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The Interpreter and the Sandwich, or: Why Feedback Is Not About Your Feelings

Feedback forms from my work in this year’s co>lab interpreting intensive in Mexico City. These comments from colleagues are like nuggets of gold!

There’s a funny thing about feedback and interpreters. We all claim that when it comes to feedback: Tell it to us like it is! Don’t mince words! I can take it! Bring it on! As if feedback is this awful thing we must brace ourselves for.

I’ve (very generally) seen feedback divided into two main camps: We should be gentle in our feedback so that we protect the interpreter’s self esteem. Or, we should just tell it to them straight because this is the real world and clients aren’t going to handle them with such care. But there’s another approach that is considerate, yet straightforward: We should base our feedback on goals that are established by the interpreter so that it is useful.

Ta-da! Forget about positive and negative. Feedback needs to be useful.

Quality, useful feedback is not necessarily meant to build up or break down feelings, but to improve on what is there. There are some different approaches to this, which brings us to the sandwich.

We should base our feedback on goals that are established by the interpreter so that it is useful.

The sandwich approach to feedback works like this: You start with something “positive” (your voice is so pleasant!), then insert the “negative” (I wrote down this list of prepositions you got wrong, and here I wrote down the words you mispronounced, and then here’s a list of phrases that I think would sound better, did you say this is your B or your C language?), and then close with something “positive” (did I mention how pleasant your voice is?!). If the interpreter has just asked the feedback-giver to comment on the logical flow of the interpreting, this can potentially turn into the awful thing we brace ourselves for (in spite of the “positive” elements), rather than useful feedback.

Ironically, while the sandwich is meant to spare our feelings, I’m not sure it does anything approaching that.

Years ago, when I was supervising a language services department, I was trained to give feedback using the sandwich. It never sat right with me, so I abandoned it, though I was occasionally subjected to it as a grad student. After “your voice is really nice, like, so nice” I would brace myself for what I knew was about to come.

But an interpreter-driven, goal-based approached to feedback doesn’t demand this artificial construct of positive-negative-positive. In fact, it gets rids of positive and negative altogether. The interpreter on the receiving end shouldn’t feel like feedback is something that happens to them, or like they are a victim of feedback. And the interpreter who’s giving the feedback shouldn’t have to squirm, wondering how to deliver feedback. (In an interpreter-driven model, the interpreter gives their impression of their performance first, and they’ll most likely be the first to identify any trouble spots.)

An alternative to the sandwich, or sweating about how we will deliver or receive feedback, is that feedback should be made to be not “positive” and “negative”, but “useful”. And the interpreter gets to decide what is useful, and it has nothing to do with feeling good or bad. Feedback that is unnecessarily harsh or personal isn’t negative–It is useless. It’s easy (and I would say lazy, too) to jot down a list of prepositions and calques, thoughtlessly spew off your judgement of another’s performance without their goals in mind. But it takes real effort, skill, and consideration, to give useful feedback that is based on someone else’s goals.

So who does this, and how do we know how to do it? In grad school I was trained to set goals, and give and receive feedback. It was the cornerstone of my training as a conference interpreter. Earlier this year, I attended the week-long co>lab interpreting intensive in which I gave and received feedback, and we received instructions on how to go about it, so that we were all on the same page. There are also other online practice groups, like InterpretimeBank, that provide a platform for professional interpreters to give and receive feedback.

In time I’ve learned that I am the one who gets to decide what feedback is useful to me.

With all of that in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that we can have bad experiences with feedback, experiences we leave feeling bad about not just our interpreting, but also about ourselves as interpreters and maybe even as people. I feel I’m done brooding over those experiences (for better or for worse, they shaped me as a conference interpreter and a trainer), so I’ll just say that I’ve had my share, and in retrospect I realize that every single time it was because it was not focused on goals–Sometimes I was lazy or confused about my goals, or I didn’t assert how I wanted to receive feedback, or sometimes the person giving the feedback disregarded my goals and went straight for the kill with something very personal. In time I’ve learned that I am the one who gets to decide what feedback is useful to me.

I don’t want to discount the importance of our feelings and the impact they have on our work. There is also a cultural element to the teacher-student dynamic that I’m not going to address here (but feel free to speak to this in the comments). Having said all this, I think it would be a mistake to apply a black-and-white model to giving and receiving feedback. As an interpreter, the way I feel about the work that I do, and about the people I interpret for is a fundamental part of my performance. I must feel some level of empathy for the people I’m working with, and I must feel invested in the communication. But feelings about the people we work with in interpreting gets into a tangent that is a blog post for another time.

What about you? What’s been your experience with feedback? How do you like to give and get yours?

Wondering about the how-to’s of feedback? Read my earlier post, Feedback: Going Beyond “That Was Great”



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