Life for me took a big turn in August; I’ve been contemplating going back to school for a Master’s in Conference Interpreting for at least five years, and I’ve looked at all of the AIIC-listed Master’s in conference interpreting (MCI) programs in the US, Canada, and Switzerland (because my husband is a citizen there). But it’s complicated: we’re not prepared to move to Europe right this red-hot second. There are only five AIIC-listed MCI programs in North America, and for my purposes only four (MIIS, U. Maryland, Ottawa, and Glendon/York), because the Wake Forest program doesn’t offer French.
August 2020: A major pivot
In August of this year, I participated in the two-week Cambridge Conference Interpretation Course (CCIC; held online this year), because I thought it would give me some insight into whether to forge ahead with my MCI goals. And just a few days into the CCIC, I found out that the Glendon College/York University MCI program–which typically holds the first year online and the second year in person in Toronto–would be entirely online this year, and that they were still taking applications to start in September. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the CCIC gave me the confidence to try the advanced entry exam, to be admitted directly into the second year of the program. I took it and passed, filled out all of the paperwork to formally apply to to the program, and was accepted just in time for orientation day at the beginning of September.
This was a major logistical whirlwind, but I felt that being able to do an MCI program in one year, mostly online (we will hopefully be in Toronto for part of second semester, but the details are up in the air due to COVID) was too good to pass up. Essentially I decided that if I ever want to do this, now is the time. The Glendon/York program has the advantage of being extremely affordable (about US $16,000 per year), mostly because Canadian public university tuition is very affordable by US standards, and additionally because the Canadian dollar is trading at about 75 US cents right now. So, in the space of less than a month, I went from not even seriously considering an MCI program to being enrolled.
The structure of the Glendon program
Glendon offers an MCI for students who have English paired with French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, German, Portuguese, and Turkish, but this year there aren’t any German, Portuguese, or Turkish classes. Year 1 of the program focuses on court, conference, and healthcare interpreting, and Year 2 exclusively on conference interpreting. In my Year 2 group, we have about 20 people, and French is the largest language group.
We have some non-language-specific classes all together, and then some language-specific classes, and each class meets once a week for either two or three hours. The two-hour classes run for the whole semester, and the three-hour classes are “intensives,” where normally the instructor would come to Glendon and teach a 36-hour class in one week, but this year it’s split into 12 three-hour sessions online. Right now I have six classes:
- Two non-language-specific classes, one on general conference interpreting topics like speech prep, structural analysis, English note-taking, etc., and one on interpreting current events, where we take turns (in groups) making speeches in our A (native) languages that other students then interpret into their A or B languages for the whole class.
- One French into English class, where we do both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, either with the whole French group or in pairs in breakout rooms
- Two English into French classes, one a semester-long class that’s pretty similar to the French into English class, and one an “intensive” class where we meet for three hours a week and work in depth on one speech, interpreting segments for the group and then giving each other feedback.
All of our classes meet on Zoom, and we have WhatsApp groups both for our whole year, and for our language-specific groups.
How it’s going so far
In a word: great! I love it. Of course, that’s with the caveat that remote school is remote school: definitely a different experience than being on campus (an experience I’m sharing with my college freshman daughter who is also remote!). It’s a lot of screen time, and I’m really hoping that we’ll be on campus for at least part of second semester. But Glendon has the advantage of having the online learning model pretty dialed in, as their first year has always been online.
Our professors are universally excellent, and the other students in the program are very diligent and motivated. The skills we learn are very practical, with a smattering of interpretation theory and history thrown in. All of our professors are also working conference interpreters, so they give us insights from the real world of interpreting, and we have the opportunity (starting up this week!) to interpret for a lot of in-house events at York University, which I think will be a very useful experience.
It goes without saying that the program is a lot of work, and it requires a lot of self-discipline, because most of the work outside class is self-directed, meaning that no one is standing over you telling you that you’d better do your memory exercises or your half-hour of shadowing or whatever. Sort of like what I’d imagine music school students have to do, a lot of the work of an MCI program is simply putting in the practice time, and knowing how to practice in a targeted way. I practice by myself a lot of the time (and record myself), but I make a point of practicing with other people from the program as well, preferably doing a “feedback trade” with someone who is French A, where they interpret into English and I give them feedback, then I interpret into French and they give me feedback.
The Glendon program has a pretty strong emphasis on consecutive interpreting, which is really helpful for me as I have very little formal training in consecutive. If you’re a complete beginner, I highly recommend the Interpretrain self-paced online course. It helped me a lot in preparing for the state court interpreter certification exam, but it’s geared toward utterances of a few sentences (which is enough for something like a court interpreting exam), whereas in the MCI program we’re expected to interpret speeches of around five minutes in consecutive. In just one month, my consecutive has really improved because we do so much of it, and I feel that it’s had a spill-over effect (in a positive way) on my simultaneous interpreting, because I’m more systematic and less frantic. At the start of the course, I had what might best be described as a “stenographic” style of note-taking, where I frantically tried to write down almost everything the speaker said, in abbreviated words. I’ve finally made a breakthrough and started taking fewer notes, using more symbols, and using my notes to cue my memory rather than trying to note down every single word.
Also, I’m not 22 years old (hardly! I’m 49!) and I feel like I fit in well in the Glendon program. Many of the people in the program are around my age, have a significant amount of work experience, and are continuing to work at least part-time during the program. My sense (although I may be wrong) is that this is probably pretty different from a European program where the bulk of the students would be in their 20s.
My advice for other prospective MCI students
Now that I’ve gotten a taste of the MCI life, I highly recommend it, if you find a program that works with your goals and any constraints you may have. Most of all, I think it will be interesting to see whether the big-name MCI programs continue to offer fully-online programs once the COVID pandemic has resolved. But if you’re considering an MCI program, I would consider:
- Your budget and location. With only five MCI programs in North America, it’s a big commitment unless the fully-remote offerings continue. If you decide to go to law school, it’s likely that you can find a program you can commute to, unless you live in a really rural area. With an MCI program, not so much. And when I thought realistically about the financial commitment of moving to another state or country for two years, potentially taking out student loans, etc., plus the logistics (my husband has a salaried job here in Colorado, we own a house, my 18 year old lives nearby while doing remote school, my parents who are in their 70s moved here to be closer to us, etc.), I just wasn’t sure that it was realistic. Paying $15,000, divided into three payments of $5,000 throughout the year, felt a lot more manageable.
- Your level of self-discipline. I think this is a huge factor, especially in a remote program. Getting better at interpreting is like getting better at playing a musical instrument: it happens incrementally, over a long period of time, through targeted practice. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and how to practice is a huge part of it; being willing to give and accept feedback is a huge part of it; and just putting your rear end in the chair and putting in the time is a huge part of it. And you have to be realistic about whether you’re going to do that, or whether you’re going to just do your 15 hours of class a week and then forget about it.
I’ll post further updates about my experiences as the year goes on! For now, I’m really enjoying the program and learning a lot.