It feels like not that long ago that I wrote a blog post about my first month as a Master’s in conference interpreting student, and now we’re about to start our second semester. Definitely time for an update! If you missed the first installment, I’m currently a Year 2 student in the York University/Glendon College Master of Conference Interpreting Program, in the French language track.
If you’re interested in the 30-second version, I love the program and it’s going well, despite the all-online format this year. I am still working part-time, so it’s a lot to balance, but I actually feel like the shred of sanity I’ve held on to during the pandemic is because of the MCI program. Needing to take a shower, put on real clothes, and be somewhere at a specific time — even if “somewhere” is a Zoom room — are very helpful things during the pandemic. I’m really impressed with the quality of the Glendon program; both the instructors and the other students, and I’m really looking forward to semester two.
A day in the life…
In the French language group, this semester we had about 13 hours a week of live classes (the Glendon program really emphasizes the live aspect, which I like), plus our entire class year had an interpreting technology intensive in addition to our regular classes. I found this load manageable (most classes are two hours, and we had one day a week — Tuesdays — with no classes) and as the semester went on, I found a better balance between attending classes, doing my own practice sessions, and practicing with other people from the French group. I really try to attend every class (only missed one class, one time this semester!) and do at least one practice session a week with someone else in the French group, plus multiple practice sessions on my own.
I found that by putting in 10-12 hour days, things felt manageable. That sounds like a lot, but…there’s a pandemic on…so I also have a lot more time on my hands than I normally would. I typically get to my office around 7:45 AM because classes often start at 8, and I’ve gotten into a little routine of meditating for five minutes before the day starts. Another small but important sanity routine is that I love (like, really love) coffee and I hate chugging it quickly in the morning, so I take my coffee with me to my office. So pretty much five days a week, I first drink my coffee while looking out the very beautiful glass door in my office, then I meditate for five minutes, then I go straight through with classes and work until around 5 PM (taking a short break to run or do yoga at lunch), then I do maybe an hour or two more at home in the evening. It feels doable.
How is all of this working online?
Online school plus work can definitely get to be a lot of screen time. At one point, I was having major problems with eye strain, so I took a couple of weeks where I forced myself to do non-screen things (read a paper magazine or book, play music, exercise) in the evening. That helped a lot.
A big advantage of the York/Glendon program is that Year 1 of the MCI program (which I did not do, because I took the advanced entry exam to go directly into Year 2) has been online since the program’s inception almost ten years ago. It’s definitely an advantage to be in a program that has the online methods dialed in, even though this is their first time doing Year 2 online. It would definitely be great to be on campus: Glendon has an amazing interpreting lab, and I’d love to be working in person with the instructors and the other French students; but this isn’t a bad Plan B at all. As a bonus, we’re learning a lot about remote interpreting, which will undoubtedly be helpful in the future. Although I think we’re all hoping that in-person events come back sooner rather than later, I personally think that a) large-scale professional conferences requiring travel will probably be one of the last things to come back, because we’ve now seen that they can be transitioned online in at least some respects, and b) we’re likely to see more online meetings and conferences in general, even after the pandemic winds down. I would have loved to attend a full year of in-person classes, but I think that Glendon is making the most of the year, and I’m very glad I jumped in and took advantage of it.
What we actually do
I keep making this comparison, but getting better at interpreting is a lot like getting better at playing a musical instrument. There’s some theory, and there’s lots, and lots, and lots of practice. Practice on different types of subject matter: everything from colony collapse disorder to tension between France and Germany and how that affects the value of the euro. Practice on different types of speakers: people who talk fast, people who talk slowly, people with heavy accents, people with circuitous speaking styles. Practice with panel discussions and question and answer sessions. Just lots and lots of practice.
We also have the chance to interpret for lots of live events at York University, which is a ton of fun. Again, these could be anything: I’ve done two Town Hall meetings, one on the COVID situation and one on York’s new campus, I’ve done staff meetings, seminars for the Year 1 interpreting students, an information session for prospective students in the MCI program…lots of different stuff. The York staffers are always very appreciative of our work, and it’s a great opportunity to practice in a real-life situation.
A few surprises
Someone asked me the other day whether anything about this program, or doing a Master’s in conference interpreting, has surprised me. Why yes, thanks for asking:
- I never really believed that most of the magic behind interpreting is, sort of like the magic behind playing a musical instrument, just lots and lots of practice. It’s really more of a skill than a talent. People have more talent and less talent, but the first time Yo-Yo Ma picked up a cello, he didn’t sight read the Bach cello suites. The same is true of conference interpreting: no one is good at simultaneous interpreting without learning the techniques and practicing them for lots of hours. No one is good at taking notes on a long consecutive speech without learning the techniques and practicing them over and over again. But the beauty of this is that you definitely can become good at things that initially seem like magic powers. Case in point: back when I was still learning the very basics of interpreting to prepare for the Colorado French court interpreter exam, I overheard two very experienced conference interpreters talking about long consecutive interpreting. One said, “Once you’ve learned the techniques to do a 10-minute speech, you can easily do 20 minutes.” And the other replied, “Oh, definitely, no problem there.” And my reaction, as I struggled in the trenches of doing 30-second segments to prepare for the court interpreter exam, was something along the lines of “WHAAAAAAAAAAAT???” But guess what, now I actually agree completely. At the end of last semester, one of my classmates and I did a practice session with a 10-minute consecutive speech, and we agreed that it really wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t a super technical, or fast, or complex speech, but we took notes for 10 minutes and then interpreted it back, and it really went OK. That felt like progress. I’ve definitely gone from (literally) feeling my stomach churning when someone in a court hearing talks for more than a minute, to actually encouraging people to keep on talking so that I get more of the whole idea.
- This is a little weird to say, but the acceptance of self-taught interpreters on the US market (where many, many interpreters have little to no formal training) used to not bother me at all. It still doesn’t actually bother me, because the reality is that we have huge interpreting needs but very few training programs, especially outside the most-spoken languages. But I do see now that trained interpreters really are much better at the job. That’s not earthshaking news, but I now see it with my own eyes, or rather hear it with my own ears. I’m not sure what the solution is, because there are so many issues: the US population speaks about 430 languages; many interpreters, especially at the community level, simply don’t earn enough money to make extensive training a viable option; many interpreting clients don’t see the value of a trained professional interpreter, etc. etc. But still this is worth noting: formal training makes a huge difference.
Our second semester starts today, and I’ll try to write another update as I progress further through the program.