Three things that will make you a better interpreter

Woman playing Whac-A-Mole

Becoming an excellent interpreter is like a constant game of Whac-A-Mole. Once you nail a skill down, another problem area pops up. The good news is that if you keep playing, you won’t have to hit as hard anymore, and you’ll figure out the pattern so that it’s easier for you to stay on top of your game.

Woman playing Whac-A-Mole
Photo taken from Wikipedia page on “Whac-A-Mole” on August 11, 2012.

It’s important to remember that everyone starts out at a different place, but the goal is still achievable. If you only speak one language, becoming a world-renowned interpreter is going to take a while. Don’t give up. To help you on your quest, here are three tools that are helping me along the way, and so I figured I’d pass them along to you, too:

  1. Observe. Always keep an eye out. I don’t know if it’s mirror neurons or what, but the simple act of paying attention to the world around you does wonders for your linguistic and interpreting skills. In my translation courses at UTB, we learn about parallel texts. The idea is that if you want to know how to translate say, a birth certificate, from English to Spanish, you look at original birth certificates in Spanish to see what words are used, how they are used, what the style is, and what the format looks like. So when you translate, your product seems natural.

    Similarly, if you want to know how to interpret medical information from English to ASL, look at how deaf people sign when they talk about medical issues. Make note of the vocabulary used, the facial expressions, the spacial markers, etc. Sign language interpreters see people use ASL all the time, perhaps every day, but there’s a difference between seeing someone sign and paying attentionto the way they sign.

    Follow this same advice for other areas. If you admire the skill of a certain interpreter, observe them in action and make note of how they manage the interpreting process. Ask questions if you’re curious about anything. Improve your delivery in English by paying attention to the way people speak and say things. Aim to be clear and concise in your interpretations.

  2. Measure yourself against yourself. When it comes to measuring your progress, look behind you, not ahead of you. If you compare yourself against someone who has been interpreting for 30 years, the road ahead of you can seem daunting. Therefore, when thoughts of “I’ll never make it” enter your head, replace them with this question instead: “Am I a better interpreter today than I was at this same time last year?” If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track so keep moving. If the answer is no, see point #1 above and lay out a plan to make some changes.
  3. Don’t deceive yourself. You know those movies where, after a long journey, the crew finds a damp cave full of gold and other treasures; they think they’ve made it, that is until they suddenly realize that it’s a trap, but one guy is too excited to pay attention or care so he dives crazily into a pile of rubies, and then the cave begins to tremble angrily, dooming everyone inside? Don’t be that guy. Remember the Whac-A-Mole. Sure, you’ve probably gotten really good at a lot of things, but as soon as you think there are no moles left is when one will pop up to bite you. Even if you are the top dog, isn’t it a bit brash to think you’ve learned everything there is to know in the world? Polish up on something you haven’t tried in a while. And more importantly, start helping out other up-and-coming interpreters. Don’t leave your crew to die in the cave because you hastily thought everything was over.

I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to share it with other interpreters, and don’t forget to add to it the tools that have helped you along your own journey.

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