Bird’s Corner

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Reprinted with gracious permission from the Chinese Language Division Newsletter and the author. This article is from the Summer 2015 Chinese Language Division Newsletter.

Conference Interpreting

As someone who has worked mostly as a community interpreter, I can attest to the pressure that interpreters must endure, be it in a medical consultation, at a courtroom, or during a civil discovery. Community interpreters face scrutiny from all parties while on the job. Constant challenges to their abilities help them develop thick skins and strengthen their defense mechanisms. The need to be completely accurate creates internal processes that work like clockwork to produce faithful interpretation.

So what happens when interpreters are thrown into an environment where the flow of the interpretation is just as important as the content? In a conference setting, with no opportunities to seek clarification, how should they handle themselves? What problems can be expected? I’d like to share with you some of my observations and experiences. I would also like your feedback, as I’m new to this work and would appreciate my fellow colleagues ‘professional insights into the world of conference interpreting.

So how do you transform an interpreter who has been trained to regurgitate everything as faithfully and accurately as possible into an eloquent artist who can process spoken words into art forms which express ideas and facts seamlessly to all listeners? How do you go from community interpretation to conference interpretation?

I had thought that negotiating between the two was as easy as flicking a switch. I was wrong. The truth is, it takes a lot of work to change habits and thought processes that have been burned into our minds over the years. We are creatures of habit and our repetitive actions can become second nature. But the great thing is that all of us can change.

First of all, why should I go into conference interpreting when I’m perfectly content with community interpreting? We all have the ability to gain new skills and build upon them to enlarge our world. As a professional interpreter, I’m not satisfied with working in a field with one narrow focus. Only by acquiring new skills can we open up our minds to the possibilities of having other vocations. We are not limited by our current profession. The human race wants to be better than the animals who can only survive in their natural habitats. We want to thrive on Arctic ice and flourish in tropical forests. This is the reason I want to be a great community interpreter and a great conference interpreter.

This question is important because if you can’t answer this question, you won’t have the proper sense of direction in attaining your goal. Why is it so important to be able to change our mindset when interpreting in a conference or for our community?

To understand this, an illustration of the two situations is needed to provide a contrast. Let me give an example of a typical day of my work. At immigration hearings, everything is recorded. Details are important and the expectation is that my interpretation is as faithful and complete as possible. We are not to exaggerate or omit anything, nor are we to embellish or change the meaning of what is said, including the register. In this type of environment, I must assert myself and interject when something is unclear or when my task is hindered by someone who refuses to work with me, to ensure that my interpretation is up to professional standards. You can imagine how powerless I would feel if I couldn’t exercise this freedom.

Conference interpreting is a different kind of beast altogether. I still remember my first attempt at conference interpreting and how all the experience that I had accumulated up to that point went out the window the moment the microphones were turned on. Sitting in that booth was nerve-wracking and I couldn’t keep up with the speakers. I blanked out. Thankfully I was saved by my colleague who jumped in and took control of the situation. I am forever grateful for his presence that day as his skills were shown to be vastly superior to mine. It was a humbling experience and, to this day, I am still shaky when approaching the interpreter’s booth, remembering how traumatized I was in that previous event. I had been overcome by a sense of helplessness as I struggled to understand everything that was said: all the details, all the jargon, all the jokes. I realized on that day how much work I needed to do in order to survive in conference interpreting. I knew very well that I needed to improve my simultaneous interpretation skills.

Since much of what I interpret is recorded, I am familiar with the consecutive interpreting format. This is the first hurdle that I encountered when I waded into the world of conference interpreting. I did not have the confidence that my skills at simultaneous interpretation were as good as my skills at consecutive interpretation. To overcome this lack of confidence, I took on every opportunity to work on my simultaneous skills. I familiarized myself with this type of interpreting but still found myself intimidated when I went into a conference interpreting setting.

I recall attending a seminar where the guest speaker was a renowned conference interpreter. She had a magnetic presence and spoke effusively of the experiences that shaped her into the respected professional that she was. She said two things that stood out that day. One was her comment that interpreters were better known as interrupters — never has a truer statement been made. The second was her suggestion for those who wanted to follow her footsteps. Budding conference interpreters should keep working at it and be creative — never be afraid to fake it. It was something that I had heard from other successful conference interpreters.

However, tried as I had, I just couldn’t grasp the concept. It always came back to the same problem. One of my personal rules for interpreting was that faithfulness and completeness were always paramount. That little voice in my head always reminded me not to stray from my rules. I created these rules and couldn’t change them even if I wanted to. That crazy little bird inside my head kept reinforcing these unconscious habits that refused to die.

A couple of years ago, I stepped back into the booth and was prepared to work the floor again, eager to prove to myself that I could do it. As the clock ticked closer to the starting time, bad news arrived — my assigned partner would not be coming. Thankfully, the organizers had the foresight to bring in a local interpreter who turned out to be a godsend. As we discussed about divvying up the workload, I suggested that she took on the English-to-Mandarin part, as I had spent much of my time preparing for the Mandarin-to-English part. Karma has a funny way of showing how fair the universe is. My relief at her presence quickly turned into despair when my suggestion was rebuffed. She was an escort interpreter that day and would not partake in the simultaneous interpretation. I was on my own.

You never know how great the human mind can be until it faces a crisis. To be honest, I wasn’t aware that seconds became minutes and minutes became hours. Switching back and forth between two languages and controlling the switchboard became increasingly easy. Truth be told, I forgot to switch the board a few times. I’ll also say that my interpretation wasn’t exactly a work of art, but I survived it and at the end of the day, the client was happy with my work. The greatest relief was that nobody complained that I lacked knowledge of the subject matter. This gave me the confidence to continue working as a conference interpreter, even though the word “conference” still jangles nerves.

More recently, I made a small breakthrough in conference interpreting. But I’m going to leave everyone hanging and stop now as this column is getting a bit too long. I’ll continue in the next newsletter. By then, many of us will have met and chatted in Miami at ATA’s 56th Annual Conference. I’ll share insights from my more capable colleagues and maybe some of my new blunders too.

The following are some of the topics that I have found difficult in my journey from community interpreting to conference interpreting:

* simultaneous vs consecutive
* trying to capture every detail
* getting stuck on a word or phrase
* preparation 15
* bias or no bias

Pency Tsai has been a community interpreter for the past 4 years, specializing in Canadian immigration and refugee tribunal hearings. She currently serves as the CLD Assistant Administrator.

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