If you interpret a language of lesser diffusion and cannot find practice materials specific to your language, you’ll need to think smart, collaborate, and above all, don’t reinvent the wheel!
Half a lifetime ago, I decided I wanted to be an interpreter. It was a lofty goal, especially given the fact that I barely spoke English and not much else. But I had taken my first language class and that was that. Accidentally, a passion had been born.
I began with Spanish, and for many years that was the language that dominated, although I continued to dabble in French. I spent a year in Honduras after I graduated from Rutgers University. Upon my return, I purchased all the interpreting materials I could find and studied like a fiend. Eventually, I began freelancing. I also started to pass certification exams as a court and health care interpreter.
Ten years into my journey, I decided to pursue French as a third language for interpreting. That’s when I realized how much I had been taking everything for granted. In the words of Canadian-American singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, I didn’t know what I’d “got ‘til it was gone.”
The LOTS Dilemma
It was for precisely this reason that I focused on languages other than Spanish (LOTS) resources for my session at ATA’s 62nd Annual Conference in Minneapolis. I began the session, as always, with a question: “What unique challenges face LOTS interpreters?”
People were hesitant to respond at first, but then finally one person raised her hand. “The lack of materials!” she stated bluntly. Colleagues to her left and right began to nod and murmur emphatically.
What I hadn’t realized at the beginning of my career was how lucky I was. As a Spanish interpreter, you have access to an array of training materials. Simulated court and medical scenarios are accompanied by their corresponding transcripts, and glossaries and example interpretations are readily available. In short, somebody has already done the work for you.
Much to my dismay, this was not the case for French interpreting. Nor is it the case for Japanese, Twi, Swahili, Cape Verdean, or any of the hundreds of languages you may encounter over the course of an interpreting lifetime. So, what’s a LOTS interpreter to do?
Creating Materials for Deliberate Practice
My conference session focused on maximizing our resources in an attempt not to reinvent the wheel. The first thing I discussed was deliberate study. Interpreting along with a YouTube video or TV program is all well and good, but it doesn’t constitute interpreting practice. To improve as an interpreter, you must analyze your performance in micro detail. You need to record your interpretations and, most importantly, be able to compare your rendition with a transcript. In short, you need training materials. But what’s a LOTS interpreter to do when there are no training materials?
The good news is, while there may not be language-specific materials in your language, there are language-neutral (English only) materials. Here are a just a few companies that sell them:
Interpretrain offers innovative self-study tools that include vocabulary drills and practice labs you can grade so you know exactly how well you’re doing. They also sell The Note-Taking Manual, which is an incredible resource for consecutive interpreting.
In addition to language-specific materials in Arabic, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Polish, Korean, Russian, and Cantonese, ACEBO sells The Interpreter’s Edge Generic Edition, which can be used for practice with any language.
The Confident Interpreter
This company sells language-neutral practice labs that are great for court and medical interpreters.
De la Mora Institute of Interpretation
They offer a variety of online classes geared to beginner, intermediate, and advanced interpreters of all languages.
If you interpret a language of lesser diffusion and cannot find practice materials specific to your language, language-neutral materials are the way to go as they provide you with most of what you need for your language. For example, to practice simultaneous interpreting, you only need simultaneous practice materials from English into your other language. That’s because court interpreters don’t interpret simultaneously into English. This means you can use any simultaneous practice in English and simply interpret into your other language.
What’s missing, then, is sight translation from other languages into English and a true consecutive dialogue that consists of questions in English and answers in your other language. Here are some tricks on how to cover these two areas.
Create Your Own Materials for Sight Translation: The sight translation dilemma is simple enough. Just do a Google search for wills, police reports, medical histories, or other material in your language relevant to your work. You’re sure to find documents appropriate for sight translation. If you have relatives in other countries where your languages are spoken, ask them to send you copies of legal documents (e.g., wills, property deeds, and birth and marriage certificates) and even police reports if they have a friend or relative in law enforcement. Newspaper stories about crimes also contain good material for sight translation practice.
Look for documents where the terminology isn’t too complex. Shorter segments are better. How short? Well, around 225 words is a good length for practice, which is pretty close to the length of the passages you’ll find on an interpreting certification exam. (It’s always a good idea to practice with documents similar to the type that appear on certification exams.)
When I was studying for French court certification, I found Le rapport d’intervention on the Centre collégial de développement de matériel didactique site (managed by the Collège de Maisonneuve in Canada) to be very helpful. It contains various police report texts of the exact length and type found on certification exams (https://bit.ly/Lerapport).
While we’re at it, look for a resource to practice shadowing (i.e., when you follow the speaker word for word in the same language). It’s a great way to improve your ability to multitask, work on lag (i.e., how far you’re behind the speaker) and delivery, and make sure your speech isn’t influenced by English. For a great resource in multiple languages, try visiting the Cleveland Municipal Court website: https://bit.ly/Cleveland-Municipal)
Create Your Own Materials for Consecutive Interpreting: When you buy self-study materials only in English, you end up with practice dialogue that’s (surprise, surprise!) all in English. To be fair, this is a fine way to practice interpreting. There are multiple elements that must be isolated for consecutive interpreting, including but not limited to listening skills, delivery, grammar/syntax, memory, visualization, and note-taking. So, simply practicing English-to-English, or uni-directionally from English into your other language, isn’t bad.
Still, though, it’s helpful to practice simulating an actual multilingual dialogue. To do this, simply create a written translation of the answers to the questions contained in the practice dialogue. Then record yourself reading off the English questions and the non-English answers. After that, wait a few weeks until you’ve forgotten the content, and voila! You now have a true simulated dialogue to practice with, complete with a transcript.
It’s even better if you can work with a study buddy. Have your partner translate one of the study exercises so the content will be new to you. You can do the same for them. Here’s an example for consecutive interpreting in French:
Question: Good morning, Mr. Leblanc. How are you today?
Answer: Terrible. I’m here right now, aren’t I?
Question: Good morning, Mr. Leblanc. How are you today?
Answer: Très mal. Je suis ici en ce moment, n’est-ce pas?
Having a study partner is an incredible way to stay motivated, share resources, and bring awareness to problems (and solutions!) you may not have thought of on your own. It can also be a nice way to validate your interpreting skills because we’re often our own harshest critics. It can be a relief to hear from a colleague about the things that we’re doing well.
Especially if you speak a language of more limited diffusion, resource sharing is even more vital. I’ve been able to find resources and study partners through Facebook groups. I manage the ones below, which you’re welcome to join:
French Interpreting Corner (Facebook)
A group for French interpreters to share resources and network.
Interpreters: Certification or Bust
This group allows people to discuss topics related to certification exams.
Athena Sky Interpreting
Here you’ll find resources, blogs, and information about interpreting workshops.
It can take time to find a study partner who is a good fit. Once you do, though, you’re golden. It’s also important to establish a procedure for how a study session will go. I’ve had some of the best conversations with study partners who evolve into friends. That said, 45 minutes of chatting doesn’t count as studying! You must also be vigilant about not allowing vocabulary discussions to derail your efforts. Words are just a tiny piece of interpreting, and that’s what dictionaries are for.
Your partner should be your sidekick as you go about the detective work of determining your weaknesses and strengths. Look for patterns. For example, what sort of mistakes are made repeatedly? Those are the ones to pay attention to.
Above all, be specific with the feedback you provide.For example, telling your partner to “Watch your grammar” isn’t very helpful. I am watching my grammar. If I make a mistake, it’s often because I didn’t realize what I was saying was wrong. So, if you can be specific, as in, “You said the ball was lying in the floor, but the correct preposition would be on the floor,” I’ll benefit from that explanation.
A study practice session should follow these steps:
- Interpreter A interprets. Interpreter B takes notes.
- Interpreter A continues until the exercise is finished. Interpreter B doesn’t help them out!
- Interpreter A debriefs, starting with what went well.
- Interpreter A then points out places where they felt stuck or frustrated.
- Interpreter B debriefs, pointing out what went well.
- Interpreter B points out specific patterns of mistakes, along with specific solutions.
- The partners swap roles.
Whether online, on social media, or in person, sharing study tools is an efficient way to make the most of resources we already have at our disposal. It doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel, so if you have glossaries, websites, or online groups you find useful, share them with your colleagues and they’ll do the same. I keep a running list of resources on my website (https://athenaskyinterpreting.com/resources). If you find more that you would like to have added, just let me know!
Learn to Think Smart and Maximize Your Resources
I wish you all the best in your professional development! It may be true that you don’t always know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, but in the words of another great set of musicians, The Beatles, “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.”
Allow your colleagues to be your friends. Think smart and don’t reinvent the wheel. Good luck!
Athena Matilsky has a BA in Spanish interpreting and translation from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in conference interpreting from Glendon College. She is a federally certified court interpreter (Spanish<>English), a certified health care interpreter (Spanish<>English), and an approved court interpreter (French<>English). She served as a staff interpreter for the New Jersey Judiciary from 2013-2016. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter and trains candidates for the state and federal interpreting exams. She owns Athena Sky Interpreting, where she coaches students on interpreting technique. When she is not teaching and interpreting, you can find her practicing Acroyoga or studying French. Athenaskyinterpreting@gmail.com