A reader asks: I recently took a test for doing over-the-phone interpreting. Unfortunately, I stumbled a bit and things didn’t go quite as planned. What are some good resources for improving interpreting skills?
A lot of people have this type of question about interpreting, so let’s take a look. Before I answer, I should say that:
-However, I’ve taken two high-stakes interpreting exams and passed both on the first try, so in that sense I have some ideas for this reader, and for anyone else looking to pass an interpreting test.
Improving your interpreting skills in general
This is the subject of many books by people with a lot more experience than me, but my top tips are:
-Most importantly, interpreting is like playing a musical instrument: you use the skills, or you lose them. I have a personal rule that I have to interpret or work on my French skills an hour a day on weekdays. If it’s a day when I’m not interpreting for work, then I practice for an hour, every single weekday, no matter what. When I studied for the court interpreter exam, I practiced about an hour a day for a year and a half, and in the three months before my MCI exit exams, I practiced two hours a day. For me, consistency really is the most important thing.
-You have to know your weaknesses, because improving means working on your weaknesses. I think the best way to zero in on your weaknesses is to work with an interpreting coach, preferably someone whose A (native) language is your B (non-native from/into) language.
-You need to identify one goal, or maybe two goals, for each practice session, and they need to be really specific. “Improve my into-B interpreting” isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to do a practice session where you say, I’m specifically working on eliminating “uhhh” and “ummm,” and on never starting a sentence with “Because.” Or, I’m working on not sticking too closely to the original so that I never start a sentence without knowing how to finish it.
-If you’re a native English speaker and mostly learned your non-English languages in school, you probably need to work on your B language(s) skills in general. That’s not true for everyone, but honestly, it is for most people; it is for me. In my MCI program, I spent tons of time just working on my French: accent, pronunciation, speaking speed (I speak too slowly because I’m pronouncing everything extra-clearly), cultural knowledge, ability to pronounce proper names correctly, and so on.
-Transcripts are your friend. You really want to look for podcasts and videos with transcripts, so that you can record yourself and compare your interpretation to the transcript. YouTube auto-captions can help; transcripts are better because you can mark them up.
-So here’s what I’d suggest: devote some time to just improving your B language skills. Shadow YouTube videos (slow down to .75 speed if needed; I had to do that at the start). Flood your brain with that language: listen to podcasts and news shows in that language as much as you can. My go-to for French is France Culture. When I was in my MCI program, I listened to France Culture up to three hours a day: when I was exercising, driving, cleaning, eating, really any time I could. I’m a big fan of flashcards: to this day, I keep a ring of flashcards on my desk, and whenever I have a spare moment, I flip through three or four of them to test myself.
-Then work on your interpreting skills, but in a targeted way. Thankfully these days there are tons of resources: Speechpool, the EU Speech Repository, and the zillions of videos on YouTube. If you’re studying for an interpreting test, it’s almost certain you can find samples to practice with on YouTube. In just a cursory search, I found this YouTube channel that has practice videos for immigration court, this one that has practice videos for medical interpreters, this one on phone interpreting, and I’m sure there are more.
-I think that sight translation is an often-overlooked practice technique. Athena Matilsky (who I studied with for the court interpreter exam) called it “simultaneous with training wheels,” and I agree. If you force yourself to do sight translation at a pretty good speed and without pausing (treat it like simul: if you really don’t know a word, come up with a synonym, reformulate, or skip it; never allow yourself to pause or backtrack), it’s a good approximation of the skills involved in simul. In my MCI program, this is how we moved up to interpreting high-level diplomatic speeches: first we sight-translated them from transcripts.
-Consider joining an interpreter practice group. I joined Amerivox and I’ve gotten a lot out of it; highly recommended! Joining a practice group also gives you the opportunity to work as an interpreter for other interpreters; I volunteered as both a relay and bilingual interpreter for Amerivox and got a lot out of it. Like playing music for other musicians, it forces you to be on your A-game because you know that the other interpreters are hearing every single mistake.
-If you can, do a formal interpreter training program. It really does make a difference, and I’m incredibly glad that I did the Glendon MCI. Finding ways to practice interpreting on your own isn’t hard, but evaluating your own interpreting is really, really hard, and without that feedback it’s tough to tell if you’re improving, or just reinforcing the same mistakes. If it’s not realistic for you to do a full Master’s program, at least try to do some sort courses where you’re getting feedback from instructors in your language combination.
How to pass an interpreting test
Passing an interpreting test is another question altogether. I would recommend that you:
-First, get as many details about the test as you can. This reader mentions taking a test for an OPI (over-the-phone interpreting) job and it not going well. Ahead of any interpreting test, I would definitely try to find out: how long is the test, consecutive or simultaneous, in which direction(s)? If it’s consecutive or includes a consecutive component, how long are the segments in terms of time or number of words? If it’s simultaneous, how fast (in terms of words per minute) is it?
-For some exams, such as court interpreter certification exams, you’ll be able to get exact details on all of these pieces of information. For exams administered by agencies, the information you receive is at the agency’s discretion. You also want to try to find out as much as you can about how the exam is scored. Some exams use scoring units, where certain words are designated as being scored, while other exams may use a holistic assessment tool. Some tests may put a lot of emphasis on accent and delivery, others almost none.
-Most importantly, remember that when you are taking a test, your goal is to pass the test. That sounds ridiculously obvious, but here’s what I mean: every type of test assesses certain types of skills, so those skills are what you need to demonstrate. For a court interpreting test, it’s more important to be complete, accurate, and fast, than it is to have flowing delivery. For a conference interpreting test, delivery and focusing on the message rather than the words might be your goal. For my MCI exam, I had a post-it note on my desk that said, “Breathe. Smile. Cut the fluff.” Additionally, do not stress out (right now) about any real or perceived differences between what the test requires and what you feel will be required in a real-life setting: first you have to pass the test. Here’s what I mean by that: the simultaneous passages on many court interpreting exams are recorded at about 125 words per minute. In real life, very few people speak at 125 wpm in any kind of setting; in most settings 140-180 is probably more realistic, and in court where people are often nervous and rushing, speeds up to 200 words per minute aren’t out of the question. But right now you don’t worry about that: you worry about passing the 125 wpm passage.
-Here’s a great one from Andrew Clifford, the director of the Glendon MCI program that I did. Rather than focusing on giving a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime performance on the day of the exam, focus on using the weeks/months before the test to improve the overall level of your interpreting. Instead of aiming for a 99% performance on test day, aim to improve your interpreting enough that 80% of your best is good enough to pass, because exam-day nerves are going to degrade your performance. This helped me a lot. Our MCI exit exams consisted of four tests (consec and simul in both directions), given on two different days. Instead of telling myself on test day, “This is it…the biggest day of your fledgling interpreting career…better not mess it up,” I told myself, “All you have to do is what you’ve already done hundreds of times in the booth: do a solid job with no major mistakes.”
-Try not to fall victim to “snowball syndrome.” Of the people I’ve talked to who’ve failed an interpreting test that they expected to pass, many of them stumbled on something early in the test, got rattled, and things went downhill from there. To prevent this, I would highly recommend practicing on passages that you know are really hard and where you’re likely to miss something or be unable to keep up. Put YouTube videos on 1.25 speed, or practice with the “Advanced/Test-type” speeches on the EU Speech Repository (they are realllllly hard!). That helps you train your reflexes for when you miss or can’t figure out how to interpret a major term, like if the speaker says “Our topic today is the banded archer fish,” you just say “the fish we’re discussing.” Or when the speaker rattles off a long list of names and you got none of them, you say, “Our esteemed guests.” It’s not perfect, but it’s better than losing the entire next sentence because you’re flipping out about the banded archer fish.
-Practice on the most realistic material that you can. For the court interpreter exam, I practiced with as much actual court audio footage as I could get my hands on. For my MCI exams, I practiced every French and every English speech in the Glendon speech repository, along with tons of speeches from Speechpool and the EU Speech Repository. Again, you’re practicing a specific skill for a specific purpose, so align your practice materials as closely as possible to that.
Readers, other thoughts on this topic??