Not So Rusty, After All

Five months have now passed since graduation. It almost seems unreal: the back to back classes, running from one classroom to the other with my head still spinning from the hard thinking and the hardcore feedback, the practice groups squeezed in between lunch and an afternoon practicum, followed by another two hours in the booth, headset on, doing more hard thinking.

Yes, it has been only five months, but it feels like it was years ago when I was sitting at one of those desks with my laptop open in front of me, trying hard not to check my email for the fifteenth time and pay attention to class; when I considered myself lucky if I could have half a sandwich for lunch; when there was literally no stopping from seven in the morning till ten or eleven at night; when the weekend was only a time when you could do homework straight all day without classes to interrupt. How we did it, I am still not sure. For me, it was the afternoon coffee and the thought that it would soon be over. Over it was, and I can barely believe it.

During all that time, I wondered what would happen to all the skills we so brutally cultivated once we were out of that environment, out of school and in the real world. Since I have mostly devoted my time to translation and editing, I had not had the opportunity to develop my interpreting skills further, in those real-world situations much touted by professors as being the real schooling in interpretation. I must confess that after final exams and graduation, I had been averting the sight of a notepad and a pen: I had had enough of overanalyzing my notes and meticulously studying the most effective application of a particular symbol. I was tired of beating myself up for not knowing things like the capital of Azerbaijan off the top of my head and having such a hard time keeping monetary policy and fiscal policy straight.

The prospect of an upcoming exam with a government agency did not spur me into action: November seemed so very far away. After graduation, I told myself I would take the rest of the summer off and resume practicing in August. But August was gone so quickly I hardly had time to unearth my empty notepads from the closet. September would be it, then. Except, of course, there was so much translation work coming in I could barely see the end of it. One day I finally made up my mind to create a very ambitious re-training calendar for daily practice. That too, went by the wayside after only three days.

It was the middle of October and a pang of guilt began to grip my heart. I can normally will myself to do things, but this one I seemed to be avoiding shamelessly. Why? Well fear of failure, of course: I was terrified of being confronted with the reality of losing my skills. I had expected to get better after graduation, when I had time to truly practice more freely. But during these past months, I had completely abandoned interpretation.

I did end up picking up pad and pen in recent weeks. I began practicing furiously two weeks ago when I saw, horrified, how I had forgotten many of my beloved symbols and I was taking ages to get through a whole segment because I kept getting stumped on minor things. My worst fear had been realized. But once I had confronted it, I could let go of it more easily. Fortunately, the effect of months without practice quickly wore off –as well as the panic.

And so the coat, the travel bag and the boots have begun their five-day trip to Washington, D.C. I have no hopes and no fears: even if I pass, it will be a long time before they call me to work. Who knows where I’ll be by then. But for now I guess the satisfaction of doing a good exam and proving to myself that I can still do it will be more than enough.

***

Re-training tips for consec:

If you’ve spent a long time without doing any interpretation, either for practice or professionally, begin by putting on a speech at medium difficulty and do your best. Record yourself. Evaluate your performance in terms of fluidity of the message, accuracy and note-taking skills. Compare them to one of your latest performances. Have you improved in any way? Have you lost your edge? Where exactly? Fight the urge to throw your arms up in despair and try to keep as cool a head as you can. Identify one thing you would like to do better (read ahead in your notes, write notes more legibly, not backtrack) and practice with the same speech, focusing on improving that one thing and that thing only. Practice again with the same goal or add a different one if you felt satisfied after your first run. Do a different speech and then evaluate it against your first one. I guarantee you’ll have done better. Put your notepad aside for the day and don’t pick it up until the next day.

Begin your practice with some sight translation of easier texts with shorter sentences (BBC News is ideal for this). Do a one-page article, then sight translate another with higher difficulty (The Economist, for example, is very challenging). Try to loosen up and let yourself go but do notice where exactly you get really stumped (for example, there are some words that for some reason always throw me, like outrage or staggering). Practice reading ahead, especially if you’re doing it from English into a foreign language, as English syntax tends to be treacherous and may leave you backed against a corner without a predicate.

After warming up with sight translation, practice a short speech on a topic you are familiar with and/or interested in, followed by a more difficult one. Try to practice with a variety of speeches: political (an address by Obama or Hillary Clinton, or any president or government official from whichever country you prefer; in my case I’ve been doing a lot of practicing with Hillary because she’s the Secretary of State, and therefore the speech template would probably resemble what I will encounter in my exam), interviews (these are challenging as they are highly extemporaneous so they will really help you develop resourcing skills, as you have to plan more carefully what you’re going to jot down), expositions (Ted Talks are very challenging and dense), and so on.

Try to allow at least five minutes in each practice for doing memory exercises, such as:

-Do a sight translation in which you read a sentence to yourself and then look away from the page and interpret as much as you can (recommended to me by a friend, who learned it from a dear interpretation professor of ours).

-Listen to about thirty to sixty seconds of a speech (just go by how it feels or increase time gradually) and interpret it from memory.

-Do a “bare-bones” note-taking session, in which you listen to a speech and only jot down one or two symbols per idea.

The point of these exercises is not to be able to develop the ability to jot down only one symbol per idea. They are designed rather to overflex your memory “muscle” and get limber. Once you’ve done one or two of these exercises, you’ll notice you’re able to take fewer notes and rely more on memory. However, they work on a session per session basis; that is, practicing them won’t make it better forever. They are merely a warm-up. (However, I imagine that after years of doing it memory does improve and notes become less copious.)

Finally, read: A LOT. Be fastidious about looking up every little thing that comes up that you don’t know about. Follow the news (I know, that’s the hardest thing for me). There really is no substitute for actually knowing things. Your memory will be less taxed trying to hold on to details, since it’s easier to recall things you’re already familiar with. True, you can’t possibly know all the presidents and capitals of all the countries of the world, but in the same speech that something unfamiliar is mentioned, you may know several other things, so that you can spend more resources on listening for unknowns.

If you have any tips or exercises that have worked for you, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section.

Well, on to the cold it is.

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