This week I returned to the University of Bath, where I did my interpreting training, to talk to undergraduate and A-level students about the course and about my experiences in the interpreting world in general. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet young people thinking about studying interpreting and translation, and of course to reconnect with the teachers. I thought it might be useful to recall a few of the questions that were asked after my talk, as they raised some very interesting points. Overall, I was very impressed with how engaged and inquisitive the students were, all seeming to take their Masters choice extremely seriously indeed. Both graduate and undergraduate programmes in the UK are becoming steadily more expensive, so the more research one can do into a prospective course the better.
Just some background about the event first of all: it was a “Routes into Languages” initiative, with three main speakers at the initial talk session – myself, Andrew Mann and Teresa Lander. Both Andrew and Teresa currently teach at Bath, Andrew providing training on translation management and technology and Teresa on précis-writing and editing. Both are practising professionals. They spoke for around ten minutes each about their particular area of expertise, and about the possible career paths for a student on the MAIT (Masters in Interpreting and Translation) or TPLS (Translation and Professional Language Skills) courses at Bath. I then spoke briefly about my own background and route into interpreting, the interpreting course itself, my experiences in Geneva and the “fate” of the students on the course last year. I highlighted that 4 students were now working for international institutions, and that many more were in the process of taking the institutional tests or were currently working full-time as translators or interpreters. After my talk there were a great deal of questions, a couple of which I thought I’d include here. Other questions related to specific language combinations and the possibility of using those in particular institutions, for example.
“What happens if you don’t know a word?”
A brilliant question! Everyone had a good chuckle at this one, but it’s a very good point. I explained that realistically, no matter how hard we study, we will never know every single word in our own language, let alone a foreign one. Even colleagues who have been working for thirty years still get caught out, and not through lack of preparation. When the worst happens, and we simply don’t know a word, there are several things we can do. First of all, if we have prepared for the meeting thoroughly, we will know the subject matter, the background and the various viewpoints well. By knowing who is speaking and what their opinion is before we start work, we can make a reasonable assumption about what they might say in the meeting itself. I used the example of a Venezuelan trade unionist – those three descriptive words tell us a great deal about what that person will probably say. Of course, there is an element of luck and risk, but the more experience we gain the more likely we are to make the right assumption and to be able to anticipate what that speaker might say. The aforementioned Venezuelan is more likely to say something anti-capitalist than not, and so we can use our knowledge about the person and the subject under discussion to fill in the gaps. Of course, this is easier said than done, but the more time we spend on “live mike”, the more we realise that we must get something out for the benefit of our listeners, that silence simply isn’t an option.
A good way of overcoming a vocab “blank” is to generalise. If we know that a word refers, for example, to a hyponym (more specific sub-type e.g. “hatchback” for “car”), then as long as we know the category we can say “this particular type of car is often sold at…” rather than “………er….um…these are often sold at…”. As long as we make it clear as soon as possible, in the next sentence if we can, that we are in fact talking about “hatchbacks” (after a frantic search on wordreference.com) then we are safe. I remember in a meeting on the torture of young women in DRC where a speaker was telling the story of a girl who had been kidnapped and forced to eat “le mollet”. At the time, the word for “mollet” (FR) completely escaped me and I felt like a fish for a few split seconds, my mouth opening and closing in panic. So I said “she was forced to eat a part of her own body…” *desperate wordreference search* “…her calf muscle, which had been cut off and cooked on the fire”. Phew! Everything helps in a situation like this – being aware of the atrocities committed in the country before I went into the meeting meant that I was able to make an assumption that turned out to be correct. The grim, disgusted faces of the Francophones listening to the speaker confirmed it too.
“How much preparation do you do before a meeting?”
Another good question, but one that’s difficult to answer. It really depends on what type of meeting it is. If it’s the first time I’ve worked for a particular organization, I’ll spend up to two or sometimes even three days learning about the institution and gradually working inwards towards the topic to be discussed at the specific meeting. That’s when I have the luxury of knowing what meeting I’m on and what the subject matter will be. Last week I didn’t know what meeting I was on until ten o’clock the night before, and even then all I knew was the time and place. It wasn’t until I arrived, an hour early, that I found out anything concrete. In that situation it’s best to keep up to date with the news on the website of the relevant institution, as they usually publish daily reports of meetings especially if it’s a large-scale conference. You can also make contact with colleagues and try to find out extra information that way. Sometimes I am actually thankful that I don’t know what to prepare – overpreparation can sometimes be dangerous as it can make you very nervous and sometimes unable to sleep. As a freelancer, I’ve got used to expecting anything and nothing at the same time. There is simply no point worrying about something unless you know what it is! Being under-prepared (through no fault of your own) also forces you to use your languages and your raw interpreting ability, which is always good.
I’d say that the most important thing to work on when preparing is a one-page vocab list in all your languages of the key concepts and institutional words that you’ve gleaned from your research. One-page, because loudly turning over bits of paper in the booth is annoying for your colleague and time-consuming for you. I usually print out as much info as possible in foreign, read it, highlight the unknown or important words (in different colours, of course), write out a vocab list long-hand and then type it up into a neat spreadsheet later. That way you see the words in context and then write them down twice. If I have time, I read the foreign words out loud with a few seconds’ gap after each term, record this, and then listen back, using the recording as a test. This is a really good way of learning vocab as it’s perfect practice for the booth – sometimes learning words orally is more appropriate for interpreting. You can also save the mp3 onto your music player and listen to it on the bus. Just don’t say the words out loud! If you’re feeling super-brave you can do the following exercise. Play your recording, but don’t say the translation of a word until two more terms have gone by. That way, you practise staying behind a couple of words but still remembering the first term, while listening to the new words. This trains your brain and mouth to work at different speeds and it means you become used to the “lag” which can be very important during a speech, especially in languages such as Spanish where the sentence is sometimes backwards and those few extra seconds can be essential.
The aim of all this preparation is to ensure that when we’re actually working, we hit that sweet spot of saying what the speaker really means. And we can only do that if we really know what he means! So I’d say that preparation time is unquantifiable really, depending on the individual and on the meeting itself, and of course on how long you can stand being indoors in front of the computer on a scorching Genevan June day. Soon I’ll write a post about all my preparation techniques – hopefully they’ll be useful for both students and practising interpreters.
After the talks we moved to the interpreting department’s labs, where three current Bath MAIT students and I led a workshop. There were also workshops led by Teresa and Andrew running parallel to this. We asked the students to play “just a minute”, to demonstrate the need to be able to speak fluently in front of a new audience. They each wrote a topic on a piece of paper, which we then had them pick out of a hat at random. The students did very well, and I was impressed with their ability to think on the spot. We then asked for volunteers to speak for one minute about a chosen topic, while the rest of the group took down 5 words or symbols, and then attempted to give the speech back as fully as possible. Again, I was glad to see that they were all engaged and very creative, some thinking up very clever symbols encapsulating a whole sentence. Finally we had the students sit in the booths and have a go at “shadowing” (English to English), while we gave short speeches from the floor. We then had them try from their foreign languages. I was amazed at how quickly they took to it and how much they seemed to enjoy it. I can see that being an interpreting teacher would be very rewarding! Afterwards, the different workshops reunited and we had some final questions and answers.
Generally, the day was very useful and I was thrilled to be there. Interpreting is such a small profession that I think the more we can retain links with our training schools and upcoming generations of colleagues, the better. Hopefully the event was encouraging for those who attended. I look forward to seeing some of them join me in the booth one day!