Getting better

2014 still is, or at least feels, rather fresh to me. And there is one topic currently taking shape that I may just be crazy about this year: Getting better at what I do and doing the best work possible. I have heard from several colleagues so far that they want to do less this year, but do what they do better.

Over the holidays, I read (well, listened to) Cal Newport's excellent book "So good they can't ignore you". It was comedian Steve Martin who originally coined the phrase, and I think it is absolutely spot on. Although Newport's book is not about interpreting, it contains several concepts that I plan to apply to my work, and maybe you'll also want to:

  • "Follow your passion" is BS. How I became a conference interpreter is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I never said to myself this was the only career I would ever pursue. Newport argues that finding a job to match your passion is bad advice, and I agree. Having a passion for languages/communication/helping people/whatever does not make you a good interpreter. Working hard does.

  • Try to create work you love. This is not only about external factors and circumstances (such as low rates, unappreciative clients, bad working environments). While we all have to pay the bills, we should strive as much as possible to make our work worthwhile.

  • Practice deliberately. I won't even attempt to discuss how interpreters should practice - people like Andrew Clifford or Andy Gillies do a stellar job at that. And Elisabet Tiselius (of Tulkur fame) has given a very insightful talk at last year's InterpretAmerica conference where she points out that many things we don't even consider practice actually are. Why don't you watch her talk right now?

So how do I get better as an interpreter? 

You can’t just practice blindly. You have to develop an inner yardstick. You have to identify problems in your performance and correct them before they become too deeply ingrained to change.
— Andrew Clifford

Presumably, there has been just as much discussion about what a good interpreter is as about whether interpreters are born or made. In her talk, Elisabet points to habits that interpreters develop during training (such as reading differently). I really like how she posits that all these habits are practice and make up a whole. In order to make practice effective, both Tiselius and Newport point out, it has to be deliberate and conscious: Know what exactly you want to practice and what your goal is. During training, this is relatively easy because we have several external incentives (trainer, fellow students, exams).

Once we start our career, though, it gets more difficult. "Just working" is not necessarily the same as practice, but might - as Andrew Clifford points out - serve "to fossilize the hallmarks of low quality into [one's] interpreting". The work routine (and other things in life, such as becoming a parent) often makes it harder to work on one's interpreting technique, note-taking chops or intonation. Some may even feel they don't need to do that anymore. We may even feel uncomfortable about challenging ourselves, examining our own performance under the microscope, exposing ourselves to criticism. At some point, we all have taken interpreting tests and we know how difficult it can be not to take criticism too personal.

Still, most of us work on our languages, add new ones, get into new topics and terminology out of sheer personal motivation. We feel good when communication succeeds because we are involved. Elisabet calls this "internal incentives". But which external incentives exist for working interpreters? A few points:

While I'm not convinced of Elisabet's idea to endow an "Oscar for interpreting", I do like her other suggestions (platforms for continuous training, "boot camps", coaches). I believe there is a large untapped potential here. Now, what do you think? How are you trying to get better? And how good is "good enough"?

My talk at the OCPE conference in Utrecht

A day in the life of a tablet interpreter