As I point out in my previous message, I am developing two court interpreting courses for the new Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI) of Glendon College in Toronto.
I am also reading Is that a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos – one of the best books on translation around. Actually, this book isn't just about translation; it's about language and meaning, and even what it is to be human. In this book, Bellos addresses the issue of language proficiency, which prompted me to write this post.
One of the most important issues when dealing with prospective interpreting students is their language proficiency level. It seems that people in general overestimate their proficiency in their second (or third) language or do not know the level of proficiency required to enter the fields of translation and, more specifically, interpretation.
In one chapter of the book, Bellos calls the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals an unprecedented event that led to the modern practice of interpretation. He describes how interpretation services were rendered during those trials, including the composition of the various interpreting teams and the recognition of simultaneous interpreting as one of the most exhausting things one can do to a human brain. As Nuremburg showed, high-speed language transfer is one of the main difficulties interpreters face, paired with the fact that politicians and diplomats in general do not use simple sentences but rather “sausage-like strings of evasive circumlocutions.”
This first generation of modern interpreters came from unique circumstances. In a typical case, an interpreter would have been the child of refugees from countries such as Russia, who was brought up in a far-flung place like Shanghai. He or she studied in schools like the Lycée Français, and learned English along the way. Due to their terrible circumstances, these children might have had time to acquire outstanding levels of language proficiency while awaiting a US visa before going to college in New York. These were unique circumstances, indeed. So conference interpreters, as Bellos rightly indicates, are individuals belonging to a rare breed – fast talking yet good listeners “who must be both alert and relaxed, able to tolerate unspeakable boring harangues but also quick to pick up the gist when something entirely new comes on the agenda.” But the foundation for these rare individuals is truly exceptional language skills.
Andrew Clifford, the Chair of the School of Translation at Glendon College discusses the language skills interpreters need today in this video. In it, he talks about key ideas about the profile of an aspiring interpreter, among which I’d like to stress the concepts near-native fluency, extended stays, several years, and love of life-time learning. Few individuals grow up in fully bilingual environments – and there are probably not enough of them to meet the diverse needs and demands for their skills. Of course, language proficiency alone is not enough to succeed as a student of interpretation or later as a professional interpreter. But the challenge today is how to help the many motivated students to reach the advanced levels of language proficiency needed to be able to learn interpretation and perform at a professional level. In a nutshell, the level of proficiency required to be an interpreter is acquired over time and it takes individuals with exceptional qualities. Interpreters indeed belong to a rare breed.