Interpreter competence and practice

Educators are on a quest to find ways to add value to the industry through high-quality teaching. We ask what most professionals and practitioners cannot achieve in its fullest sense and in an efficient way through field experience and self-instruction alone, and where they need formal training. This is exactly where an educational program can help contribute to the market.

When it comes to the field of interpreter education, however, this can be a rather daunting task. For many people, interpreting is not an academic subject, even though it is often taught at universities. As Andrew Gilles pointed out in his 2013 book Conference Interpreting, interpreting is a combination of skills that one can explain and understand quite quickly, but which take a far longer time to master in practice. It is the difficulty of acquiring the interpreter skills that makes this profession seem far beyond the reach of many people.

On the other hand, does it mean knowledge is not important in interpreter training? The short answer to this question is no. According to Daniel Gile’s 2009 Basic Concepts and Models for Interpreter and Translator Training, interpreter competence consists of four components: (1) good passive knowledge of their passive working languages; (2) good command of their active working languages; (3) sufficient knowledge of the themes and subject-matters addressed by the texts or speeches they interpret; and (4) both declarative and procedural knowledge about interpretation. Of these four components, only the fourth is related to skills. Here, I will discuss the relationship between knowledge and skills in interpreter competence and the role of practice in the acquisition process of the competence.


Knowledge and skills in interpreter competence

Interpreters should possess both knowledge and skills so as to function adequately on the job. First, interpreters should have good knowledge of languages, including both their passive working languages (also known as interpreters’ B languages) and active working languages (also known as interpreters’ A languages). In real-life interpreting assignments, one of the most significant issues for an interpreter is comprehension. If an interpreter cannot understand the source speech, all of the interpreting coping strategies can only serve to cover the issue, rather than to solve it. Sometimes when interpreters cannot find a way to hide the issue, they fail the task.

This language-related knowledge cannot be achieved only through interpreting practice. Research shows that interpreting practice is an efficient way to help improve language proficiency. However, an interpreting training program should never confuse interpreting skills with language knowledge or skills. Students with low language proficiency levels need to sign up for extra language enhancement courses, such as intensive writing, grammar and diction classes, to improve their language proficiency in both their active working languages and passive working languages. 

Second, interpreters need to have sufficient knowledge of the themes and subject matters addressed by the speeches they interpret. This content knowledge provides interpreters with the context for their assignments, including relevant glossary, concepts and cultural background. Interpreters may also choose to specialize in a certain domain or a number of domains. In the real-life working environment, we find that the roles of subject-matter experts and interpreters are interchangeable in some circumstances. For example, a doctor may work as an interpreter for a medical conference or an interpreter in the domain of politics becomes a political officer. In China, for example, quite a few high-level political officers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to work as interpreters.

Again, content knowledge cannot be achieved only by interpreting practice, even though interpreting practice may reinforce an interpreter’s understanding of a certain topic. Students need to take relevant courses or read extensively in areas such as intercultural communication, political rhetoric, health communication and computer science to deepen their content knowledge of subject matters.

Third, there is some knowledge that can be transited from knowledge to skills. Daniel Gile discussed two types of knowledge, namely, declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. According to him, “declarative knowledge” is the kind of knowledge that can be described in words, which includes such knowledge as knowledge about the marketplace, about clients and about behavioral norms governing interpreter practice. “Procedural knowledge” is the ability to actually perform action. It refers to “technical skills” such as techniques for language enhancement and maintenance, for note-taking in consecutive, and for anticipation in simultaneous interpreting.

It is in the procedural knowledge that interpreting practice plays a key role. This type of knowledge provides guidelines for students to practice skills. Interpreting skill sets include many aspects. For example, Conference Interpreting summarizes the basic skill set for an interpreter as (1) delivery, active listening and analysis, memory and recall, note-taking, reformulation, self-monitoring and split attention in consecutive interpreting; and (2) delivery, split attention, time lag, anticipation, reformulation, self-monitoring and stress management in simultaneous interpreting.


Skills acquisition for interpreters

How does one achieve the above-mentioned skills? The process of acquisition consists of three stages: initial skill acquisition, skill compilation and skill automaticity.

In the process of initial skill acquisition, interpreters can transit their declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge. In other words, through doing interpreting exercises and reproducing trained behavior, students start to acquire skills. At this stage, students may make several mistakes in their first attempt and need to repeat the exercises many times. At the beginning of the interpreting training, it is a good idea for the students to practice with the same source speech several times. Usually it is recommended that each speech be interpreted twice in practice. When interpreting, students need to record their first attempt of interpreting, listen to it, highlight the places that are not well interpreted, rethink the way to translate them, sometimes do some research to find a better way to render the meaning in the source speech and finally do the interpreting again. If the second attempt is satisfactory, students can move on to another speech. It is always better to do it again than to rush to the next speech.

Compilation skills occur with continued practice beyond initial successes at reproducing trained behavior. Performance at this stage is characterized by faster, less error-prone performance and by the integration of discrete steps into a single act. In interpreting practice, this also means fewer times that students or interpreters may need to practice with the same source speech and hence their interpreting practice can be more extensive and involve more types of source speeches.

The subsequent stage for skill acquisition is the automaticity stage. At this stage, students not only perform tasks quickly but also are able to maintain parallel rather than successive processing of activities. Interpreting in this sense is very much like one of the most difficult sports. Through practice, trainees started from initial skill acquisition to skill compilation and then to the subsequent automaticity stage. The ultimate goal of interpreting training is that students can draw upon a solid reserve of automatic reflexes so that they can free their mind for those parts of the interpretative process that need their fullest attention. At this stage, students should possess sufficient knowledge in language and content and they are more likely to detect the appropriate situations for using a skill and to have their own style of interpreting.


Mixed structures

Both knowledge and skills are essential components of interpreter competence. These two aspects are supplementary to each other rather than contradictory. For example, if students have a better knowledge about the thematic field and their working languages (both A and B languages), they may not need to practice with the same speech many times in their practice, even at the initial skill acquisition stage. If a student has a better knowledge of his or her working languages and of content knowledge in most of the interpreting domains, he or she will be the top student in class and will shorten the time spent on the initial acquisition stage and the skill compilation stage, hence achieving the goal of skill automaticity earlier. 

In some circumstances, people mix the concept of practicing skills with that of learning knowledge in their tasks. For example, some students may spend a long time on a specific task because they also want to memorize some vocabulary and learn some content knowledge through the interpreting exercise. Even though a good source speech could help students with both aspects, it would be better if the students were aware of this difference in advance so that they could manage their time efficiently in their practice outside class.

Two models for interpreters

One big difference between a trained interpreter and a self-taught interpreter is in the sequence of acquaintance and the structure of knowledge and skills. A trained interpreter may start with knowledge and move down to specific skill sets acquisition by practice. A self-instructed interpreter, on the other hand, starts from the bottom. He or she first practices interpreting and then gradually moves up to the knowledge stage. This interpreter might reflect on his or her own interpreting behaviors, or resort to some discussions about interpreting, for example, from an experienced interpreter’s blog or from published books.

The top-down and bottom-up models describe the starting point of an interpreter’s competence achievement process as well as the possible direction of learning. However, they do not necessarily mean that an interpreter will definitely move in that direction. In other words, a person may start from the knowledge about interpreting but does not practice; hence this person can only talk about interpreting but cannot do interpreting. In another extreme scenario, a person may only be able to do interpreting but does not aim to or is not able to talk about interpreting. Both extreme cases of learning models are insufficient.


A balanced approach

In the educational setting, the whole interpreting curriculum should aim to achieve a balanced structure of knowledge and skills. Knowledge can be taught in multilingual classrooms and different courses may end up emphasizing the same set of core knowledge from various perspectives, such as courses of interpreting methodology, interpreting studies and intercultural communication.

On the other hand, students can practice and acquire interpreting skills in language-specific classrooms, where active interpreters working in the market will act as instructors. These might include staff interpreters working in the State Department, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Organization of American States. Students will greatly benefit from these instructors’ valuable experiences and feedback in their acquisition process of interpreter competence.