Recently at work, I emailed an interpreter to say I’d be shadowing her. Almost immediately I saw the flashing red light on my Blackberry: “You’re shadowing me? I think I’m nervous!” Really?! Who’s nervous about lil’ ole’ me shadowing her work? Oh, OK. So, just ’cause I’m a good sport, and wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself, I offered, “How about if we shadow each other? It’ll be fun!” I never heard back, and I put the shadowing date on our calendars.
Why was this seasoned interpreter nervous to be shadowed by me? I started to get nervous myself. Is there something that should make me nervous about being shadowed that I don’t know about yet?
It got me to thinking about the solitary work of interpreters. We work with lots of people, but not with other interpreters. Unless we’re in training, we don’t have a lot of opportunities for another interpreter to observe our work. Even if there’s an established procedure for a supervisor to evaluate interpreters’ work, that’s probably on a yearly basis, and for a an interpreter working 40 hours a week, once a year isn’t a whole lot.
So, how do we know we’re doing it right? Sure, there are interpreted encounters where I walk out of the room thinking, I really knocked that one out of the park! Unfortunately, we might not always be the best judges of our own work. In a common exercise to develop simultaneous interpreting skills, I played a CD of a dialogue in English and Spanish, and recorded myself interpreting on a digital recorder. Then, I listened to the digital recording of my interpretation, with the dialogue playing in the background. When I compared the recording of my interpretation with the written dialogue, I was kinda surprised that it wasn’t, well, super awesome.
So, even if I feel like I’m doing it right, how do I get from doing it right to being super awesome? Well, some feedback from a shadow would be helpful. In the single interpretation I did with my shadow recently, I got feedback that was like little nuggets of gold. She pointed out to me that the word I use for scale in Spanish (like, the scale you get weighed on) in Spanish is very high register, and I might consider this other lower register word. And then we talked about how, after all these years, if patients didn’t understand my scale word, I never realized it because, when called upon to interpret this word, (“Go ahead and put the baby on the scale”), within the presence of a scale, they didn’t really need to understand the word, because it was clear given the context! Ah-ha!
(Friends, if this type of conversation is not riveting to you, then interpreting is not for you. Just sayin’.)
My shadow also witnessed me choke as I struggled to recall a word in Spanish: part-time. As in, Do you work full or part-time?
Ask an interpreter what words throw her for a loop, and they’ll tell you that it’s “The easiest ones, the ones I know!” Want some really lively discussion? Ask a group if interpreters this same question, and brace yourself for a barrage of stories, like about that time an interpreter choked on the word for soup (full disclosure: that was me, and for a second all I could come up with was the Spanish word for soap). The worst, interpreters will tell you, is when, in those agonizing few seconds it takes to recall that simple word, the patient you’re interpreting for jumps in and beats you to it with the correct word. “Sopa”. Aaarrgghh!
If you’re wondering what I witnessed when I was the shadow, I would describe it as super awesome. I watched the interpreter skate back and forth between English and Spanish in the quick bop-bop-bop pace of the dialogue, intervene with her own voice in order to clarify what was said when she needed more information, and then effortlessly transition back to interpreting. Great health care interpreting does not mean that the interpreter knows every word. It means that the interpreter knows when she doesn’t know a word, and then she negotiates that situation without disrupting the flow of conversation.
This is what interpreters do. I felt proud.
So, I’m sending out a call for interpreters to shadow each other, without fear. There’s this misconception, especially among new interpreters, that we have to be “perfect”, and that perfection lies in knowing everything. Knowing all the words. But we need to see each other being not “perfect”. We need to see each other using word equivalents that we hadn’t considered before. We need to approach things from a new perspective. Not the perspective of, You’re doing this wrong and I’m going to show you how to do it right, but rather, This is how you do it and this is how I do it and now let’s figure out a way to make it super awesome.
That Interpreter is an old school movie gal. Do you know about Me and My Shadow? Have you seen Donald O’Connor dance? The beginning is awkward, and he trips over himself. That’s how interpreting can be sometimes. And that’s okay. But when interpreting goes right, it’s like the rest of the choreographed dance, smooth and beautiful, and seemingly effortless. And when he steps behind the screen to dance, you see him dancing still, with the larger image of his shadow cast before you. And that’s what interpreting is: A smooth dance, with a much larger purpose at hand: The community, the people, something bigger than me and you. And we can see it only in the overcast of our shadow.