By Sarah Caudill
Though I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, just a short bus ride from the UMD College Park campus, I was teaching English in a small French town called l’Isle d’Abeau when I first heard about the brand new Interpreting and Translation program at UMD. I had interpreted and translated on an informal basis for friends and family, of course, but I hadn’t considered going back to school to learn to do either one professionally. Now, with the first year of the program completed, I’m so glad I decided to take a chance and join the inaugural class.
For someone coming into the program with no formal experience in the field, starting the first year presented many difficult choices. For starters, all incoming students have to decide whether to pursue a 1-year certification or commit to a 2-year masters degree. But most pressing was choosing between interpreting and translation. While I eventually decided to focus solely on interpreting, several of my classmates elected to take courses in both. Students must concentrate on one or the other, but the class schedule makes it possible, for example, to center your attention on interpreting while taking as many credits in translation courses as you feel comfortable with. In our first year, instructors worked with students to accommodate scheduling needs, while students did the same for them; after all, the instructors are actively working in the translation and interpreting fields in addition to teaching. While it does require some flexibility on all sides when an instructor has to change a class date because he will be interpreting at the White House that day, the benefits of learning from professionals with such vast experience and skill more than make up for it.
The program’s location is a great boon, first and foremost for its proximity to Washington, DC. Everything the capital city has to offer is accessible with a bus or metro ride. The instructors who work with students at UMD are high-level professional interpreters and translators in government offices and international organizations, so their insights and recommendations are always up-to-date. And when students are not in class, they can take advantage of the city as well. During the first year, we were able to have several informational and practice sessions at the International Monetary Fund and welcome guest speakers with a wide range of backgrounds, from the State Department to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Of course, the students themselves bring quite a variety of experiences to the program. The new program started out small, with fewer than twenty students in all, but within that group were represented almost half a dozen languages: Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Italian, with Korean and other languages set to make an appearance this fall. This made it difficult for some of us to find practice partners in our particular language combinations, but we found ways to work around it and learn from each other nonetheless. Because the first year had a strong emphasis on theory, we were able to have many of our courses together regardless of language combinations; in the second semester, we began specializing in either political or medical subjects. In between these theoretical courses, we then had classes with much smaller groups of students to study and practice interpreting or translating in our particular language combinations.
These small language classes varied in size during the first year, from the larger Chinese classes to the typically four-person Spanish classes, and even down to my one-person French class in the spring. I was a little nervous in the beginning about having a one-on-one class, but I was fortunate to have a fantastic instructor who put me at ease and helped me understand what I was really capable of. But as much as I learned from that class, it’s the ones with a small group of students that truly stick with you, because you pick up as much from your classmates as you do from the lesson. Some of my classmates came to the program, like me, without formal experience but eager to learn. Others were freelance interpreters who had already made a name for themselves in the interpreting world and were seeking to take the next step in their careers. I’ll never forget the first time I heard a classmate in the latter category interpret in class and I told myself: “That is where I have to be.”
This is still a new program, set to begin its second year this fall. That means a degree of uncertainty for our inaugural class – there aren’t yet alumni to share stories about how studying interpreting or translation at UMD has advanced their careers, and every course is a new discovery for everyone involved. But it also allows for flexibility and growth. Instructors and students can work together to shape what this program is going to be; what is important and what we need; what will work best for turning us into the future colleagues our instructors want in the booths with them. I know that all of us are looking forward to seeing what challenges the next semester will bring!
About the author: Sarah Caudill has recently completed the first year of her Masters of Professional Studies in the University of Maryland’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation program. She is focusing on conference interpreting with English (A), French (B), and Spanish (C). Her French and English skills have been put to use teaching English to middle school students in France and helping visitors in the US Capitol Visitor Center. She has a BA in International Studies from the American University, where she studied French, Arabic, and Spanish. She attended elementary school in French-speaking Quebec.