Friday, June 28, 2013

Interpreter Stress

Last week an old friend coaxed me out of retirement to give a couple of classes to his conference interpreting students. (They're in a Master in Conference Interpretation programme at a private Spanish university, the Universidad Europea.) A lively bunch, they got around to discussing with me the differences between interpreting and written translation.

The first thing they all mentioned was of course the medium: voice. (We didn't touch on sign language.) Cultivating a clear voice and for simultaneous, especially a pleasant microphone voice is important for Professional Interpreters but people don’t expect it of Natural Interpreters. So it’s beyond the scope of this blog, except to mention that there’s an article full of good advice about it by an experienced voice coach in the latest issue of The Linguist (see References).

The next thing on which there was general agreement was stress. This surprised me a little, coming from such young and untried interpreters, but it’s been a topic of discussion among Professional Interpreters for a long time. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) commissioned a Workload Study on interpreter stress and burnout which was completed in 2001 (see References):
“Undeniably interpreters face unrelenting stress. What form does it take? Should we consider it friend or foe? Can we control it; even make an ally of it?
"The data placed simultaneous interpretation in the category of high stress professions and... the data points to psychological and physiological costs. The factors most frequently mentioned as stressful by those participating in the study are difficulties to do with text and delivery (speed, read texts, strong accents, lack of background material and preparation time) and booth discomfort."
I would rank the causes of psychological stress as follows.

First speed. The Expert Written Translator may average 2,500 words a working day, which would be equivalent to about 400 words an hour. Any interpreter is expected to translate at a normal speaking rate of, say, 100 words per minute. It's amazing that translating can be done at this speed even by untrained interpreters, though they're allowed to ask a speaker to go more slowly.
Concentration. The interpreter listens to the speaker, but is no ordinary listener. The ordinary listener can skip what is difficult to understand, can afford at least a moment of inattention. The Expert Interpreter can't afford to miss anything. The Natural Interpreter has the luxury of at least being able to interrupt the speaker in order to do short consecutive; the Expert Interpreter must keep going. The mental effort required explains why conference interpreters, if they work to rule, change over every half hour or so. Longer stretches are possible but exhausting (though I've known conference interpreters go on alone for a whole day and court interpreters often have to do so).
Restricted resources. The written translator has a wealth of reference material to draw on, and even more so in this era of the internet. Although an occasional glance a dictionary or a scribbled note from a colleague may sometimes be possible, and Natural Interpreters have the possibility of asking speakers for clarification and even assistance, for 99% of the time the Expert Interpreters must rely on what's inside their own heads.
No opportunity for correction.The first version is the final version. Expert Written Translators can, indeed should, review their drafts and improve them, removing perceived errors. They can thereby reach a level of expression that is beyond the reach of Expert Interpreters, whose first thoughts are also their last. Natural Interpreters and sometimes Liaison Interpreters have more scope for "I think they mean... but perhaps it's... Let me check." However, they can't do a lot of it and remain coherent.
Public performance. Conference interpreting, and some of its extensions like interpreting for TV, are a performing art. Today the Expert Interpreter may be acoustically scrutinised, and on occasion criticised, by audiences of millions. It's the kind of scrutiny that actors and public speakers must endure, and student interpreters need to have a 'baptism of fire' of it as part of their training. It's also one reason most Professional Written Translators don't want to do interpreting; they prefer to work semi-anonymously at their quiet desks..

Researchers on Language Brokering have posited yet another kind of stress which affects that kind of Natural Interpreter, namely acculturative stress: "responding to competing demands of two cultural worlds on a daily basis" (see References).

The physiological stress level has been measured by objective indicators in conference interpreters:
"The physiological data collected was blood pressure, heart rate and salivary cortisol levels in a sample of 48 interpreters who wore monitors over a 24 hour period."
This was the kind of stress that forced me to give up conference interpreting permanently after a serious illness.

What can interpreters do to relieve stress?
  • Practice Transcendental Meditation (I did) or some other form of ‘yoga‘.
  • Smoke. Out of fashion socially. But there was a time, terminating around 1980, when conference interpreters smoked, even chain-smoked, in the booth. There’s an old United Nations video that shows it unabashed (see References).
  • Take all necessary measures to stay fit. My cardiologist says that mental stress never killed anybody who was in good shape physically.
After so much that sounds negative, is there a good side to interpreter stress? In the late 1960s, I happened to be working at the University of Montreal directly under the offices of a great pioneer of research on stress, Hans Selye (see References). I learnt from one his lectures that stress is a normal condition, not something to be afraid of. There's a noteworthy finding in the AIIC study:
"No correlation was found between the physiological indices and performance levels."
But to take it a step further, perhaps the stress is necessary for the topmost level of performance, as in other performing arts. The AIIC study didn't include adrenalin levels.

  • Sandy Walsh. Release the voice within. The Linguist, June/July 2013, pp. 10-11. You can read it here.
  • Jennifer Mackintosh. The AIIC workload study - executive summary. 2003. Click here.
  • Hans Selye. The Wikipedia article about him is here
  • Robert S. Weisskirch and Sylvia Alatorre Alva. Language brokering and the acculturation of Latino children. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 24, 2002. Full text here.
  • United Nations Organization. Other Voices. New York: United Nations Film Services, c1975. 27 mins. Although it's old, this is still a classic introduction for students and the general public. I have it on CD if anybody wants a copy. 
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