course aspires is a resource-intense activity and the course generates a significant deficit each year. Whilst the Department has worked closely with the course team to develop a sustainable model of delivery, and has looked at a range of options to achieve this, this has not been possible.

Higher Education sector in the UK is currently subject to a range of financial pressures. In the present climate, the Department is no longer able to subsidise course delivery to the extent required by a conference interpreting provision and has been unable to identify a sustainable business model for the long-term future of the course.

Given the very limited choices available, a strategic decision has been taken to withdraw permanently from the training of conference interpreters, rather than attempt to reduce delivery costs and compromise quality, and thereby to refocus the resources of the Department on other activities.”

The Reaction

Now, I don’t think anyone needs any help to grasp the importance of the points being made in this notice. It’s made quite clear that despite the fact that the course is recognised for excellence in its field, budget cuts had led to the decision to disband it.

I think that this decision marks a serious precedent in higher education, particularly with respect to the field that concerns me most: that of post-graduate interpreter training. When the value of an education is converted into little more than a dollar sign (or in this case, pound sterling), then alarm bells should start going off everywhere. Stakeholders, and society as a whole, have a responsibility to recall the bigger picture. If conference interpreter training is considered “too expensive”, what will happen to the values of multilingualism so championed by the European Union? If the training of interpreters suddenly becomes unaffordable, what will happen to the quality of global political debate and intercultural discourse? These, and many other underlying questions, are thrown up by the decision to close Westminster.

The Response

With all this in mind, the interpreting community has decided to speak out on the decision. In the past days, I have heard many different people, all linked in different ways with the interpreting world, express their shock and dismay at the decision to close the Westminster training course. This is a message that should reach the ears of those who took the decision, if only so that they understand the reception that their decision has had among the wider community.

To this end, the interpreting blogosphere has decided to launch a joint action to raise awareness amongst readers of what has happened at Westminster and encourage individuals to express their views on it. Today, Bootheando, In my words, Cosas de Dos Palabras, the blog of Judith Carrera, Aventuras de una traductora-intérprete en Madrid, and The Interpreter Diaries are all publishing posts with the news. At the end of each post, you will find a link to a Facebook page that has been set up to allow members of the interpreting community to express their views on the matter. If you have a view you would like to share, or would simply like to express your support to the course coordinators in these complicated times, please take a moment to post a comment on the wall.

We encourage readers who are also fellow bloggers to take the information given here and publish it on their blogs as well. All readers are invited to share the news with the broader interpreting community using the available channels.

We may not change anyone’s mind, but at least we should speak out about how we feel about the decision to close the interpreting course at the University of Westminster.

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