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 99u.com 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.”

19 Degrees of Senselessness

This is actually my brother's garb for the annual no-pants subway ride in New York, but you get the idea.
My brother’s interpretation of 19°C

My fruit bowl is full. This morning at 8am, I stepped out of my apartment and was greeted by a cheerful, light-handed sun and the air was unambiguous and clear-hearted allowing me to bee-bop through it to the market on a fruit mission. When I returned, I looked at the weather forecast. 19 degrees. Being that I was raised on cornbread and fahrenheit, I considered the fact that the utterance “It is 19°C” has very little meaning for me. If I found myself in a closet angstfully trying to decide what to wear, and a cheerful ruddy somebody popped in and said, “It’s 19 degrees outside,” I might come out of the closet wearing snow boots and a tank top with a distressed expression on my face.

Seleskovitch’s théorie du sens, (or Sense Theory—I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s okay just to say stuff in French as if the whole world OF COURSE understands French—but I digress), contends that interpreting is contingent upon being able to parcel out units of meaning based on prior knowledge or experience. As such, I might have a bit of a difficult time interpreting our 19 degrees statement. Or, at the very least, determining how such information relates to the rest of a speaker’s line of reasoning.

Conclusion: maybe I should take up Celsius as a hobby.  I’ll start today: 19°C now equals that marvelously senseless Saturday in Ouro Fino when I, for a moment, let go of the words and began to experience meaning.

Why it Might Be Wise to Use an Interpreter

A colleague of mine from my Master’s of Conference Interpreting program at Glendon College shared this video with me regarding the withdrawal of funding for healthcare interpreters in the Netherlands. It really does a great job at getting to the heart of why medical interpreting is valuable. And it does it with grace and humor and in only one minute and six seconds. So take a look. It you’d like more on the subject, read through this post written by one of my-gosh-it’s-wonderful-to-have-her-as-a-trainer trainers, Michelle Hof.

Why interpreting anyway?

My Healthcare Interpreting professor put forth an excellent question: What do you like about interpreting? What led you to be an interpreter. You might expect these answers but I thought I’d go ahead and declare my love to the world.

  • The linguistic sport. The feeling when you’re keeping up , you’re disappearing, everyone is understanding, you’re remembering obscure terms. Oh this is nice.
  • The human connection. Being able to smile at someone in surgery or use dialect-specific language to help a patient feel more at home. Just feeling useful, like I can help in some way is a gosh darn gift.
  • The constant education. The never-ending research. Learning about the actual subjects we are interpreting.
  • Not being at a desk! I love that I’m often on the go between departments or buildings. This might change with more remote interpreting. I’ll have to learn how to pace in a small space.
  • My colleagues. I have had some rad colleagues. Yep I’m talking about you NYULMC. See this post for more on wonderful coworkers.

Now for the whole gushy history.

Like many in this field I didn’t set out intending to be an interpreter. In high school I liked English, writing. Many teachers praised my writing, and others used it to practice with their red ink pen. I didn’t want to let down the people who believed in what I wrote nor did I want anyone criticizing something so abjectly personal—or at least what felt very personal to an adolescent.

So I found my way to Spanish. I liked tinkering with the words, trying to get into a flow. And it was a foreign language so no one expected me to be good at it. So the story of Spanish and I began because it was safe, but stuck around because of the amazing people and art that it’s allowed me to meet along the way. For example, while living in the Dominican Republic, I met women more loving and open in a way so distinct from the Southern US; men who danced and kissed other men; children who smiled and fluttered and ran to buy sodas for guests from the corner store. You know what I mean. You’ve been there too. And you know how it makes your heart feel.

A stroke of luck in College introduced me to interpreting formally. We had a professor who was also a professional interpreter and rustled together some grant money together to teach a rag-tag bunch of French and Spanish students the basics of simultaneous and long consecutive. It was quite a challenge. Nerves, adrenaline, performance—in fact, it was the perfect substitute for the division I soccer world that I had quietly exited the year before. I don’t remember being particularly good at interpretation. But I wasn’t flagrantly bad at it either.

Following college I worked to get into the medical interpreting field because it seemed to be the best way to stay in contact with Spanish. Living in Athens, Georgia it was the most prominent interpreting setting around. I didn’t know any court or conference interpreters.

But interpreting evolved from a great job into a career commitment for me for two main reasons. The first is that, one day long ago, someone asked what God is to me. I probably say something different every time this subject comes up but this time I said quite without thinking, “It’s the space between two people. That’s where the Divine might be.”

Art by Vero Gatti. Thanks Lauren.
By Vero Gatti. Thanks Lauren.

Much later I reflected and thought, “How natural that I would become an interpreter!” As an interpreter I get to sink my hands and heart into that divine space and try to get to know it, learn from it, and contribute to it daily.

The second reason is because I tried working as a Web Editor in an office in front of a computer the whole stinkin’ day and it doesn’t work for me. Nope. Not one bit.

If you’re an interpreter reading this blog, you could tell me what you like about interpreting as well so that I can say ooooh, ya, that too! Or if you’re a chef or an accountant tell me what you love about that.


Coffee & Interpreting Sanduíche

The interpreting realm is a-buzz for me as of late. I want to lay it all out here, so if you’re not a part of the interpreting world or you aren’t my grandmother Mimi you may find this a bit boring. I’ll try to be as spicy as some of you know that I’m capable of being, but this may only be digestible by coffee or interpreting first-class geeks. (Which geeks, by the way, has apparently reached the Portuguese specialty coffee lexicon! Who knew?!)

Practice booths at the InterpretAmerica Summit.
From the practice booths at the InterpretAmerica Summit.

This past June I attended the InterpretAmerica Summit organized by co-presidents Katherine Allen and Barry Slaughter Olsen just outside of Washington DC. That was loads of fun as I had the opportunity to learn about and actually meet the creators of many new remote interpreting platforms such as Babelverse and Capiche.pro; interviewed with the new “netflix-style” training initiative by Michelle Scott (who is super sweet by the way) of Voices for Health; and finally had the opportunity to meet the hard-working Andrew Clifford, director of Glendon College’s Master of Conference Interpreting (MCI)—program in which I am currently, happily involved upon which I will expound for sure throughout the semester. Meanwhile, you can find out more through Andrew’s blog about the program. At the conference, Andrew introduced me to students and professors in the Portuguese-English track of the MCI, and I met conference organizer Katherine Allen and her sweet, chill daughter. Fast forward several months later, and I find out that the mismita Katherine Allen is my Healthcare Interpreting professor! Very fun.

Panel on Technology & Disruption in Interpreting. Left to Right: Mayel de Borniol, Co-Founder of Babelverse; Jake Rohn, Co-Founder of Capiche.pro ; Dan Gatti, Managing Partner, Innovative Capital Ventures.
Interpreting Technology & Disruption Panel. Jake Rohn of Capiche.pro, Barry Slaughter Olsen of InterpretAmerica, Dan Gatti of Innovative Capital Ventures, and Mayel de Borniol of Babelverse.

It was really neat having the presence of the signed language interpreting community. I’m actually now following a great blog, Street Leverage by Brandon Arthur which is focused on signed language interpreting but is equally interesting and valuable for the jabbering interpreter type as well. As the conference opened, the first presentation was signed for us all which was truly exciting to see. Booths were also available in the back for spoken language interpreters to hop in and play around with. I, of course, saddled up to the figurative horse, had a bumpy little joyride, and dismounted reaffirmed in my conviction that there is always lots more to learn.

The next conference I attended worth reporting on from an interpreting standpoint was actually a specialty coffee conference. I always meet the best folks at coffee events which I end up attending more frequently than one might expect because my partner Byron works in the industry as a coffee genius—title he doesn’t know he has until he sees this post. The Feira Internacional de Café (International Coffee Fair) in Belo Horizonte had the appearance of a typical conference and I got to see my lively friend Marty Curtis who taught a CQI cupping course that I interpreted this past April in Perú. This, along with meeting many heavy-hitters in the Brazilian coffee scene that I had heard about but had yet to meet, made me very happy indeed.

Marty Curtis demonstrating proper grinding technique for the CQI cupping course.
Marty Curtis demonstrating proper grinding technique cupping course.
Bidule equipment for the cupping course from the wonderful Giovana and Carlos at Universe Language Solutions.
Course Bidule equipment  from the super folks at  Universe Language Solutions.
Cupping course organizer Char who was an absolute delight! She took me to a beautiful water park in Lima.
Delightful cupping course organizer Char who took me to a beautiful water park in Lima.

I have to say, however, that a highlight of this event for me had to do with a small booth in the back of a large conference room populated by two super-friendly and, as I was to find out, very talented and well-prepared conference interpreters and master’s of their own interpreting business Tradus B&B. Canary Islands born María Barrera and Brazilian Larissa Benevides delivered into English excellent renditions of the presentations, nailing industry-specific terminology that can be quarrelsome. I was so glad I had the opportunity to appreciate their linguistic maneuvers.

coffee week
My conference badge (Thanks Byron!) I might have gone a different direction with the English translation visitor?

This leads me to a question I brought up to my Conference Interpreting Professor Michelle Hof, trainer at La Laguna and widely read author of the Interpreter Diaries (thank you Andrew for putting together such an amazing faculty) about how to best capitalize on opportunities to witness conference interpretation live. I was at first trying to listen to the source language (i.e. the speeches given on stage) and the interpretation into English at the same time to try to see what the master’s of the booth were doing with it all. I was able to catch some of each enough to appreciate the quality of the interpretation, however, it became a bit noisy up in the ole noggin as you can imagine. So then I focused on just listening to the Interpretation which gave me little insight into the interpretation process but knowing a good bit about the industry and terms that typically trip people up, I was able to again get a sense of the high quality of my new friends in the booth. Additionally, it was nice to walk in an end user’s shoes or, perhaps sit in their seats for a bit. I then moved on to shadowing the speeches to try to click into the rhythm of the speakers in my B and hopefully eventually C languages, Spanish and Portuguese respectively.  It has been at least four months since I’ve actively interpreted in the workplace, on top of which I’ve been in a bit of a Spanish-language desert here in Brazil, thus it was a delight to hear a well-delivered live speech in Spanish.

I subsequently described this experience to Michelle, and she suggested that at this point, it might be best to really focus in on the speech itself: How is it structured? Where is the speaker trying to go with it? What is the speaker’s personality? This suggestion really drives home the point that a large part of the work is getting inside the speaker’s head. So the next time I attend another rockin’ coffee conference you will find me in my caffeine-powered, x-ray capable, cerebral spaceship ready for exploration.