Co>lab: Thinking Outside the Booth

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

CoLAB Toronto 2018: A Yearly Must-Do

By Beatriz Figueiredo

Ever since moving to Toronto in 2015 I have been looking for opportunities to meet new colleagues and invest in continuing professional development. You can imagine, then, how very disappointed I was when I missed the registration deadline for coLAB last summer – it looked like the perfect opportunity to blend intensive professional practice with some much needed networking. So, when I heard they were having a Winter session in January 2018, I made sure to sign up as soon as registration was open, and I cannot even begin to tell you how amazing it was.

If you are not familiar with the format, coLAB is a week of intensive conference interpreting practice driven by mutual collaboration and peer feedback. Each participant is tasked with preparing a 20-25-minute speech. The rest of the group then takes turns going to the booths to work on their simultaneous interpreting skills, while the others listen attentively and prepare to give feedback.

1 - Beatriz presentation
Our author, Beatriz Figueiredo, delivers a presentation on Brazilian immigration to Canada for her colleagues to interpret.

In addition to simultaneous interpreting, coLAB also features shorter speeches for consecutive practice, and a Reporting Live segment during which a few participants give us a brief rundown of what is going on in their corner of the world and offer unique perspectives on current issues.

2 - participants consec
coLAB participants deeply engaged in consecutive note-taking in the Glendon auditorium.

After a week working with committed, funny, knowledgeable, and awesome colleagues, these are my top three takeaways:

1. Deliberate practice is key

 As interpreters, we all know that practice makes perfect, but this week reminded me once again that it is not enough to just go into a booth and start interpreting. Going into the booth knowing there were well trained ears listening on the other end made me much more aware of the entire process and pushed me to try to deliver the best I could every time. I also looked forward to the feedback sessions that came afterward, because they were always so insightful and rewarding.

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A happy lab during a coLAB peer feedback session.

2. Challenge yourself

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coLAB interpreters engaged in some loving peer feedback.

coLAB interpreters engaged in some loving peer feedback.Striving to do a good job in front of your peers is just one piece of the puzzle. This may even sound like we were in a high-pressure environment, but nothing could be further from the truth. All feedback was delivered in a positive manner, and some pieces of advice were truly invaluable. We also had a lot of fun playing around in a safe and welcoming environment, whether it was with relay or our wannabe C languages.

3. Amazing networking

Networking was certainly a big draw for me, and it totally paid off. Our group included Mandarin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch and Russian interpreters, which made for a very rewarding and diverse experience.

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Colleagues become friends at a local Italian restaurant.

As the week ended and we went back to work and our daily routines, I really missed turning the mic on to let my feedback person know what my goal was, picking up a headset and setting the channels while I opened the online feedback form, or just watching some of our more experienced Glendon alumni give a masterclass on coping techniques or public speaking skills.

coLAB was such a positive experience for me that I will most definitely add it to my yearly calendar. Come join us for the next session!

7 - we made it
We made it!

The next session of coLAB Toronto will be held August 6-10, 2018 at the Glendon College MCI Lab. Check the coLAB website for further details or go ahead and register to join us!

About the author:

Beatriz Figueiredo started working as a professional translator by combining her linguistic skills and educational background in healthcare. She has worked with a wide range of clients in the public and private sectors, including LSPs, government agencies, universities, law firms and multinational companies. Since training as a conference interpreter in 2013, she has worked at a number of international events in Brazil and in Canada, where she now lives with her family. The biggest challenge in her T&I career was to interpret for scholar David Harvey… in front of an audience of 3,000 people!

coLAB Weekend: Spanish B’s dig in

This write-up comes from coLAB Weekend participant and interpreter Jesse Tomlinson, based in Guadalajara, México. Find out more about Jesse.

IMG_20170805_135045What better time than the first weekend in August to practice interpreting and learn from colleagues? Conference interpreters Laura Holcomb and Lauren Michaels organized coLAB Weekend: a two-day intensive tailored to interpreters with Spanish as a B language. coLAB Weekend was led by prolific trainer and AIIC Mexico member Hilda Tejada. And what a weekend it was!

We all met on Saturday at 9am in the Glendon College MCI interpreting lab in Toronto, Canada. The lab is truly beautiful – a first-rate space for simultaneous interpreting training.


We (Laura Holcomb, Nicholas Ferreira, Sonja Swenson, Enrica Ardemagni and Jesse Tomlinson) began our “Retour into Spanish” workshop by deep-diving into Spanish as a working language and its structure with hopes of heading off common pitfalls such as speaking Spanish with an English structure and syntax. We learned and were reminded of interesting and useful vocabulary and collocations.


Here’s a sampling from my own notes:

stakeholders – partes interesadas

gig economy – economía de autónomos

engagement – involucramiento

expertise – pericia

rewarding – gratificante

rewarding – que compensa más

across – a lo largo y ancho

on-demand – por encargo

on-demand – a petición específica

freelancer – cuentapropista

second-hand embarrassment – pena ajena

overlook – soslayar

overlook – que hace caso omiso de

emerge – destacar

credentials – logros, títulos

breakthrough – avance

funnel – embudo

blue collar – obrero

white collar – trabajo calificado

One of many highlights from the weekend’s activities: very specific, personalized feedback on our interpreting skills!

MacintoshHDUsersFembotDesktopIMG_20170806_103730.jpgThank you Glendon College for the use of your interpreting lab for this exceptional experience!

TRADUSA Round Two: More Than Skin and Bones

The second iteration of TRADUSA, Brazil’s event for translators and interpreters specialized in healthcare and medicine, was held at the Instituto Phorte in São Paulo on April 1-2, 2016. Fruit of the organizers’ arduous labor and an ever-increasing demand for quality language services in the health sector, this year’s participants enjoyed a balanced combination of hour-long presentations and hands-on workshops–a note-worthy improvement over TRADUSA’s speaker-heavy inaugural edition.

Right from Friday’s opening pitch, participants were offered their choice of a mini-course in neuroanatomy or various translation workshop options, allowing them to grab their bull of interest by the horns from the outset. In his neuroanatomy mini-course, Dr. Altiere A. Carvalho managed to get everyone’s neurotransmitters firing due to his engaging, participatory lecture style, accessible explanations, and plain good nature. Everyone left the workshop with a voluntary appreciation for the body’s involuntary intelligence.

Following a caloric refueling in the company of new and old colleagues, a round of presentations kicked off with Val Ivonica’s plunge into the controversial topic of machine translation. Ivonica’s talk was practical, product-oriented and properly prudent, but the overarching take-home—embrace these tools, if for no other reason than for sheer productivity’s sake—was the most valuable reminder for a field in disruption.

Pharmacist and translator Beatriz Araújo guided her audience through the dense forest of Brazilian healthcare legislation, stopping to highlight those laws that affect which and how medical texts make their way into the hands of translators. Some of the material was also relevant for those of us from the interpreting world who would like to see limited Portuguese proficient patients access their constitutional right to healthcare—as guaranteed in article 197 of the 1988 constitution (thank you Beatriz!)—via hospital and clinic interpreting services.

Adriana Dominici offered more grist for the translator mill in her presentation about the translation of pharmaceutical package inserts. Though the presentation was tailored to the German-Portuguese combination, the larger message about differing publication formats and regulations among countries was relevant to any pharmaceuticals translator.

The day rounded out with a presentation from the Colectiva team, Cecilia Tsukamoto, Daniele Fonseca, Livia Cais and Suzana Gontijo
who reengaged any interpreters who may have been drifting off following the translation heavy stretch of speakers. Both warm and professional, the squad delineated a roadmap to the demanding world of medical conference interpreting. Though they responsibly reminded aspirants that the field is not one to be taken lightly, the overall message was non-exclusive and grounded: hard work over time can indeed build expertise. No silver bullets were nor could be peddled, but the veteran interpreters did offer a useful introduction, outlining the types of assignments one might encounter and preparation tips for the booth.

Day two’s format mirrored its predecessor: a workshop or mini-course in the morning followed by afternoon speakers (with plenty of breaks for coffee and snacks throughout the day, claro!). Your author attended Rosario Garcia’s workshop on Portuguese-English medical translation intended for translators with little to no experience in the specialty. Garcia proved to be very at home in the classroom, adeptly guiding students through a bit of theory and moving straight on to practical exercises, allowing for immediate experimentation and application of the information presented.

First up to bat in the afternoon round of presentations was conference circuit speaker Ana Julia Perrotti-Garcia with her presentation on medical terminology equivalency pitfalls. Though heavy on the lexical side, Perrotti-Garcia also took the time to revisit fundamental medical concepts—background knowledge valuable to newcomers and seasoned professionals alike.

William Jacob de Lima then exposed us, unprotected, to the evolution of radiology and just about every type of imaging process possible. Though our thyroid glands emerged unscathed, the deluge of isolated images did provoke a sort of vertigo among the uninitiated. Though Jacob de Lima could not be faulted for his completeness, a more detailed pathological contextualization of fewer slides would have been helpful for the layperson.

TRADUSA’s final speaker, Andresa Medeiros, shed light on an interpreting setting nascent in the Brazilian market but long ubiquitous in many other parts of the world: the so-called public service or community healthcare interpreting setting. Medeiros focused on the special considerations that must be taken when interpreting for immigrants, making apparent the jarring differences between this sort of public service interpreting work and that of its sister setting: conference interpreting.

Though arguably lacking the depth or vibrancy that will evolve in later editions, this second iteration of TRADUSA has proven that the event is right on track for future stardom. The conference is a valuable hub for an interpreting sub-specialty that merits and demands apt professionals. After all, the stakes are, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

The VHIP: Beyond the Classroom Before the Hospital

The value of a solid education in interpretation theory and technique is undeniable. At the same time, we all recognize that there are certain nuances that can only be learned by doing. Internships play a key role in this sort of experiential learning.

However, in the healthcare setting, an interpreting internship is difficult to come by for several reasons:

  • Lack of human and financial resources
  • Lack of will due to underestimation or misunderstanding of the key role interpreters play in medical encounters
  • Privacy laws that require additional intern training & compliance
  • Patient safety risks
  • Not to mention what to do when internship candidates reside in places as disparate as Egypt and Brazil!

In Toronto, Canada, Glendon College confronted these challenges by implementing a Virtual Healthcare Interpreting Practicum (VHIP) that focuses on:

  • The innovative use of new delivery technologies
  • Best practices for remote interpreting
  • Assignment preparation
  • Sight translation
  • Intervention/mediation techniques
  • Terminology building
  • Reflective practice (self-feedback)

sanitario-300x300The VHIP curriculum is built on four simulated full-length role plays followed by a reflective practice and peer feedback period and then the immediate repetition of the scenario, allowing the interpreter to immediately apply insights gained. The students also have the opportunity to participate in a full-length, medically appropriate simultaneous session (such as a support group or patient education seminar) in which they interpret in the simultaneous mode from virtual booths.

Acting on a desire to make the experience even more realistic and to build bridges between interpreters and the providers we work for and with, this year we are piloting a VHIP Live! session for each practicum participant. In this special session, a healthcare professional (rather than a fellow student) plays the role of the provider based on a pre-established scenario. On one hand, this heightens the stakes for the interpreter, while it also provides the healthcare professional with a better understanding of the interpreter’s role and training within cross-cultural contexts. Both parties come to understand the value of a pre-session—a brief meeting before the encounter—and a debriefing.

On the technology front, this year’s iteration continues to push the envelope. In addition to continuing to train on the forward-thinking simultaneous-capable teleconferencing system ZipDX, we are incorporating another rising star in the remote simultaneous world known for its intuitive, pared down interpreter interface: VoiceBoxer.

Though currently the opportunities for in-hospital internships are limited, one day these internships will be required of interpreters just as they currently are for physicians, social workers and other members of the healthcare team. Meanwhile, a remote simulated internship provides its own unique advantages, stretching students and preparing them for the growing trend towards remote delivery of interpreting services in both the consecutive and simultaneous mode.

Laura launched the Virtual Healthcare Interpreting Practicum in coordination with Katharine Allen, co-president of InterpretAmerica and Professor of Healthcare Interpreting at Glendon College. The result is a promising internship model that circumvents many current obstacles and provides participants with a unique, authentic experience in the healthcare setting.

Distance Learning: A no-brainer (in theory)

Distance Learning is here to stay. It just makes too much sense. While the concept may be a given, being an effective teacher in a virtual classroom is anything but. Even those of us who consider ourselves digital natives (or the near equivalent) quickly realize that training interpreters across space and time requires a pilot specialized in these such atmospheric layers—even more so when it comes to a discipline such as Conference Interpreting that has traditionally had a marked hands-on, four-walls-and-a-console-based approach.

Michelle Hoff HeadshotBut fear not. This coming January, Glendon College and University of La Laguna Conference Interpreting Trainer and author of the widely read blog The Interpreter Diaries Michelle Hoff will put her boots down in Curitiba, Brazil and fling open the doors of this virtual space for an AIIC sponsored workshop on IT and Blended Learning. If you are interested in learning from the most dynamic distance trainer I’ve ever experienced, then grab one of the four remaining spots. You can read more about the details of the workshop on her blog.

Dates: January 29-31, 2016
Location: Curitiba, Brazil

Exam Day: Success & Failure in Interpreting

In interpretation, and maybe in many things, the beginning of success, is understanding the degree to which we fail. A few weeks ago I inevitably found myself discussing my craft with an enthusiastic layperson for whom the proverbial lightbulb had gone off. Marveling, he said “but your job is so hard! When interpreting, you have to not only deal with the information, which can be very technical, but all the nuances as well, or a poorly organized speaker, and all in a split second. That’s impossible!”

“It is,” I confided. “It’s nothing short of constant failure.” These words seemed to be a bit too heavy for my ruddy friend, so I pulled back on the reins a bit. Relying on the sentiments of one of my trainers, I swung around, “Interpreting is very difficult, so that’s why the goal is not to be the speaker—we can’t, the speaker is the speaker—but to create our own speech. The speaker relinquishes the copyright to the speech the minute those words pour out of their mouth.” (Credit for this latter sentiment must be attributed to the training Legend: Hans Werner Muhle.)

As is typical of Conference Interpreting degrees, at Glendon College, one must pass oral exit exams in order to earn their credential. These exams have hung heavy over all of us since the day we said “yes” to this two-year crash course in vulnerability, falling short, and maintaining a sense of humor—a.k.a. conference interpreting.

Exam day knocked at my door earlier this week, on a Tuesday. I woke up, got myself dressed in my current favorite vintage blouse that I rescued from my mother’s closet, drank an espresso, read a Spanish medical article on allergies out loud, interpreted Emma Watson’s speech on feminism, hopped on my bike and pedaled towards fate.

Thirty minutes later I arrived at the Glendon College campus, inordinately early, where I began to speak in strings of vocabulary to no one in particular and then slowly walk in circles around the exam room, listening to my favorite Kevin Johansen instrumental that never fails to remind me that the world is much, MUCH vaster than we perceive on a daily basis.

I was less afraid of failing the exams than underperforming. If I performed to the best of my current abilities and failed, well then that is valuable information. But a mediocre turn in the booth due to nerves, being sick, being tired, or just having an off day, well, that genre of near tragedy at a microcosmic level would follow me around—a tiresome thorn in my side for some time to come.

Post-exam moment captured. That's a smile ladies and gentleman.
Post-exam moment captured. That’s a smile ladies and gentleman.

I won’t know the results of my exams for a few weeks. Tuesday afternoon I thanked my excellent team of professors and walked out of the lab and climbed onto my bike. I was content: an adjective that I rarely identify with. I pedaled back to where I came from, the wind at my back.

Finally…FINALLY, I stand in that space where failure dovetails into success. Success on my terms, at least for the moment. This space, that feels so comforting, is the “this but also that”, it’s the “space in-between” that has always intrigued me. In fact, it’s what drew me to this impossible profession in the first place.

Why I Don’t Want to Be a Good Interpreter

“I was in graduate school then. And I was incredibly self-conscious.  You know, you’re really worried about are you — what you — is it good?  When you go to graduate school, you kind of leave behind a lot of things that you’ve shored up a tiny bit of confidence with.” 

Visual Artist Ann Hamilton

Completing a master’s degree in conference interpreting is difficult. Before beginning, I thought it might be—as my father later termed it—a medium-sized leap. One of those necessary lies you tell yourself in order to try to do anything at all? It turns out that said leap’s proportions were much vaster than I cared to think about. And I keep falling short.

Wait. Let me rephrase that. Doing the master’s program in itself is not actually so difficult. What’s difficult for me—and most likely for others around me—is functioning with the mindset I’ve had while on this adventure: namely that there is some level of interpreter out there that can be called “good” and that I’m not it. Researcher Heidi Grant calls this the “be good mindset.”

And most of us, she says, have been living our whole lives with this mindset.

And I want to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with this mindset. But the studies show that it’s just not very helpful when confronting challenges and setbacks. Challenges such as a six-minute simultaneous about economics in France—of which you know nothing about, but feel that you should—and you’re watching yourself sink in your leaky boat of a second language and end up there on the ocean floor wildly oscillating between “I’m not cut out for this” and “I just don’t give a damn.”

See what I mean?  Not a very helpful approach.

But what if it’s true? What if I’m not cut out for this? What if I don’t have the talent? What if I’m wasting my time on this long, embarrassing ride in which I never pull into the garage of that mythical palace with the big sign that spells out in rhinestones “welcome good and qualified interpreter, you’ve made it!” Who defines that place anyway?

Well that’s exactly it. In my long held tradition of “be good” thinking, there is a genetic lottery to be won which makes me smart, talented, or creative. And so my job is to demonstrate my skills and prove to the world that I can cut the mustard. As a consequence I have a equally long tradition of comparing myself to others. And this is inevitable within the “be good mindset” because, as Heidi points out, when one identifies as smart, intelligent, or talented; implicit in this is that we are smart-er, more intelligent, more talented than others. And so it follows, that whether we succeed or fail is a reflection on ourselves and our worth as people.

Quite paralyzing, no? The stakes are high.

Most of us, including myself until yesterday, are not entirely conscious of this mindset. Or we label it as “having high standards,” “being a realist,” “being a high achiever” and then the corresponding “good” or “bad” that we associate with said conceptions of ourselves.

But there is an alternative. The “get better” mindset. In the “get better” mindset, the goal is not to reach some level of good but rather to improve. Here I compare myself to myself. I ask, “how’s it going compared to a year ago?” Besides being much less painful, the research shows that those who engage in this mindset have much better outcomes when the going gets tough.

As anyone who has fought their way through a good dose of therapy knows, changing a mindset is not easy. But a first step is re-working our goals in order to incorporate language that triggers a “get-better” mindset. This includes terms such as improve, progress, develop, become, grow.

So instead of: “I want to be an excellent conference interpreter,” or “I want to be able to have a second language that’s good enough to work into in a conference setting” (there are so many things that don’t work for me in that last sentence—I mean, as if one can “have” a language…) How about: “I’d like to develop conference interpreting techniques” or “I’d like to improve my conference register and associated vocabulary.”

So often we hear, “You just have to believe that you can!” No. That train keeps pulling out of the station before I can jump on. But believing that I can improve on the existing? That I can do. As a card carrying member of a society that prescribes maximum achievement and excellence as the only way to heaven, it pays to take a moment to lower those standards. Or maybe re-frame them.

Let us take a cue from my Dominican friends who meet any version of the question “How’s it going?” with a concise, “Better.”

Afterword: Heidi Grant does an incredible job of explaining the research behind these two mindsets. Watch her full presentation from below.

OVERLOAD! How a new vision of professional ethics led one interpreter back to sanity

Fortunately, this past semester, a very supportive husband meant that I didn’t have to work to put a roof over my head and mangoes in my belly. As a result, I was able to dedicate nearly all of my waking hours to my five Master’s in Conference Interpreting (MCI) courses. Even so, I was finding myself unable to keep up with all the assignments. Doing the bare minimum had become par and skipping many fascinating-looking readings commonplace.

I began to rebel. What if I want to dive deep into legal terminology or spend two extra hours practicing consecutive without notes from a Cervantes Institute speech about women in film? What if I do acquiesce to a half-day rabbit hole of interviews with Julio Cortázar for a literary translation assignment, when really, a 45-minute spurt would have been enough to get the job done?

To deal with this difficult situation, my initial course of action was to shift my personal standards. I decided that, because the conditions didn’t seem to allow for meeting the standards that would earn me the higher marks to which I was accustomed, I would accept merely passing grades in order to heed my intellectual and spiritual curiosity.

ImageHowever, even with this concession, as the semester unfolded I realized that my work pace was unsustainable. I was working through the weekends but falling behind in my courses and facing assignments that were increasingly time intensive. Without some sort of intervention, failing a class or a panic attack was in the cards, and I wasn’t very keen on either of those outcomes. As my mother-in-law might say: something had to give.

It was at this juncture that I realized that the approach to interpreter ethics that we had been discussing in class had very relevant applications to my particular brand of academic strife.

I had come to the program with a sort deontological (rules-based) approach to the academic environment, taking the curriculum to be a sort of Code of Ethics similar to the ones we are to adhere to as practicing professional interpreters. “These are the things you must do to succeed in this program,” it seemed to declare in a booming baritone, “Now do it or perish.” But what happens when the “Standards,” or in this case, the curriculum put forth seem impossible to adhere to in practice?

If we overlay this situation with Dean and Pollard’s Demand-Control Schema that comes to us from our good friends in the ASL world, we have the opportunity to enter into a decision-making cycle. An ethical “demand” or quandary had arisen towards the beginning of the semester; I had subconsciously considered “controls” or options; and subsequently opted for the conservative one of shifting my personal standards in order to accept a paltry passing grade. However, from this arose new demands, which forced me to reevaluate my options.

Confronted with a situation I had never been in before, the established rules and norms being of little use to me, I sought counsel. In our personal lives, we do this quite frequently. I fear, however, that in our professional lives we do this all too little for fear that our shortcomings should be found out, or because of the erroneous notion that confidentiality requirements preclude consultation with our colleagues. But receiving feedback from others can be invaluable—as it most certainly was in this case. But it takes being willing to say, “I don’t know” or “this situation is beyond my capacity.”

IMG_2418As a result of my consultation, on this loop through the Demand-Control Schema’s wild world, I opted for a more liberal or interventionist approach: withdrawing from the course with the heaviest workload. Once I came to this resolution, I could feel my creative energies resurge almost immediately. The gap between what we are asked to do and what we are able to do had taken an immense toll that I was not fully aware of until that moment.

Interpreting is a creative act. Fear is the number one squelcher of creative energy. As such, it is urgent that we abandon the vertigo-inducing runaway train that is the deontological approach to ethics in favor of a more teleological approach that puts interpreters back behind the wheel.

At this intersection between mandate and how life plays out, something much more complex and subtle than the brute application of directives is at stake: the development of professional judgment. Fortunately, the MCI program at Glendon is designed with this in mind. The faculty recognizes that it’s about what we do in the gray. As interpreters we stand knee-deep in the gray all day long. But I suppose that if I were interested in clear-cut, I would have gotten out of dodge a long time ago.

Why not just grab a bilingual person?

As we as an industry set about professionalizing, this topic often comes up. As I mature in my perspective, I have come to realize that bilingual people can indeed interpret and that these ad hoc or natural interpreters serve a deeply important function in our communities. That being said, you can also use a fork to eat yogurt but it’s not really the best match for the job. Some of it may just fall through the cracks.

There are many different shades of being “bilingual.” In English, my mother tongue, there are many areas in which I am not fully proficient. Contrary to popular belief, if we were to put many bilinguals to test, we would see a very large range of outcomes. For this reason you’ll rarely catch even me self-identifying as bilingual. The word is too slippery on its own and I’m in the business of words.

In healthcare interpreting, such bilinguals range from very loving, well-intentioned adult family members, to disgruntled teenagers who can’t stand having to help their parents with language limitations, among other profiles. Here we get into many potential conflict of interest. What psychological damage is done to the youth who has to interpret a cancer diagnosis? How good can the diagnosis be if the patient’s sister only relays the symptoms she deems important?

Working in New York City these conflicts come up over and over again. Quite honestly there are days when I just want to relinquish the battle cry and say, “Fine. Go ahead. You don’t want me here, the doc doesn’t care, I can’t tell what the patient wants, etc.” In these moments I sometimes think, “Are we just making this all up to justify our jobs?”

Image of Interpreter PreparationBut such days of doubt are few and fleeting. They are overwhelmed by the realization that a professional, experienced interpreter comes with many advantages: expertise in medical terminology; interpreting skills such as memory, note-taking, control of flow; knowledge of both biomedical and patient cultures; a sense of professional judgement; and adherence to a code of ethics. I place particular value on this latter element regarding ethics. When I am asked some version of the question, “why not grab a bilingual person?”, my short punchy response is that, when necessary, the professional interpreter is willing and duty-bound to say, “I don’t know.”