Interpreter Training: It’s not all about working from one language to another

Our guest blogger, Kim Helman, speaks about the ins and outs of interpreter training and what to expect. 

It felt great finally submitting my NVQ Level 6 BSL portfolio last summer, completing all the language assessments felt like finishing school! One thing still bothered me; I didn’t feel even close to being able to do what BSL interpreters do.  Ever the optimist I applied to join an interpreter training course starting in the autumn – once again planning to benefit from the feedback and pointers I’d receive when rejected. I duly did my preparation, recorded myself interpreting a 2-way conversation and wrote up my analysis, painfully aware that what I was reviewing looked and sounded worlds away from the interpreting art form I observed in RSLIs.

I naively assumed that interpreter training would largely be about switching from one language to the other quickly after all, isn’t that what interpreters do? Yes, in the same way that symphony conductors wave sticks about and Shakespeare wrote some stuff that rhymed.

Interpreter training has blown my mind! From ethical decision making, via the various elements of processing to discourse analysis, every lesson has been utterly fascinating and not once have we been taught how to ‘switch languages really fast’. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, each discovery is as exciting as it is daunting… piece by piece revealing glimpses of a world I had only seen the surface of and I am desperate to fully understand.

With all the usual financial responsibilities of living in the South East, I am still working full time in a non-BSL related role whilst I am training. I am acutely aware of my need to gain experience and so proactively seek out volunteering opportunities and have been fortunate to interpret in a variety of settings, always mindful of my limitations and responsibility to turn opportunities down where the situation demands the skills of a qualified interpreter.

I have made lots of discoveries during my volunteering. I have learnt that it’s not easy to determine which assignments might be straight forward and which might present challenges. After interpreting for a mixed group of Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing people taking part in a focus group about road safety, I reflected on how comfortable I had felt. I had made mistakes and at times felt a little overwhelmed but I had expected that and worse. In contrast, I felt pretty confident before interpreting communication in a peer support group, a nice gentle, social setting… and yet I have never felt less competent. I have learnt that sometimes more informal chatter can present more of a challenge than formal work settings, even when considering the presence of jargon – because it is easier to research and prepare for that than conversations changing directions, sentences being left unfinished and overlapping speech.

I have also learnt that I CAN manage my nerves as long as I prepare, arrive early and insert encouraging mantras into my shaky internal monologue. Certainly being able to meet the clients before the assignment, even for just a few moments, has been key to my more successful moments.

Looming on the horizon is the moment I will have to stop exclusively hiding behind the volunteer role and start putting all my training into practice. This makes me nervous and excited in equal measure; this is a profession I greatly admire and becoming a part of that feels like a significant responsibility. I know that I will always do my best and I do not underestimate the importance of preparation and considered reflection. Fortunately I continue to be fascinated by this profession and enjoy reading about the theory (almost) as much as I enjoy the practical. I still have mountains to climb and appreciate that I have only dipped a toe into this world, but I can honestly say that I am pleased to have fallen down this particular rabbit hole!