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Feedback: Going Beyond “That Was Great”

Giving and receiving feedback is great when you know how!
Giving and receiving feedback is great when you know how!

Interpreting practice and feedback are important.  One of my grad school professors wrote an article about peer assessment that inspired me to write about my own experience.  Practice with a partner or in groups involves giving feedback to others, and in turn accepting others’ feedback.  It requires a lot of work from everyone involved.  It’s not just a matter of half-listening and then telling your practice partner, “Yeah, that was great.”

In 2012, I practiced alone and with a partner to prep for my state court exams.  In 2015, I prepped the staff interpreters at my hospital Language Services department for their national certification exams. That same year, I prepped for my transition exams to be admitted to the second year of my graduate program, and then I passed my exit exams and graduated. Here’s what I’ve learned about feedback in interpreting practice, and how to make the best use of your time.

Set goals:  Set your own goals for how you want to get better.  How do you know what your goals are?  By practicing and listening to yourself and getting feedback from those who listen to you! I set my goals based on self-assessment (listening to recordings of myself interpreting) and the feedback I get from classmates and instructors. It takes a large volume of interpreting practice to see patterns and know what your real issues are.

For example, I listen to recordings of myself and notice that I have trouble expressing myself in a natural way (I sound like I’m speaking English with Spanish syntax).  Or maybe I have trouble keeping up with the speaker, and that’s reflected in really long pauses, or pauses in the middle of sentences. Or maybe I have trouble because I say the exact opposite of what the speaker means. Maybe I just didn’t understand like, half the speech. We all have challenges with interpreting. There is not enough room on the internets for me to list all the challenges I’ve had and currently have with interpreting.  The important thing is to ask, “Why?”

When you practice with a partner, give him or her your goals so you can get specific feedback. Expect your goals to change over time. If you’re preparing for exam, consider basing your goals on the criteria that will be used to score your exam, such as accuracy, tone, and delivery. If you’re just starting out with something really tough, it’s okay if your goal is to just keep going and not give up.

Start with self assessment: When you practice with a partner, let the interpreter take the lead on the assessment.  Since the interpreter already set their own practice goals, ask, “How do you think you met your objectives?”  Then you can go from there and give your feedback.

How to give feedback? I like to make two columns in my notebook: A smiley column and a not-smiley column.  That way I can organize the notes I take down while my classmate is interpreting. If a classmate says she’s working on not using false cognates, I will note down the false cognates in the not-smiley column, and then the really well-phrased, natural sounding language in the smiley column.  That way, I can balance the critique with what the interpreter did really well.

Give general and specific feedback:  An overall picture of the interpreting is helpful.  For example, “I could follow your logic throughout”, “You finished all your sentences”, “Your voice sounds calm”.  These are all general comments that are important, and especially over time, your classmate will get the same general comments and have an idea of his or her strengths and weaknesses.

Specific feedback is important, too.  This requires specific goals.  If your classmate’s goals aren’t clear to you, ask questions so you can give specific feedback.  For example, if I set a vague goal like, “I want to sound natural”, I appreciate it when I’m pushed to define what it means to “sound natural”. Is it the tone? The phrasing and syntax? You can’t give or get specific feedback unless the practice goals are specific.

Ask for what you need:  Interpreting practice is not easy. That doesn’t mean that we should expect anyone to hold our hands through it and stroke our egos just so we can feel good. What that means is recognizing what your needs are as an interpreter trainee. We need the feedback. But sometimes it can feel like too much information.  Sometimes it can feel like a wave of critique. Sometimes it feels like, Do I Ever Do Anything Right? I’ve been there. I’ve been there for extended periods of time, and it’s exhausting. If you’re going through the Do I Ever Do Anything Right phase, let your practice partners know. Let them know what your goals are, and that you appreciate their critical ears, but that you need them to tell you just one thing that they think you did well during the interpretation.

Take that first step: Everyone is different, and not everyone is comfortable with practice and feedback. When you practice with someone, let them know what you need.   They will appreciate it! If they don’t tell you what they need, ask! Have a conversation about it. We get so focused on practice, that we can forget about actually getting to know the person we’re practicing with. It’s important to build relationships with interpreters we’re going to give feedback to, and who will give feedback to us.

Receiving feedback: Remember that when you ask someone for feedback, they are agreeing to make an effort towards improving your interpreting practice. They are taking time out to listen to you, make notes, and explain to you what went well and what didn’t, and maybe offer suggestions for improvement. When someone gives you feedback that doesn’t make sense to you, ask more questions about it. But I would not recommend making a habit of challenging it outright in a defensive “I’m right, you’re wrong” way.

Your practice partners: They can be anyone. They should be anyone. I interpret from Spanish into English, and vice versa. I work with practice partners who speak both those languages on different levels. Also people who don’t speak Spanish, but speak Portuguese and/or French, and they have different feedback. Also people who understand English but don’t speak a romance language. All of their feedback is important. Even someone who is monolingual can give you really important feedback on things like your delivery, and the logical flow of what you’re saying.

Know when to back off:  If your usually-chill practice partner seems grumpy, or unusually defensive, maybe offer to call it a day, or go easy on the feedback.  Sometimes it can feel like a wave of critique. Same goes for you. If you’re just not feeling it, call it a day.  Alternatively, as I did recently: I couldn’t stand to do one more interpretation myself, so I offered to listen to my partner during the time I was slotted to interpret, and give feedback. That doesn’t give you permission to just give up all the time though. In the last six months, I can count on one hand the times when I’ve just thrown in the towel, usually because I’ve been over-doing it and need a break.

Bonus tip: It can’t be fun and games all the time, but know when it’s time to make room to laugh.  Mostly at yourself.  Seriously.

In general, when it comes to interpreting practice, I’ve found the formula to be this: Set goals, do the practice, let the interpreter self-assess, and then let the listener give his or her feedback.  What’s your experience with feedback?  What other tips do you have to share?  Let us all know in the comments!

PS If you’re looking for tips on how to practice by yourself when you don’t have a partner, check out this post.

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