Heriot-Watt Goes to Holyrood

Heriot-Watt students doing the MSc in Conference Interpreting got to go to Holyrood – the Scottish Parliament, that is; for some dummy-booth practice.

These sessions, organised for small groups of motivated students, take place a few months into their training; at an ideal time to enable them to evaluate their progress and start to get a feel for the challenges of “real” interpreting.

So far, these students had only worked in groups of a single language pair, in a class-room setting, and from speeches adapted from real conferences to gradually build up their skills and confidence.

This was their first experience working from a real and live debate – but was it too early? Definitely not. Thanks to the support of the Scottish Parliament, we were given access to 4 interpreting decks, for the duration of a 2h30 debate. This meant that students had the opportunity to practice from live speeches several times during the session, enabling them to recover from the initial surprise and to come up with good strategies to keep up.

The configuration of the booths meant that while some of the students were working, the others could sit beside them and help them, or take notes to give them feed-back, or even practice retour doing chuchotage (whispered interpreting). All this tookn place under the supervision of a member of staff who also has professional interpreting practice, and guides students during the session. Having a group with a mixed combination of languages and no speaker in the booth meant that the emphasis was taken away from the language and moved back to the key purpose: communication. And this seemed to work: soon students forgot to anxiously seek the right word, and focussed on getting the message across for their peers who couldn’t hear the speech, or didn’t understand the language of the interpreter. The words seemed to come to them quite naturally.

What’s the next step? Well, having been confronted with a variety of Scottish accents, cultural and current references, various speeds and passionate arguments, students will now be asked to run their own multilingual mini-conferences in our biggest language lab. Here they will provide the speeches (in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Arabic) and the interpreting (consecutive and simultaneous). We’ve noted that taking students to attend a live debate at the Scottish Parliament has made them much more aware of what makes real live speeches so interesting … and so challenging, and the students who took part in the scheme last year drew from the experience to bring more realistic features to the in-house debate.

But there is more to come: by mid-March, these students will be interpreting at a live multilingual debate, for a real audience … and, what’s more, the debate will be streamed live on internet. So if you are curious as to what trainee interpreters can do 7 months into their training, watch this space: information on how to register to watch the debate and listen to the interpreters will soon be available!

Author: Fanny Chouc

The Importance of Messy Interpreting

It’s a sad fact that interpreting is still not seen as a particularly difficult and useful skill by many members of the public. After all, it’s just like having a walking dictionary, isn’t it? Interpreters hear words in one language and find their equivalents in another. Surely a computer could do the job.

Professionals might laugh at such opinions (in fact, we have laughed at them before) but it is worth pausing a little to figure out why people might have such a simplistic view of our work. True, it could be due to seeing communication between human beings as being similar to communication between computers. You put information in, process it a bit and then output some more information. Interpreters then become machines. Their job is just to find the “right words” in order to give an “accurate translation” of what they have heard.

The quotation marks are very necessary here. Interpret for five minutes and you know that phrases like “right words” and “accurate translation” are loaded and troublesome. There are, of course, many different ways to “accurately” interpret the same sentence depending on context, clients, speed, and a whole host of different factors. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the vocabulary and phrasing an interpreter might use when consecutively interpreting the cross-examination of a defendant in a court might be very different to the ones they would use when using interpreting the same defendant’s discussions with their barrister.

Life gets even more complicated when you take into account that interpreters in many contexts have to make a variety of ethical decisions as to what to interpret and how to interpret it. (See our interviews with Robyn Dean). Some researchers have pointed out that sometimes the most “accurate” version of what was said might not be the “right” version for a given context.

Andrew Clifford points to a case where, if the interpreter had given the most “accurate” version of what a doctor had said, a patient might not have been able to concentrate on the vital details of how they could be treated. Cases like this might not be found in any textbook but they are the daily realities of interpreting in many settings.

The problem is that, as Ebru Diriker has pointed out in her book, De-/Re-contextualizing Conference Interpreting, on the rare occasions when interpreters get into the public eye, we tend to shy away from discussing the messier aspects of our work. We talk a lot about our language skills, our speaking skills and the importance of our work. We might, very occasionally, talk about the times when we had trouble interpreting or when we needed to be a bit more creative than usual but we quickly reassert that we are still always “accurate” and “trustworthy.”

Faced with such evidence from interpreters themselves, the public have no real choice but to assume that interpreting really is as easy as they thought. If accuracy can be taken for granted then why do interpreters need to be so well paid? If it’s all just a matter of linguistic abilities, why bother with training? If there are never any real decisions to be made, why not let computers do it? In short, if interpreting is just relaying information, why on earth would it be important to have trained, skilled professionals doing it?

Perhaps, in our quest to present ourselves as trustworthy and accurate, we have made it harder to present our work as skilled and worthy of respect. What do you think?