We’ve just wrapped up our 2019 Co>lab Session: a special Mexico City session sponsored by Gonzalo Celorio Morayta of CM Idiomas. Here I am reposting, with permission, a participant perspective. Read on to hear Liz Essary’s unique and tender take on her week of professional conference interpreting peer practice. 

Liz outside the booth.png

Co>lab is a week-long practice intensive for conference interpreters that pushes us to think in and outside of the booth! Here, I’ll share reflections on my experience at the Mexico City edition in January 2019. Run by our dynamic and spectacularly organized colleagues Lauren Michaels and Laura Holcomb, with equipment and tech support provided by CM Idiomas, space provided at the gorgeous Antiguo Colegio San Ildefonso, and interpreter-created content, this event is designed as an all-for-one-and-one-for-all interpreting and feedback experience. So how does it work?

Getting ready to go back to the booth

This is an event for conference interpreters who are already working, and we’d all had our turns in the booth as professionals. But things are different in the training booth, and the pressure goes way up when your colleagues are listening to you. Interpreters listen more intently than your average conference or meeting attendee–And interpreters can also understand (and simultaneously listen to) both the original speech and the interpreted rendition, and make comparisons. So while it may feel like the pressure’s on, the feedback is like no other.

Before getting back into the training booth, each Co>lab participant commits to preparing and giving a speech in their A language for long consecutive practice, and one for simultaneous practice. The speeches were shared a couple of weeks before we met for Co>lab so that we could all review the material we’d interpret. We also got to sign up for the speeches we wanted to interpret. This way, we organized ourselves into two groups for each speech: Half of us interpreting, and half of us listening and giving feedback, or as the Co>lab organizers refer to it, “peer support”.

Peer support

liz peer support

On the big day, I walked into the interpreting lab and felt those familiar butterflies in my stomach. It was just like being in grad school again. I was relieved that the organizers had set aside time on day one to talk openly and in detail about giving and receiving feedback, and the fact that we all have our own relationship with it. We considered how feedback can be either constructive or destructive.

Peer support is the perfect term for how we gave feedback. Before beginning to interpret, each interpreter shared their goals with their listener. For example, I might know that details are a weakness of mine, so my goal is to get all the figures right. Then the person listening knows exactly what to keep an ear out for. After the interpretation, and before the listener gives feedback, the interpreter first self-evaluates first: How well do I think I achieved my goals? Only then is the listener invited to share their impressions, which truly serve as peer support. And while feedback is provided in a supportive way, that doesn’t mean it’s sugar-coated or that the tough parts are glazed over. It was important to have colleagues tell me honestly and without beating around the bush, “You gotta work on those numbers”.

This interpreter-driven model of feedback and peer support lets the interpreter take control, rather than stepping out of the booth, bracing for impact and feeling crushed by a list of this-is-what-you-did-wrong feedback that they may not want or need.

Thinking outside the booth

With 24 simultaneous speeches, and 9 rounds of long consecutive over the five days, there was constant interpreting and feedback going on. For those interpreters outside the booth, the task was to listen and give feedback on their colleague’s interpreting. This goes beyond oh-hey-that-was-great feedback. Again, it’s interpreter-driven, and so it’s based on the interpreter’s goals, and entirely led by the interpreter. And it’s incredibly effective in terms of teasing out problems and finding their solutions. It’s also a lot of work for the listener. Because in addition to giving feedback that’s specific to the interpreter’s goals, and filling out a scoring rubric that details things like content and delivery, the person listening should also offer thoughtful questions (I noticed you sounded nervous here, what was happening?) and advice when applicable (I’ve struggled with this too, and something that worked for me was…). The listener’s role is just as active as the interpreter’s.

Thinking outside the booth and learning what peers struggle with (hey, me too!), and what they do well (hey, show me how to do that!), is a big part of the learning experience.

Co>lab Conversations: “I understand.”

Part of the thinking-outside-the-booth experience during the intensive is Co>lab Conversations. As part of the registration process, participants suggest topics they’d like to discuss with colleagues, and the organizers choose a few for Conversations. It makes sense to have intentional, organized conversations about issues that go beyond interpreting practice–There’s so much more to navigate in our field, especially as freelancers.

So on the fourth day of Co>lab, the organizers took us out to a beautiful tea house, where we broke into groups, depending on which topic interested us the most. Topics included things like anxiety and interpreting, accent discrimination, and participation in professional associations. I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when we realized we’re not the only ones trying to navigate tricky situations, or that sometimes we’re just figuring it out as we go along, using our best judgement. What a gift to have candid conversations with peers about difficult topics and hear them say, “I understand.”

The big take-aways

liz san ildefonso

The goal of Co>lab is to learn through experimentation, practice, and peer support. These goals are accomplished because everyone comes ready to work. This was my first conference-specific professional development activity since I finished my graduate program, and it was interesting to compare how the experience was in the training booth now as a professional. While I still felt intimidated at times, I’m also much better acquainted with my weakness and it’s easier for me to set goals. It was also fun to share with colleagues some strategies for working on things I’ve overcome. Some advice I got was truly golden, and it was all thoughtful and given with my best interest at heart. Just the fact that my colleagues showed up and worked so hard to give me meaningful feedback was encouraging.

In the end, I walked away with a big group of new colleagues, some great friends, and new motivation to move forward. There won’t be another Co>lab session until 2020, but in the meantime, I’ve got plenty of material and ideas for how I can be a better interpreter and a better colleague, in and outside of the booth.


You can find the official Co>lab FAQ here.

You can read my student perspective of conference interpreter training on my blog here.

Liz Essary has over a decade of experience as a Spanish interpreter in a variety of settings. She holds a B.A. in Spanish from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, where she is Associate Faculty, and she earned a Master’s of Conference Interpreting (MCI) from York University’s Glendon School of Translation in Toronto. Liz is an Indianapolis-based freelance interpreter and interpreter trainer and she blogs on all things interpreting at http://www.thatinterpreter.com.

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