Practice by not practising (interpreting)

This post first appeared as a Guest post on the ProzCom Community Awards blog on November 1st 2015

(and is reproduced here without permission as the original is no longer available)

Interpreting and Practice

In this short post I’d like to show why interpreting is not necessarily the best way to improve your interpreting and suggest a few ways of practising that are not interpreting.

It’s natural enough to think that best way to improve your interpreting is to interpret. Student interpreters might think so for a number of reasons – 1) they’ve done very little of it so far; 2) they’re told repeatedly how important experience is in interpreting; 3) they want to interpret as much as possible because they like doing it. 

Professionals on the other hand may think that all the interpreting they are doing in the course of a working week is enough to bring continued improvement of itself. 

However, interpreting is not the ONLY way to improve your interpreting. And indeed, when practise means only interpreting it’s not even the best way to improve any more. 

“How expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practices than with merely performing a skill a large number of times. An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback.” 

That quote is Wikipedia’s description of the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson – a pioneer in the field of deliberate practice. Ericsson is not specifically talking about interpreting, of course, but it still applies, based as it is on some sound empirical evidence. 

So what does that mean? Well let’s take an everyday analogy: my Great-Uncle drove a car every day for 60 years – so he had plenty of experience – but he was a bad driver and never got any better at it because  1) he wasn’t trying to get better;  2) he didn’t practice the things he did less well, like changing gear, in isolation and 3) he certainly didn’t ask for any feedback on how he was driving! (He did give a lot of ‘feedback’ to other drivers, but that’s another story!)

So can interpreting be broken down into sub-skills and how can we address them individually? Well this is only a short post, so let’s stick to consecutive interpreting. 

Daniel Gile identifies the following sub-skills for consecutive in his book Concepts and Models for Translator and Interpreter Training: Listening, Analysing, Memorising, Taking notes, Coordinating between sub-skills in a first phase and then in a second phase, Speaking, Reading notes, Recalling information, Monitoring your production.

Any of these skills can be practised in isolation, without actually interpreting. You just need to find the right exercise. And the practice will impact positively on your future performance of the whole interpreting skill. 

Let’s take ‘analysis’.  Speeches are not uninterrupted streams of consciousness (despite what we sometimes might think!) The speaker will have created a speech with distinct sections separated by topic, chronology, line of argument etc. Identifying those sections is a useful part of the analysis sub-skill in consecutive (and also simultaneous). And it’s a skill that can be practised without interpreting. 

For example by only listening to a speech and indicating when you think the speaker has moved on to a different part of the speech. The classic exercise is to count the sections on your fingers1, but you could equally note down one word per section2.

You can also work from the transcript of a speech3. (First ask someone to remove all the paragraph breaks from the transcript so the speech is just a block of text. Then read the speech and hit ‘return’ whereever you think it moves on to a new section). 

And for each of these exercises compare your version with a colleague or a teacher.

After all, if you can’t identify these sections when only listening, or when reading a text, how will you recognize and communicate them when interpreting? 

Another related exercise4, practises your understanding of how the parts of a speech fit together. Get a colleague to print out a short speech, or part of a speech (5-10 paragraphs). Ask the colleague to cut up the speech – so you have one paragraph on each piece of paper – and shuffle the bits of paper. Now your job is to read the different parts of the speech and put them back in the right order. You will notice – because the exercise forces you to notice – that certain elements of language and information exclude or impose a certain order of the sections. You will start recognize how a speaker signals a new section, or how two sections relate to one another, or how speeches self-reference. That in turn become very useful to you when you are interpreting and better understanding these things yourself will help you communicate them better to your listeners.

Professionals may feel that basic exercises like these are too simple for them. But it’s worth trying them out to check that is the case. If it is, then instead of isolating a sub-skill entirely they can focus on a sub-skill while interpreting5. For example, by setting a goal as a complement to the interpreting task. Something like, ‘today while interpreting I’m going to focus on clearly separating the sections of the speech for my listeners’. Then record and listen to yourself to see if you managed to do that. Focussing on a sub-skill in this way is also more effective than simply interpreting without any specific goal.

To conclude I’d like to make one more important point and again abuse the example of my (fictional) Great-Uncle to do so. As I said earlier, his driving didn’t improve because he wasn’t trying to improve it. Most student interpreters are trying to improve already, so part of the battle is won. My Great-Uncle though had another issue. He wasn’t trying to improve because he mistakenly thought he was doing it just-fine-thank-you-very-much. Interpreters can make the same mistake. Don’t be one of them! There’s always room for improvement, so keep practising, and thinking about how you practise, long after you graduate from interpreting school!

Andy Gillies

These exercises, and more, can be found in Andy Gillies’ book, Conference Interpreting – A Student’s Practice Book with the following references – 1 C31; 2 C103; 3 C39; 4 C40; 5 A5.