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The first assignments: sink or swim

08/04/2012 2 comments

After a long professional leave, the Mute Button is back with exploring how the first interpreting assignments really feel.

Well, university and the “real world” are two different pair of shoes. Retrospectively, I have to admit that passing the diploma exams wasn’t such an existential problem as I had believed at that time. Not at all…

In the real interpreting world things obviously work a bit differently. Especially the very first assignment is, from a psychological point of view, no easy task to face: Albeit investing a lot in preparation you have the feeling your audience knows more of the topic than you ever will, you are surrounded by more experienced interpreters and the genuine feeling is that of just turning around, running away and do something else than interpreting. Nervousness increases exponentially and pressure is running high when you realize you are in a booth and there is no point of return from here. Then you switch on the mic and from then on it’s either sink or swim.

Young interpreters, recent graduates, are thrown in at the deep end into the business at full force and speed, with no mercy. They are thrown into a pool of sharks ready to feed on you (at least it felt that way before the very first assignment!). They are told to embark on a dreadful journey to their very own Mount Doom. However, being thrown into the business that way is nothing to whine about. Au contraire, it’s both important and vital. It opens your eyes to how things are and gives you the chance to show what you can do, no matter how “bad” the circumstances are. It’s dreadful, yes, but it’s no reason to turn your back and run away.

On a personal note: I had no preparation material for my very first speech (a very difficult and technical one), had to interpret heavily accented English into German, retrieved the PPT just moments before the speech and was left alone for most of my assignment in the booth. In other words, probably the worst happened to me in the beginning … and I am glad it did. I relied only on my preparation and interpreted as best as I could. And I made it! I survived a challenge far worse than an exam. I swam, because I just had to.

Why is such a situation a good thing? It’s good, because it reveals the importance of being faced with an extreme situation of “now-or-never”, and prevail! It gave me lots of experience and self-esteem for sure. So don’t take this the wrong way when I say: I wish all of you that the worst happens to you too, so that you can face a huge challenge and survive it, gain experience and self-esteem from it and do important and vital first steps as professionals in a real business environment. Be prepared to say farewell to how things were at uni though and expect things to be different in dark business territory. And don’t give up before it really started: “Courage is found in unlikely places”

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Wikipedia: a reliable source of information?

09/03/2012 5 comments

Most of us, who recently graduated from uni, praised Wikipedia for its precious service during our uni carrer, especially when time was scarce and we were loaded with projects, deadlines, presentations, interpreting classes etc. Wikipedia seemed to be a quick-fix for all our problems. Presentations were prepared fast and information was collected easily. Silently, we always thanked Wikipedia for the magic it provided so comfortably. At the same time,  we were lured to consult the website over and over again and until it formed an integral part of our uni life. Ok, we were told every now and then to refrain from using Wikipedia as a source of information for our interpreting classes, but come on: Who didn’t check on the website to save some time and nerves?

The thing is: Wikipedia may have helped us at university, but is the platform a valuable and reliable source of information which to consult for the preparation of an interpreting assignment? The answer to that question is: yes and no.

In a professional interpreting context, and I reckon that must be self-explaining, I’d never use Wikipedia for information such as bibliographic information about people, about historic events, political ideologies … for most of the things actually. Why? You never know who is behind the information, if the information is true/accurate/verfied or not. Wikipedia’s open, collaborative approach is generally a good thing, but you can never be sure who is behind the information you find. If you use Wikipedia as source,  always double-check your information!

However, I must admit that I use Wikipedia sometimes when it comes to technical things,although you have to be very careful here, too. Sometimes, people with amazing technical or mechanical knowledge post things about “suspension bridges” or “injection molding” or whatever else. The more they share, the easier it seems to get access to very specific and good information It’s like finding a magic fountain of technical wisdom in a way.

BUT: always double-check!!! Think critically!!! At the end of the day you can never be sure as to where the information comes from. And especially recent graduates should learn to prepare an assignment without Wikipedia and consult other, more reliable sources of information. Getting rid of Wikipedia might be like trying to quit Facebook as it involves a profound change of habits and a lot of self-discipline. It also involves a huge personal effort as “to quit” and “to stay away from something” are two different things.And, alas, Wikipedia is just so god-dammed comfortable. However, leaving Wikipedia behind along with your uni carrer might be the way to go for beginners. See it as part of the transition from student to professional! I mean why go the easy way if it is about a job, paying your rent, your reputation etc. Don’t take any risks! Fast, quick and vast information seems like a comfortable quick-fix … but that doesen’t mean we have to blindly believe it.

From student to professional: some thoughts on teamwork in the booth

24/02/2012 1 comment

As students, interpreting  was a lonely fight we fought. We were in the booth alone most of the times and were left to our fate during the period we switched on the mic. At times, some of us even wanted to be alone, so that our own anxiety and fear over screwing up wouldn’t be noticed by more people than ourselves, or our teacher if we were less lucky. A colleague in the booth, at times, was maybe seen by some as a disturbance instead of a help. Of course, who wants to make a fool of himself with someone sitting next to him or her? The booth was often the place were we felt most vulnerable and who wants to idly expose that? A colleague in the booth was maybe also seen by some as someone they could release their own frustration on, along the lines of: “I screwed up, because my colleague let me down/didn’t help/couldn’t answer the question I had, etc…”. It all comes down to one’s own fear. Agression or rejection in this sense are just an indication of how afraid someone really is. And let’s be honest: As students, we were all afraid at some point!

I am saying that at university we got to understand what sharing the booth with someone meant. We understood that it can be a vital asset to have someone next to you, someone who helps you and we also learned to cherish and value that. I wished for a stronger focal point on teamwork during the studies actually, because it’s so vital to our work. But what I am also convinced of at the same time is that probably a majority of students preferred to be left alone, preferred to not have to engage in a team for the main reasons above mentioned.

Now why is this important once university is over? When we leave university, we have to make some sort of u-turn on this attitude. We have to be prepared to be in the booth with someone and be tied to this someone for the entire assignment. For good or bad. Interpreting is teamwork. And in the end there is no point in blaming the colleague for own mistakes/failures, etc. A team of interpreters fails or succeeds as a whole, as one team. It’s like having a look at a professional sports team. It’s not the individual that counts, it’s the whole team achieving something (or not).

This is by the way not only the interpreter’s perspective we have to look at here: Your client will not be interested in who did a great job in the booth and who didn’t. The client perceives one booth as one unit. He wouldn’t say: “Interpreter A in the English booth was good and Interpreter B was … well …”. No. He would say : “The whole English Booth was bad.” So whatever happens in the booth, it happens for the interpreters as a team. That’s why teamwork is so important and that’s precisely why graduated students need to be aware of its importance, irrespectively of how much they worked already in a team at uni … or how much they liked it.