Aspects of interpreting

18 August 2014

Simulations of interpreting situations have introduced a whole new dimension to interpreter training at Faculty 06: Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at the Germersheim campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Here students assume various roles and experience aspects of interpreting that can otherwise be given only little attention. The idea is to enable them to develop empathy, understand body language, and much more.

D. was forced into an arranged marriage nine years ago. Her husband is much older than she is. During her marriage, the 42-year-old has suffered terrible abuse. For a while, she found consolation in religion but then at some point even that ceased to offer comfort. She took her children and fled to a women's shelter in Germany.

Her husband is now demanding to be reunited with her. There is an ominous atmosphere – threats are not only being issued by the husband but also by members of his family and the local community. The authorities want D. to leave the region to put some distance between her and her husband to ensure her safety. But D. does not want to go. Discussions need to be held in the shelter where the problems are located and also with the authorities. But there is a major stumbling block: D. speaks no German.

Simulated situation

JGU's Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies in Germersheim uses D.'s story as a scenario in an innovative new approach to training interpreters. Dr. Şebnem Bahadır's team of trainers takes real cases and then uses them as a material for their unique training project: Interpreting as stagecraft.

One of Bahadır's responsibilities is the module "Specialist Interpreting in Social, Medical, and Legal Areas," a Master's degree specialization within the Intercultural German Studies program at the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies. She introduced the interpreter scenario simulation methods in 2013 and now wants to apply it to other areas of translator training.

The interpreting scenarios are prepared, rehearsed, and performed using theater training methods over a period of two days. Bahadır gets outside experts to help. For this session, she has managed to get hold of Petra Wolf, head of the women's shelter in Bad Kreuznach, the psychologist Thekla Goschniak of the Frankenthal women's shelter, as well as interpreter and psychotherapist Inge Pinzker of Vienna. They slip into the roles of D.'s contacts while the students play all the other roles. They have a go at playing D., but their primary concern is to try out what it is like being an interpreter in a wide range of different interview situations.

The simulated interview

Pinzker, the interpreter, and D. all sit facing one another. Their chairs form a triangle. "I want to know what is troubling you, what you are thinking," says Pinzker. D. fiddles with her scarf, looks to the interpreter and then to the psychotherapist. D. looks bewildered, perhaps afraid.

The interpreter fusses with a notebook and is evidently trying to remain as objective as possible. He interprets between Turkish and German and back again. "She is very afraid and is also worried what might happen to her children." – "Is fear your dominant emotion?," inquires Pinzker. The interpreted answer: "Yes, I'm in a foreign country that I do not know anything about."

A camera records the situation. Observing the trio are four students, Birsen Serinkoz as one of Bahadır's co-trainers, and Bahadır herself, who can barely remain seated. She interrupts the enactment after a few minutes.

"My first question is always for the interpreter. How did you feel? How do you think it went?" – "I couldn't decide whether to use the first or the third person," says the student reflecting on the scenario. "I also find it difficult to describe emotions." The student playing D. gives her impression: "I did not feel any affinity with the interpreter."

The details of interpreting

Bahadır then expresses her view and talks about the situation in the room. How are the three seated? Is the arrangement ideal for this? She mentions the interpreter's notebook. "You used it as a crutch." The other students also chip in: what got interpreted, what was left out, what was modified? Many of the seemingly minor details are discussed. Their importance suddenly becomes clear.

Critique like that could intimidate, could hurt – but it doesn’t here. The tone assumed during the exercise is never derogatory, the criticism is always meant to be constructive. Sometimes there even is a little light relief thanks to a touch of humor or because of Bahadır's own special form of input. She more than makes up for whatever her interpreting students may lack in expressiveness. Empathy is not only an important aspect of interpreting, but is also part of her teaching method.

On this first day, the simulation is played through in small groups. Extensive support is provided. Bahadır works with four co-trainers. A variety of interviews with D. are held in three languages in three different locations. Sometimes D. is Russian, at other times she speaks Arabic or Turkish.

The focus is on aspects that are often overlooked in the standard interpreter training curriculum, such as emotions, non-verbal communication, roles and power, cultural and personal aspects from the perspective of both the interpreters and their clients.

Safe space

"We work on interpreting skills bit by bit over two semesters," explains Serinkoz. "We use relatively little written material. Everybody needs to find their own form of expression. We always start with the space itself, with the configurations in which people sit. Then we focus on body language and other signals." The Russian co-trainer Anna Hermann adds: "We try to ensure that everyone gets a feeling for how their body works." Thus, the interviews are recorded on video as an aid that students can view at any time.

Bahadır's innovative teaching project is being sponsored by the Gutenberg Teaching Council at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and by the Rhineland-Palatinate Ministry for Integration, Family, Children, Youth, and Women. A large number of external experts from various fields also provide support and some of them even participate regularly in the simulations. "It is important that these people come to us at the university," says Bahadır. "Here we provide the students with a safe space in which they can try and learn."

D. is in another interview now, this time with Goschniak, the psychologist. A student plays D. as a slightly disoriented, depressed woman. The focus is on everyday problems in the shelter. D.'s roommates, a Pole and an Eritrean, have complained about the smell of cooking and D.'s eating habits. D. refuses to accept that she also has to do her part to alleviate tensions. The interpreter has problems with D. and with the situation in general. She takes notes but then loses her thread.

This is the point at which co-trainer Yasmine Khaled intervenes and shifts the focus back to the details. "Do you feel that the notebook helped?" And so off they go again. The two days are a rough ride for everyone involved. D.'s case is undoubtedly difficult – and the challenges of interpreting don't make it any less problematic.