Translating and Interpreting Happily!!

February 27, 2013


On my way home from work this week I heard parts of an interview given by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, the Tibetan translator and interpreter of his Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, in the radio show On Being, hosted by Krista Tippet (American Public Media). I had always imagined that interpreting for someone like the Dalai Lama would be an insurmountable task, not only for the complexity of the topics and metaphysical concepts he discusses, but also because of translation issues that would arise between two such different languages, such as English and Tibetan. For instance, in the interview, Thupten Jinpa talks about the “popularized” Western translated term “meditation” not being able to carry all the nuances of the same concept it has in Tibetan Buddhism. According to him, some of the term’s connotations include the concept of “cultivating a field,” and “process of familiarity.” So, when people in the West hear the word “meditation” they immediately associate it with the image of someone sitting quietly by themselves, emptying their minds, when actually the original Tibetan and Sanskrit concepts involve much more than that.

More importantly, they include an “analytical” component. It’s not simply about sitting quietly emptying your mind, it is also a process in which one uses discernment to move between stages, uncovering layers (isn’t this a perfect description of translation?).  But, Thupten Jinpa doesn’t feel that “meditation” is an inaccurate translation the original concept, so there isn’t any mention of nuances that are lost. He only hints that “meditation” has “left out” such nuances. But he immediately, and graciously, states that, “…it’s part of the process. At some point the nuances will come back.”  So, I would like to propose here that we start looking at these two activities through such lens; that to translate and interpret is, and should be, about “meditating” in the deepest sense of what the translated term has left out!

Moreover, the AMP website has a link to a video depicting His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, joined by other religious leaders (Judaism, Christianity, and Islamism), speaking about happiness at Emory University in 2010. In the video one can clearly see the symbiotic relationship between the Dalai Lama and his interpreter. His Holiness speaks mostly in English and relies on the interpreter to “finish his sentences” whenever he’s in search of translations for the Tibetan concepts he wants to express. This got me thinking about the relationship of trust that develops between speakers/listeners and their interpreters. It also got me thinking about the level of knowledge interpreters should strive for in order to be able to provide such level of trust to their interlocutors (Thupten Jinpa is also a former monk, philosopher, has translated many of the Dalai Lama’s writings, and much more). And it also got me thinking about the interpreter’s invisibility and/or visibility and the balance between such binary. If you watch the video, Thupten Jinpa is often very visible, present; an active participant in creation of meaning. Even when we don’t see him, he’s extremely visible (and this is one of the key paradoxes in translation and interpreting).

But there is also another thing going on when you watch Thupten Jinpa “at work”; another thing that is even more important! He looks extremely happy! The discussion among the religious leaders is about happiness and I would like to bring that concept to discuss the activity of translation and interpreting. One aspect that is commonly left out of academic discussions on translation and interpreting, training of translators and interpreters, and in the profession in general is the issue of affect. The element of enjoyment plays a huge role in how well one performs such tasks (or any other activity, for that matter). At a point in his interview to Krista Tippet, Thupten Jinpa addresses that by saying, “one of the things I cherish about the experience of translating for Him [Dalai Lama] is the joyful state of mind I can automatically get into…” I propose that we all think about that next time we are either thinking, writing about, teaching or performing translation and interpreting!

Interpreting in Conflict Zones at InterpretAmerica

June 16, 2012

Barbara Moser-Mercer at InterpretAmerica reminds us that in order to achieve peace in conflict zones you need to engage the local population at the local level. You need to work with people on the ground and train them in the skills of interpreting! Interpreters are a vital link in these negotiations! “Who are the interpreters?” she asks. They speak the local languages and “some level” of English. “Globish” is the language of humanitarian assistance.  Interpreters who are ill-prepared will hot help in the conflict. She also mentioned that in such environment trainers are also learning as they go along. For her remote training doesn’t work in conflict zones, trainers need to go and work with the local population. In order to be successful in that area you need to go there! You cannot capture a lot of paralinguistic elements remotely! You need to be there to be able to analyze and quickly respond!

The Fight Isn’t Over

January 10, 2012


The article “Interpreters Help to Tell the Story Behind the Fight” featured in the NYT yesterday, Jan. 9, 2012, illustrates one more time the current precarious situation of interpreting as a professional activity in the U.S, and how much we still need to “fight” like boxers in order to educate everyone about the profession. The story begins by talking about the unexpected win of Nobuhiro Ishida in the junior middleweight boxing championship in Las Vegas. After winning the fight against James Kirkland, HBO analyst and commentator Max Kellerman couldn’t interview Ishida because they didn’t have a Japanese interpreter for him, which Kellerman calls a “translator” [sic]. They ended up convincing Ishida’s reluctant trainer, Daisuke Okabe, to perform the task although Okabe warned HBO of his lack of proficiency in English, “I didn’t want to do it because my English is kind of broken.” The author of the article, Thomas Golianopoulos, calls the attention to the growing need for interpreters in boxing telecasts and matches—which includes many non-English speaking fighters—and interviews some “dual role” interpreters who have been working for HBO, but fails to focus on a key aspect of this important activity, proper training, and to include translation/interpreting trainers and theorists in his article. A dual-role interpreter, Felix De Jesus, who’s also a commentator for the Yankees’ Spanish radio broadcast, state that he often “summarizes” what speakers say for the sake of time. The article also says that it’s hard to find interpreters for languages other than Spanish and that Showtime relies first on the fighter’s team and promoter to find someone who could perform the role of interpreter. Their last option is to “go to the local market.” Confirming the secondary status of interpreters in the boxing world—and  I would argue that the same is true in many other areas—the article calls such professionals “moonlighters,” meaning that their main job is something else. It’s time we begin to take interpreting more seriously and it’s up to us working as interpreters, interpreter trainers, administrators, theorists, students, etc to educate clients and the public in general about the work that we do and how interpreting is a complex activity that takes years of training to master.

ATA 52nd Annual Conference – 3rd Day

October 28, 2011

In the morning, Elena Langdon and I presented on social networking, online learning platforms and technological resources available online to train interpreters. In the first part of our presentation titled “Tweeting to Teach: How to Mine the Internet to Train the Next Generation of Interpreters,” Elena focused on the use of social networking, bookmarking and other online resources for trainers and students to connect and share knowledge. I talked about online platforms that I’ve used and am currently using to design future blended and online courses. We invited a volunteer to do a consecutive interpreting exercise on the freeware Audacity and we demonstrated how to use an audio file program to teach interpreting, allowing students to perform self-assessment and external reviewers to provide feedback, and also to record podcasts. Everyone seemed very excited!

At the end of the day, I attended a presentation by Prof. Barbara Moser-Mercer on the University of Geneva’s recent work with training interpreters in conflict zones. Titled “Uncharted Training Territory: Reaching Interpreters in the Field,” Prof. Moser-Mercer talked about her work with humanitarian organizations in designing training programs that would meet the local needs of interpreters working in countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kenya, and many others. Some of the courses have an online component and a face-to-face element. But Prof. Moser-Mercer emphasized the need for online versions to be extremely clear at the outset in order to be successful. The program includes identifying local interpreters who will then become tutors and eventually train the next generation of humanitarian interpreters. She also pointed out that “compassion fatigue” is a huge issue for interpreters working in conflict zones. Great work!

ATA 52nd Annual Conference, 2nd Day (Part 2)

October 28, 2011

Prof. Rachel Herring from Century College’s TRIN program attended Katherine Allen‘s workshop on note-taking and here are her thoughts:

Notes and reflections on Katherine Allen’s workshop titled “Note-Taking for Dialogue Interpreting Settings: Adapting Long-Consecutive Techniques.”

This workshop was a great mix of presentation by the workshop leader and opportunities for participants to practice.  Katherine gave an overview of the similarities and differences between long consecutive and dialogic consecutive.  She placed great deal of emphasis on the importance of ongoing practice for developing and maintaining note-taking skills.  This relates to the discussion of deliberate practice from the seminar given by Barbara Moser-Mercer on Wednesday, which Professor Mazzei discussed in a previous post (it’s also a concept which TRIN 2022 students will recognize!).  Deliberate practice, by which we mean long-term, focused, reflective work aimed at improving performance at a skill, is a prerequisite to developing expertise in any skill.

Katherine also reminded us that regression is a normal part of beginning to learn a new skill.  The new skill occupies a disproportionate amount of cognitive energy, which leaves us less cognitive energy to perform other aspects of the task (for example, learning to take notes initially leaves us less cognitive capacity for listening and analysis).  We must be aware of this so that we don’t get discouraged when at first we seem to have forgotten what we used to know how to do quite well.  Keep practicing through the regression and initial difficulty—as the skill becomes more automatic and integrated, you will start making progress again.  Never hesitate to talk with your peers and/or instructors if you become discouraged or need help in setting goals for practice with note-taking or any other skill!

Apart from the importance of automation and practice, Katherine also touched on the great importance of context for understanding meaning—and thus the need for preparation and activation of passive knowledge.

During the workshop we practiced our note-taking skills and discussed some strategies for placement and arrangement of notes (verticality, horizontal shift, links, etc) and creation of symbols and abbreviations.  Professor Mazzei has tweeted a picture of one page of my notes; I would be happy to take pictures of all the pages of notes I took and do a self-assessment/think-aloud protocol of them if the TRIN students are interested.

Towards the beginning of her presentation, Katherine led us in an activity that demonstrated the difficulties of being interrupted frequently during speech, as an example of how both service providers and clients might feel if the interpreter interrupts constantly.  The ‘interpreters’ felt rude when they interrupted too often—this feeling, as Katherine pointed out, might lead interpreters to NOT interrupt and thus not be as accurate as possible.  On the other hand, the ‘service providers’ felt that they were losing their train of thought, leaving out important information, and getting frustrated when they were interrupted constantly.  Katherine suggested that this is an important reminder of the need for dialogic interpreters to develop note-taking skills so they can handle longer chunks of discourse.  To this I would add the importance of continual development of listening and analysis skills, as well.

ATA 52nd Annual Conference – 2nd day!

October 27, 2011

I attended an interesting panel in the afternoon titled “Remote Interpreting/Team Interpreting in the Courtroom,” co-presented by Ody Arias and Thelma Ferry. Both presenters talked about the importance of educating the legal system on the need to hire more than one interpreter for longer proceedings based on research done on fatigue and poor performance of interpreters working long hours. According to them, team interpreting is becoming more and more prevalent in states such as Florida, where some cases will have up to 3 court interpreters. Ody and Thelma mentioned the different roles that interpreters working in a team should play in order for this model to work. If the team includes 3, one should play the “active” interpreter (the one actually interpreting), another would play the “passive” role, which includes supporting, researching terminology, identifying misinterpretations, intervening when necessary, keeping track of time, and identifying the partner’s signs of fatigue. The “active” and the “passive” interpreter would switch roles every 20-30 minutes. The third partner is called the “lead” interpreter, who would be responsible for gathering information from the prosecution, defense, clerk and the court, and for preparing notes compiling general information about the case. Ody and Thelma argued that although this increases the cost of the proceeding, most judges they’ve worked with have been able to understand the complexity of the task of interpreting and adopted team interpreting, and that it’s up to interpreters to educate the legal system about the need for such a model. One attendee suggested changing the terminology of the “passive” interpreter to “supporting/assistant” interpreter, and I believe it makes all the sense since there’s nothing “passive” about helping out your interpreting partner!

ATA 52nd Annual Conference

October 26, 2011

Hi everyone,

The 52nd Annual Conference of the American Translators Association (ATA) started today in Boston, MA with great preconference seminars. I attended the excellent one presented by Prof. Barbara Moser-Mercer from the Faculté de traduction et d’interprétation of the University of Geneva on “Building Blocks in Interpreter Training.”Prof. Moser-Mercer started out by reminding us that “interpreters are made” to demystify the old notion that interpreting is a competence that few privileged people are born with, and to emphasize that it is a skill that can be acquired. Through deliberate practice (trial-error-discovery) any “willing” individual is able to learn interpreting skills. But she also reminded everyone of the importance of training and the role trainers play in inspiring students to learn and practice. When talking cognitive skills, Prof. Moser-Mercer focused on the importance of “structured knowledge,” i.e. unless you really comprehend the topic you’re interpreting for, unless you are able to encode it in your brain through understanding, your memory will let you down. For instance, you can’t interpret a speech on genetics if you have no idea of what a gene looks like or how it works. The other important part of her presentation was about “deliberate practice,” which has to do with not being satisfied with what you do, with always wanting to do it better. And deliberate practice includes understanding and talking about your practice (meta-cognition). Students of interpreting need to be able to understand their performance, talk about their issues, come up with solutions, and apply them in similar scenarios. Prof. Moser-Mercer also pointed out that all students go through the process of “Regression,” i.e. when it seems that they’re unlearning or not progressing as well as they did in the beginning, , which, according to her, is a very important stage since this is the time when skills are being consolidated. Great seminar!

Khan Academy

October 12, 2011

Hi everyone,

This information was sent to me by our TRIN student, Brady Bussman. Salman Khan created a website called the Khan Academcy in which he posts free video/audio lessons on different subjects, including math, biology, healthcare, calcululs, SAT preparation etc. You can watch a news piece about him on PBS NewsHour. What’s really cool about it is that he’s also inviting translators to volunteer their work to make such useful information available around the world. Through a very easy and interactive subtitling platform (Universal Subtitles), volunteer translators can add their translated subtitles immediately to the video. You can apply to become a volunteer translator directly on their website. You don’t have to finish your project right away. There’s an option to save and go back to it later. Also you can change a translation done by someone else if you think there’s something wrong with it. Try it out. I’m in the process of translating a video about “glucose insulin diabetes” into Brazilian Portuguese.

October 3, 2011

The second day of the conference started with a very interesting presentation on the challenges of interpreting profanity in healthcare settings. Titled “Nurse, I want my fu*** pills now!: Interpreting Profanity,” Alvaro Vergara-Mery started his talk by reminding us of the powerful auditory/oral aspect of taboo words, and how important it is to interpret them. In writing you can resort to other markers if you feel uncomfortable or due to institutional censorship, such as “fu***.” Alvaro also mentioned that interpreting profanity challenges our notions of “accuracy,” since there are many interpreters who don’t feel comfortable and end up circumventing the words or coming up with other strategies. Alvaro also talked about the reactions of interpreters when faced with profanity, such as laughter, blushing; reminding us of the importance of being aware of our body language during the encounter and that there’s a strong performance aspect to the work that we do. For interpreters working with Spanish, Alvaro reminded that dictionaries don’t help much since there are many regional variations and taboo words and slang change a lot over time. When asked about strategies to deal with interpretation of profanity, he said that in the hospital he works at interpreters are instructed to sometimes offer a second chance to speakers before rendering the interpretation, “Are you sure you want me to interpret that?”

The second panel of the day was by our very own Century College TRIN faculty, Rachel Herring.  Titled “Exploring Skill Acquisition and Expertise in (Medical) Interpreting,” Rachel talked about her investigation of the literature on conference interpreting and the steps interpreter trainers should follow to help students become experts at interpreting. Based on cognitive psychology, Rachel, reminded us of the importance of the four steps of deliberate practice; 1) Motivation; 2) Well Defined Task; 3) Feedback; and 4) Repetition; and that trainers should strive to simulate real-life in classroom settings and help students think critically about their interpretation process.

The last presentation of the day was by Cristiano Mazzei, coordinator of Century College’s TRIN program. Titled “Language Neutral Interpreter Training,” Cristiano talked about the creation of the TRIN program in Minnesota and how it differs from other language-specific curricula. By focusing on the process, critical thinking, cognitive analysis, and practice, students develop many of the key interpreting skills necessary to become professionals. He also mentioned the important mix of cultures in the classroom, and how it enhances students’ learning experience.

2011 IMIA International Conference on Medical Interpreting

October 1, 2011

Hi everyone

The 2011 IMIA conference started yesterday (Sept 30) in Boston, with important meetings of several of the IMIA committees, including Public Relations, Education, Ethics, and Advocacy.

The presentations started today (Oct. 1) with very interesting speakers. I attended a presentation titled “The Neuroscience of Cross Cultural Communication” by Juan Gutierrez. Juan talked about how emotions such as empathy and compassion are really wired in our brains, and that these feelings are increased in face-to-face communication. I wonder how this plays out if you’re using other means of interpreting, such as telephone and video. I think that’s another indication of the issues that need to be considered and discussed when using these other channels of interpretation.

The other interesting presentation I attended was titled “Interpreters in the FBI: Beyond Law Enforcement,” by Lawrence Taber. As the Assistant Section Chief for Operations in the FBI’s Foreign Language Program, Taber oversees foreign language operations across the country and around the world. He talked about some of the work that FBI “linguists” do that goes beyond law enforcement, including medical situations, such as when they have to interpret for individuals they’re protecting in hospitals or interpreting and translating for cases when there’s fraud involving Medicare/Medicaid. Unfortunately, the US government still refers to translators and interpreters as “linguists,” which creates a divide in the profession. I asked Taber if the FBI has a system in place to protect their translators/interpreters and their families in high-risk cases. Although he was a bit reticent about it, apparently there have been situations in which they had to protect the identity of their “linguists.” For those interested in pursuing a career in this industry, here’s a link to the FBI page with information about the hiring process of “linguists.”