The Cambridge Conference Interpretation Course, or CCIC, is legendary among conference interpreters. Held each year since 1984 in Cambridge, England, it brings together a group of motivated, experienced interpreters and expert instructors for two weeks in August. This year was—stop me if this is starting to sound familiar—a bit different. I think many people anticipated that the CCIC would be cancelled, because the online experience couldn’t possibly measure up to the location for which the CCIC is named. However, husband-and-wife organizers Julia Poger and Chris Guichot de Fortis proved that it would take more than a pandemic to keep them down. They moved CCIC fully online, which opened up the opportunity for non-Europe-based interpreters (like me!) to participate without having to travel to the UK for two weeks. I’ve written up some reflections on my experiences here, and if you have other specific questions about the CCIC, feel free to ask in the comments! I’m a native English speaker, so I participated in the CCIC as an English A, French B student.
What the CCIC is
As mentioned above, the CCIC is a legendary professional training course for conference interpreters who work between English and one or more than one other language: French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Italian. It’s normally held at the Hilton Cambridge City Centre, and features an impressive student-teacher ratio of no more than 2 ½ students per teacher. As the CCIC’s website says, “The Course is centred on teaching simultaneous interpretation from an array of general and technical speeches delivered by video, specialist guest speakers, and members of the teaching faculty.”
You have to apply to participate in the CCIC, and you need to be able to interpret at a professional level in order to apply. Although I don’t (yet!) do much conference interpreting work, about 80% of my court interpreting work is simultaneous interpreting into French for French-speaking defendants, so I was interested in participating in the CCIC to:
-improve the accuracy and fluency of my into-French interpreting
-improve the flow and intonation of my into-English interpreting
-get an honest assessment of whether I should pursue conference interpreting
-improve my simultaneous interpreting in general, because the bulk of my interpreting studying was highly targeted at passing the Colorado state court interpreter exam
I applied to the CCIC and was accepted! I (correctly) anticipated that I would be one of the least experienced students in the group, so I blocked out about an hour a day of practice time for two months before the class started. Fortunately the CCIC even has an article on their website on how to prepare (http://www.cciconline.net/howtoprepare.php), including some very helpful mindset tips: get ready to be a small fish in a big pond, get ready to accept feedback without taking it personally, expect the course to be really, really hard. Start day was August 1, and I was excited to get going, especially since nearly everything I had looked forward to since March had been cancelled!
The logistics of this year’s edition
Prior to the CCIC start date, we received tons of detailed information about how the logistics would work. As a course organizer myself, I found the level of information really impressive. We were set up on Slack for messaging and discussions, Zoom for presentations and a few interpreting sessions, and the remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) platform Voiceboxer for the bulk of the interpreting sessions. This sounds like a lot of platforms—and it is—but each served a different and crucial purpose, and I think it was an excellent decision on Julia and Chris’ part to use the remote edition as an opportunity to experience RSI, which I had zero experience with.
A day in the life
When I signed up for the CCIC, I knew that the schedule would mean an early start given my time zone. 6:00 AM, to be exact. I reasoned that if we were on site in Cambridge I’d be jet-lagged for the first week there and the first week home, so I just tried my best to go to bed early for the 5:00 AM wakeup call, and that mostly went fine.
Every day in the CCIC is packed. Over the course of the two weeks, we interpreted 27 speeches, plus various special events; we received group feedback and individual feedback (sometimes multiple times a day); we worked in language-specific groups; we had classes on special topics related to conference interpreting; we also had extracurricular events like films. If that sounds a bit overwhelming, it is. We had over 80 instructional hours in two weeks; by comparison a typical university course involves 35-45 instructional hours per semester.
The CCIC instructors are amazing; they are all working interpreters, many of whom work in very high-level positions in international institutions in Europe. And—no pressure—they’re constantly dropping in and listening to you while you’re interpreting, so that they can give you detailed feedback later. The speeches we interpreted ran the gamut of topics: technical, non-technical, concrete, esoteric, fast speakers, slow speakers, etc.
For the actual interpreting, most of the time we worked in virtual booths in VoiceBoxer, and we were allowed to pick our own partners or sign up solo and let someone pick us. I really enjoyed that, because the instructors encouraged us to listen to our booth partners and give feedback, which I found very helpful. VoiceBoxer also has good capabilities to do relay interpreting. I had never served as a relay or interpreted from a relay, so that was a whole new experience.
Every CCIC day ran eight to nine hours; that sounds like a crazy amount of time to spend online, but I found it pretty doable. It was cognitively more demanding than a similar in-person event (keeping all of those Slack channels and Zoom links straight), but physically less demanding, because I was just going to my own office and staying there all day, as if I were working.
Absorbing all of that feedback
Interpreting is a bit like playing a musical instrument. You get better only by “performing” for people who are better than you, and having them give you honest feedback. Except…all of us know that honest feedback can be hard to take, especially when it’s about something as personal as interpreting. My advice to anyone wanting to get the most out of the CCIC or a similar course is:
- Keep telling yourself what you know is true: You’re there to learn. And you learn from having your strengths and weaknesses pointed out in very specific ways, so that you can do more of what’s going right and less of what’s not going right. Expect it to be cringe-worthy at times. A couple of the instructors observed that I click my tongue against my teeth when I don’t know what to say. I know that I do this (because I hear it on recordings), and it was awkward to have it pointed out, but it helped me to develop a workaround (pressing my tongue against my bottom teeth when I’m not speaking, which also helps my pronunciation of the letter “r” in French, another perpetual problem!).
- Just listen. You’ll reflexively want to defend yourself: you don’t usually make that mistake, the speaker was fast, the video was glitching, you were relaying off someone who was struggling, you were tired, you were hungry, whatever. Don’t say any of that. Take notes on what the instructors tell you and look for common threads in both a positive and negative way.
- Have clear goals going into the course, and keep reminding yourself of those goals so that you can measure your progress. “Getting better at interpreting” is amorphous and happens very incrementally. It’s much more helpful to ask yourself things like, “In that last speech, was I focusing more on ideas instead of words?” “When I work into my B language, am I getting better at using shorter sentences and speaking clearly?” “When I know I can’t keep up, am I focusing on the key ideas?”
I loved (loved) my experience in the CCIC and would highly recommend it to anyone else who wants to improve their conference interpreting skills. I learned so much from the instructors and also from the other participants. As one of the least experienced people in the group, I also had the most to learn from everyone, and even when I felt discouraged, I really tried to keep telling myself that I was there to improve.
The CCIC is such an intense experience that you can expect to make measurable progress by the end. Expect some low moments; during one technical speech where I was interpreting into French, I gave the microphone back to my boothmate (who was French A), because I honestly just couldn’t do it. But I found that that type of thing was actually an advantage of the remote edition: instead of having a crash and burn moment and then having to go to dinner with everyone, I was able to chalk it up to the learning process and move on.
The CCIC organizers hope to return to the in-person model in 2021 and I’d actually be interested in attending again if that happens. However, I was incredibly impressed with the organization of this remote edition and would definitely encourage other people to participate in a future remote edition if that happens!