Better Training for Better Language Access

By: Jack Xu

By: Flavia Zaka (Training Coordinator)

Friends and colleagues who are not interpreters are at first baffled to hear that our training, which is language-neutral, is extremely important for the shaping of a professional interpreter and quality of service. The common assumption is that, if someone is fluent in at least two languages, and has some sensitivity to the nuances of each, they should be fit to interpret. After all, the only thing the interpreter needs to do is transfer a message in another language that is as close as possible to the original – how much training does this need, other than a grasp of both tongues?!

This is the fascinating paradox: in order for the interpreter to be an accurate carrier of the message, without interfering – adding, omitting or embellishing the message – the training required is rigorous! (The extent to which the interpreter is noticeable in an assignment is inversely proportional to the degree of skill and training that they have.)

The Community Interpreter Training courses at MCIS prepare future interpreters for this career, first by alerting them to the code of ethics of interpretation, and by providing them with challenging situations and tools to respond to these.  What does it mean to interpreter faithfully and accurately? If a speaker changes register, do you follow them? What if it is wildly inappropriate for the context in which you are speaking? Do you interpret swearing? Do you gesticulate? Are you allowed to soften these to reduce any jarring effect? What if a word does not translate well into your target language, or if the meaning is multifold? Are you allowed to paraphrase? Can you naturalize words that you don’t know? Do you pause and ask the speaker to rephrase? How can you do all of this without interrupting the flow of the conversation?  The questions are endless. Some answers are invariable, others change according to circumstance. In a classroom led by veteran interpreters, students discuss and evaluate different manners of approaching each challenging situation that composes the reality of this invigorating field.

Another element that is extremely in interpreter training  goes beyond technicalities of language, but is related to maintaining the boundaries of one’s role. This sounds fairly simple, as it is a stance that is required of all professionals, but it is something that is particularly challenging for community interpreters, who are placed in a position where they have to carry the stories of other people – the most intimate and sometime harrowing tales – and have to do their best to stay true to them, without becoming attached or affected. Is the interpreter allowed to show compassion towards a victim of trauma? Would this influence the interpretation? Is it the interpreter’s responsibility to calm the speaker, make sure they are sufficiently comfortable to talk? What if you are interpreting instead for the perpetrator of an act of violence – are you aware of your own emotions in this situation and how they might influence the accuracy of your interpretation? Our courses train interpreters to be alert to their own biases, and give them the tools to be actively impartial across contexts.

Lastly, self-care and professional-development: these are fundamental to the longevity of a career in this field. Learning how to avoid vicarious trauma, without losing your sense of compassion, learning how to debrief on assignments, without breaking your clients confidentiality, and generally how to take care of yourself to make sure this is a sustainable practice – all these are skills developed throughout our training. Moreover, acknowledging that language is an ever-evolving thing, influenced by cultural and technological changes, and  gaining the skills to navigate this ever-shifting terrain is very  important for the longevity of a career.

So much is folded into language. The array of skills need to use it as accurately as possible, in the challenging contexts that interpreters are placed in, is something that our training programs are committed to developing. The quality of our service reflects this.