I had a chance to catch up with three interpretation students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). As part of the T&I program at MIIS, interpretation classes are mandatory for the first semester to give students a taste of the profession. After that, students can continue pursuing interpretation as a career. Anna Bialostosky, Elizabeth Crowell and Michael Ross are bidirectional French-English interpreters about to graduate. They have all spoken French and other languages for many years, and have lived in Paris, Perpignan, Aix-en-Provence and Nîmes as teachers, students and travelers. They talked with me about the beginnings of their careers, some of their practical experience, and advice for prospective interpretation students.
How did you first become interested in interpretation?
MR: I hadn’t even really thought about interpretation. I didn’t know there was a difference between translation and interpretation until I looked at MIIS, and even at the very beginning, I still thought I just wanted to be a translator. It wasn’t until we were required to take interpretation classes that I thought maybe it would be a nice way to vary my career.
AB: Interpretation appealed to me because it’s a little bit more social, and I thought it would be lonely to be by myself all day long. I also liked the aspect of getting to work in a lot of different subject areas.
EC: There’s also a performative aspect to it, and being a musician, that appealed to me. It’s like being on stage, with the pressure but also the excitement of having to perform on the fly.
What do you find the most fulfilling about interpreting?
AB: I find it to be really exciting. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of getting up in front of people and doing consecutive interpretation. I also find it to be sort of like a puzzle, and it’s very satisfying when everything comes together.
MR: It’s nice to connect directly with your end user. For example, with translation, particularly if you’re working with an agency, you never come in contact with the person who’s actually going to use your work. With interpretation, however, you get to work directly with them.
How did you train your brain when you first started simultaneous interpretation?
MR: We started with shadowing, where someone speaks in English and you repeat everything that they say in English immediately afterwards.
EC: We also started with doing two things at once. We would listen to a speech while drawing a picture, and then we’d have to repeat the speech in the source language. Then we listened to speeches while counting forwards and backwards. We slowly worked our way up to listening and interpreting at the same time.
AB: When we began simultaneous interpreting, we started with personal stories, which have a narrative and are a little easier to follow, as well as fairy tales, since they’re familiar to most people.
EC: We also worked with postcards, which was a lot of fun, because you have the image in front of you and can follow along with what the person is saying to activate your memory.
What is your practice schedule like? Do you practice alone or with each other?
EC: Eight hours a week [of consecutive practice on class materials] is the goal. Some professors say four hours of practice for every two hours of class, others say four hours every day, including classes and real-life opportunities. We also practice with other people in other languages, since it’s very good practice for taking relay. For example, we have a German colleague and she’ll take a speech in German and simultaneously interpret it into English and then we’ll take the English and interpret into French.
AB: We also go vice versa into English so she can interpret into German, which is really great, since it puts extra pressure on you to be very clear and go straight for the meaning when you know that someone is depending on your interpretation.
Do you go back and listen to your practice interpretations?
MR: One of the most important things about listening to your practice interpretations is making sure to animate your voice. Sometimes I might stagger through an interpretation, with lots of pauses in the text, and it’s really unpleasant to listen to.
EC: You have to make sure your tone matches the tone of the original speaker. You can’t sound like someone just died when they’re saying they went to Disney.
AB: If I concentrate on making myself sound expressive and sound like I’m communicating, then I’ll be able to get the ideas better and be idiomatic instead of sounding like Eeyore. No one wants to listen to an Eeyore interpreter.
What sort of interpreting experience have you had outside of the classroom?
MR: Some of the more colorful things we’ve done include taking a trip to a waste management facility in Monterey. We went on a tour with one of the managers and had the experience of walking around while consecutively interpreting and making sure to stay close to the speaker so they don’t get 20 feet ahead of you.
EC: We dealt with some of the issues you can face in that context, like ambient noises, as there was a lot of big equipment and trucks driving by. It was also a windy day, so we had to make sure the pages of our notebooks weren’t flying everywhere and we knew where we were in our notes. Those are good things to practice dealing with.
What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in becoming an interpreter?
AB: Be flexible and creative and be ready and able to adapt to various types of information or incongruous information. I wish I had gone to mechanic school or law school, or I wish I had learned how to fix a car in French or English. Take every opportunity to learn something new and be really curious.
EC: It’s definitely a field where specializations pay off. If you happen to be in another profession and want a career change, interpretation and translation is a good choice because that type of specialized knowledge is rare and invaluable.
All in a day’s work for MIIS interpreters! Thank you Anna, Elizabeth and Michael for your valuable insight into the life of student interpreters. If you have any questions for them, please leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.