Friday, July 28, 2017

Wait, doesn't have to be perfect? Coping tactics from master interpreters

Before I begin, I really feel the need to caveat this post before I haul out just enough rope to absolutely hang myself. The job of the interpreter is to faithfully and accurately interpret all aspects of the speaker's message, matching register, style, and tone. If the speaker asks "Are you currently employed" and my interpretation to my target language is more equivalent to "You got a job?" then I have not done my job as an interpreter to a particularly high standard because I have altered the register and quite possibly the tone, even if I left the meaning intact.

I have taught perfect accuracy as the standard to my interpreter trainees for the last six years, and as a result have probably left some of the more conscientious among them as neurotic as I myself am about accuracy in interpreting and translation (I'm sorry, friends! But as they say, if you aim for the stars, you'll at least land on the moon, and that's not a bad thing). So for me, the most mind-blowing takeaway I've gotten from this training by MCS is that it doesn't actually have to be perfect, and that in fact, the most expert interpreters employ what are called "coping tactics" (more on this in a moment) to smoothly handle problems such as not understanding part of a speaker's utterance, forgetting a word, or momentarily losing their concentration - all without negatively impacting the message or its flow. To underscore the legitimacy of what I'm saying, the workshops included in this training are being being delivered by a federally certified court interpreter who also happens to be a rater for the federal court interpretation exam, an AIIC-member conference interpreter who interprets for the highest levels of government, and a former dean of the Monterey Institute (now Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey). That is to say, these are authoritative speakers. Or totally legit, depending on the register you prefer.

So what are coping tactics? They include, but are not limited to....
  • Delaying
  • Paraphrasing (a little bit)
  • Circumlocution
  • Re-sequencing
How does it work? Let's say you forget for a moment what comes next in your consecutive delivery. But you don't want to damage your speakers' confidence in your skills, or irritate them with constant requests to repeat themselves. So rather than hemming and hawing and leaving a big gap in your rendition, maybe you buy yourself some time and just quickly repeat yourself, or say the next thing after the thing you forgot, while you decipher those scribbled notes and make vows to improve your handwriting. However, you still make sure you remain faithful to that message and know that you must come back to what you forgot, either by asking for repetition or remembering - finally. It goes with out saying that you had better be sure that the message is not one that would be seriously harmed by such re-sequencing. Like medical instructions: there is a difference between "eat lunch, wait an hour, and take the pill, and "eat lunch, take the pill, and wait an hour". Don't do that, kids, that would be wrong and you might hurt someone. 

So that's what coping tactics are. Master interpreters use them judiciously and sparingly to preserve the integrity of a message and keep communication flowing properly. It's a complex balancing act, and whether or not to employ coping tactics is one of the many background tasks that skilled interpreters handle with grace and elegance while analyzing and interpreting all the messages included in an interpreted encounter. It's a relief to know that this is one of the tools I can use as an interpreter, although deep down inside-well, I still just think it should be perfect.

I'll leave you with this excellent video by court and community interpreter Katharine Allen on how to handle unfamiliar terms in both consecutive and simultaneous settings, where she describes some of the coping tactics mentioned above, with all due caveats on maintaining accuracy:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Do as I say, not as I did: The trainer goes back to school

Since I stopped practicing as a community interpreter about seven or eight years ago and started training interpreters six years ago, I have harbored a small piece of guilty knowledge. Here it is, guys. Please don't judge me.

I honestly learned more about interpreting as a trainer than I knew when I was actually interpreting. 

That's it! I was not an expert interpreter when I became a trainer. It was not until later, while managing and monitoring interpreters, and through self-study and eventually training as a trainer, that I really grew in my knowledge of what an interpreter SHOULD DO and HOW they should do it. And the more I learned, the more cognizant I became of the fact that my own capabilities were not the top shelf skills I thought they were when I was last hopping from appointment to appointment back in Seattle almost a decade ago.

It's logical that this would be the case, since I interpreted for less than three years and then landed a position of responsibility promoting best practices and teaching interpreters how to work. I was teaching a complex and often misunderstood skill set, and was often questioned about the best practices that I believed in, so I figured I had to know it inside and out, right? I learned how to explain ethics and best practices a hundred different ways, and talk new interpreters (and experienced interpreters with the bad habits of the self-taught) through the norms of their profession. I'm proud to have spent the last several years, both full-time and as part of ancillary functions of my other social service roles, welcoming interpreters into the profession and promoting excellence in interpreted communication. Yet, I worry that I myself was not the best interpreter at all times, and worse, that I didn't even know it. It's been many years and I can't effectively self-evaluate my performance from 2009, but I am fairly confident that I didn't consistently provide full, accurate interpretation. I liken this to what a zealous convert must feel, passionately preaching the good news but dwelling on the memory of past unconfessed transgression.

In search of redemption and for the love of this amazing, challenging, and critical profession of community interpreting, I've been waiting for the right opportunity try my hand at putting into practice what I've been teaching for the last six years. I believe I've found just that moment. I'm starting law school this fall at Georgetown University, which thankfully has an evening program which will allow me the opportunity to pursue my dream of getting back into language services and being the interpreter I've been telling others they should be.

Naturally, I want to re-build those skills (and maybe build some I never had before) and I am so grateful to be currently participating in a 70-hour training offered by Multicultural Community Services (MCS) here in the nation's capital. The next blog post will be about this incredible training and the insights I'm already pulling from it (both as a trainer and as a would-be interpreter), just two days in. Stay tuned! There's so much to tell.