Educational and personal discomfort in interpreter training

by M. Haldimann

Two prolific bloggers have weighed in on our discussion of interpreter training didactics sharing their own experience as interpreting students and teachers. In Elisabet we have found another champion of a more modular approach in order to practice specific sub-skills or certain interpreting situations such as exams. In her post she points out, however, that most interpreting courses lack the funding to provide a more diverse curriculum with enough teaching time, a lower student-staff ratio and good connections to outside experts. Jana, on the other hand, cautions against giving students too much time in the comfort zone as the freelance interpreting market will not cut them any slack either. On that note, I would like to get closer to the core of this fuzzy term ‘comfort zone’ by introducing the distinction between educational discomfort and personal discomfort.

By educational discomfort I simply mean the frustration when struggling to master a new skill. It cannot be helped and is part of any learning process. I am sure many will agree that this particularly applies to learning simultaneous interpreting. As much as you might practice shadowing and sight translation beforehand, you will never quite be ready to tackle your first few weeks of actually practicing in the booth without feeling some measure of frustration.

However, after a while our neurons will ideally have aligned to the demands of their new task(s) and we will gradually become more comfortable while interpreting. I think it is this easing of educational discomfort that Brian Fox warned us about in his speech at the DG Interpretation – Universities Conference back in March. He described his experience of teaching students as a very comfortable routine. He would always read the speeches the same way, the students would always sit in the same booths, they would always discuss their performances following the same pattern and so on. It is this comfort zone, this protective bubble he asked us to leave constantly stimulating our neurons with new challenges in order to prepare ourselves better for EU accreditation exams and, as Jana has pointed out, indeed for the demands of our professional practice in general. As a case in point, Andreas’ recent post about his first assignment perfectly illustrates the fact that interpreting in the real world is fundamentally different from interpreting in your final exams.

I completely agree that we should embrace educational discomfort as a sign of our gradually improving interpreting skills. We should leave the comfort of our cosy classroom routine more often. However, this should not come at the cost of the underlying positive and reinforcing atmosphere in class. Educational discomfort should not be confused with personal discomfort. Nor should the need for the former serve as an excuse for creating the latter.

I was rather taken aback by one particular comment during the Q&A after the second day of the DG Interpretation – Universities Conference. One head of department mentioned Brian Fox’ call to chase students out of their comfort zone as vindication of the austere classroom regime their department was traditionally notorious for. Judging by the amusement this comment caused in the other participants I am sure it must have been an ironic jibe. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to make sure we all agree that interpreting class need not be living hell.

As Elisabet has pointed out, interpreter training is traditionally tough. The question is to what extent this image has emerged because of the inevitable educational discomfort and to what extent because of an excess of personal discomfort: The fear of failure, feelings of inferiority, humiliation.

I think we can all agree and might even have experience ourselves that if not properly managed educational discomfort can lead to personal discomfort. Equally undisputed, I think, is the fact that personal discomfort is a huge obstacle to progress in any interpreter’s training. In my view, the resources to manage educational discomfort and to avoid excessive personal discomfort can be found in the people involved in interpreting class themselves, students and teachers alike, and in their relationships to each other. Students can be brought to explicitly reflect on their educational discomfort learning to appreciate it as a sign of a healthy learning process. Together, teachers and students can create a reinforcing classroom culture that values mutual support over competitiveness. In the psychology of the interpreting classroom trust is not an abstract concept but can be systematically built and put to use in order to boost progress in learning.

I am not only hypothesising here. During my own training I have seen these resources tapped into, though more often instinctively than strategically, and yet it made all the difference. However, I have so far not found any research to back my ideas. My guess is that the concepts I have touched upon are well established in educational psychology and didactics but have never been specifically discussed in how they apply to interpreter training. For the time being, I would submit that properly harnessing the dynamics of interpreting classroom psychology considerably reduces personal discomfort in interpreting students thus helping them develop their skills faster and more thoroughly.