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Do Webinars Work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 10, 2016

They have become ubiquitous in most industries. The ease with which we can now beam live audio and video over large distances has led to an explosion in online training in the form of webinars, MOOCs and other online courses. Sure, organisations like Open University have been harnessing that kind of technology for years but the number of providers continues to grow almost exponentially.

 

But wait, have we ever sat down and had a serious conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this way of learning? Sure, we all know about the fact that webinars make it possible to learn wherever you are and they seem to democratise access to knowledge but are they actually effective?

 

I am sure that, even by asking that question, I am tacitly inviting providers to slap me round the head with satisfaction statistics and stories of happy clients. As someone who has created webinars myself, I am not about to gnaw on a hand that fed me but still, we would be wise to be cautious.

 

When I went through my training as a university lecturer, we were introduced to the idea that there are such things as deep and surface learning. Surface learning is the name given to the (temporary) memorisation of facts and figures, such that you can regurgitate them later. Deep learning is when the knowledge becomes part of you and makes an actual, lasting difference.

 

If you take Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators, for example, surface learning might involve writing a marketing plan or thinking for a few minutes about your business strategy. Deep learning would be applying it each day to your work.

 

My fear is that the very setup of webinars, which very much resemble old-style university lectures, encourage short-term, surface learning. Just like those leading university lectures, webinar leaders can and do encourage deep learning by setting exercises and offering individualised feedback. But, in my experience, this kind of involvement is still all too rare. The more common (although thankfully, not universal) model is for the webinar to stand alone as a unit with very little in the way of support or monitoring before, during or after.

 

Universities have learned that the traditional model of an “expert” taking for an hour while a group of novitiates sit and take notes is not exactly the most effective way of teaching. People seem to learn better when they are involved in the process and get a chance to apply their knowledge as soon as possible.

 

Do webinars allow this? How often do those attending a webinar lose focus and browse cat pictures in another tab?

 

At the very least, I think it is time to have open honest conversations about what webinars can and can’t do and where in-person teaching, as expensive as it can be, is the best option. Oddly enough, it’s a lesson that even the old-hands at Open University have learned, as they combine multimedia, online learning with a few choice sessions, in-person with a tutor and the rest of the class.

 

I don’t pretend to know all the answers and even writing this has opened more questions than answers in my head. The whole area is crying out for research and for providers to think beyond the kinds of questions found in a satisfaction survey.

 

I do know that, for now at least, I want to concentrate on in-person courses both in the CPD I deliver and in the CPD I attend. As an interpreter, I know that there is something about being there in the room with other learners and with an experienced tutor that you simply don’t get from a webinar. It is even better when you are learning alongside your clients and growing with them too. This is not denying that webinars have their place;  yet I do wonder whether we need to rethink the format.

Interpreters: We Need To Talk

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: February 23, 2016

There’s a silent contagion that threatens to kill my profession. It infects both new interpreters, who should be immune and more experienced interpreters, who should know better. It neuters conversation, strangles mental health and suffocates any hope of recognition.

It goes by a camouflaged misnomer, “confidentiality.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not for one second saying that we should tell the world that “Mick Smith” spent a few hours at the proctologist or that “Made Up Ltd” had a dip in their profits, which means that the MD is risking his job. Sharing that sort of personally and commercially sensitive information will always be unthinkable for any professional.

Yet too many in our profession still wrongly think that, to be true professionals, we must be some kind of secret agent, with no one, not even our closest family members having any clue about the stresses and strains we have faced that day. In fact, I have even come across one set of terms and conditions which effectively barred interpreters from telling anyone anything about their work, even to the point that all terminology research had to be done by the agency themselves.

There’s a phrase for that kind of thinking: total nonsense. Actually, it is much worse, it is damaging nonsense. How is it damaging? Let me give you three very powerful ways.

1)    Our unnecessary “vow of silence” may be destroying our mental health

Years ago, AIIC did a study of burn out rates among conference interpreters. Now bear in mind that conference interpreters do not traditionally face the kind of traumatic material that can be an everyday reality for court interpreters and public service interpreters. Still, it was found that AIIC members had higher burn out rates than Israeli army officers. Really? Are the “elites” of our profession really that mentally unhealthy?

It is also generally known that social isolation and depression are nigh-on twins. Basically, without a support group, without people you can discuss your day with, your mental health is likely to face a tailspin.

Of course, nothing in the AIIC study points to isolation as the sole cause of excessive burn out rates and it just might be that the problem has since cleared itself up. I sincerely hope it has.

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why overdoing the confidentiality to the point where you can’t tell anyone anything is not a good idea. Even more so given that interpreters do like to share war stories, yet for some, this entirely cathartic process might lead to a pang of guilt.

For the good of our own mental health, we need to create safe places where we can not only share war stories but debrief on the contours of each assignment, mentally unpacking any baggage that might have built up. We need relationships with people who can talk us through our decision-making, understand our fears and settle us down after a particularly difficult or stressful job.

2)    Having a wrong view of confidentiality kills professional development

The idea of debriefing leads nicely to the next reason why we need to talk about interpreting: if we don’t, we won’t improve.

Go to almost any other profession, from medicine to music and you will find a consistent pattern of people being supervised or coached from their first tentative stages to their greatest triumphs. It’s almost taken as read that no one will improve just by gaining experience. After all, you can do the same thing a million times and still be doing it wrong.

There is a myth the interpreters are somehow special. It’s only very recently that interpreters have discovered the need for deliberate, mentored practice and so the ideas, let alone the application are still in their infancy. What we are learning, however is that interpreting is not that special. Elisabet Tiselius has shown evidence of experienced interpreters actually performing worse than they did at university.

In short, if we want to improve, we need to be able to coach and supervise each other and that necessarily means not just helping each other with practice outside of assignments but chatting about how we could improve what we do during assignments.

3)    If we can’t talk about interpreting, we can’t promote it

There is one last reason that talking about our work. If no one knows the difference we make, no one is going to hire us.

I got into a twitter chat recently with the President of FIT and a leading professor of interpreting. The conclusion was that the only way to combat the eternally bad press that interpreting gets is by getting ahead of the news cycle and generating some positive PR. If we are to do that, we really do need interpreters to blog, tweet, and talk about the times that the client sold thousands of units or the diplomats did the deal or the patient was treated.

Again, we can leave the specific details out but something as simple as:

“Did a job for a major construction equipment manufacturer. Three articles in the target language press.”

or

“Interpreted at the doctors. Patient is now fully well.”

would go a long way to helping people understand the power and importance of our work.

But what about clients?

This is all well and good; some might say, but is it really necessary to discuss this stuff in public? Honestly, I thought long and hard and discussed with colleagues the merits of making this a public blog post, rather than an article for a magazine. But the truth is, since we are talking about client confidentiality, it makes sense to involve them in the conversation.

So, clients, what do you think of all this? Would you be happy with interpreters who consulted specialists and kept improving their skills by working with coaches? Would you be happy for us to talk about the pleasure and honour of working with you?

What about interpreters? What’s your take? How comfortable would you feel about working with a coach, debriefing after each assignment and sharing your successes?

So You Want to Study Translation or Interpreting…

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 22, 2014

Every so often, I get an email from someone who really, really wants to become a translator or interpreter. After I let them know about what the job entails and point them towards ITI, the next question is pretty predictable:

So where is the best place to study?

To be honest, the answer to this differs from person to person but this post will give you a handy guide of what to look for. So, here are my top 5 tips for finding a great university to study translation or interpreting.

1)    Know what you want to study and why

This seems pretty obvious but it is actually quite common that someone will say they want to be a professional translator but actually fall in love with research. Conversely, I have seen people really fed-up with degrees where you get to talk a lot about translation and never actually do any. It is really important that you know what you want out of the degree you are going to study.

2)    Go hunting

The first stage after that is to go hunting for universities that do what you want to do. For translation and conference interpreting, the hunt can be narrowed-down quite quickly as you can find a list of universities training translators and/or interpreters on the CIUTI website. Now, not all good universities are on that list but it gives you a good start. You can also try looking at national translation associations to see what links they have with universities (some, such as ITI even allow universities to have some kind of membership). Lastly, of course, there is good old googling. The point of all this is to get you a list of candidate universities that you can then narrow down.

For this reason, I would suggest finding as many candidates at this point as you can. If your personal situation allows, look abroad, especially in the languages where your second and/or third languages are spoken. Cast the net wide and you are more likely to find the right place.

3)    Read feedback

Here in the UK, we have a wonderful tool called the National Student Survey. This lists the feedback that every university in the country has had from its final year students. Suffice to say, if the students rated a university poorly, it should be way down your list. For outside the UK, it is worth doing a search for university alumni groups on LinkedIn and/or Facebook and sending a message to the administrator letting them know that you would like to speak to people who have studied translation or interpreting.

The great thing with asking alumni, especially recent alumni, is that the courses will be fresh in their minds and they will be able to give you the kind of information that universities don’t normally give away. Sure, the student:staff ratio might be small but how do the tutors treat the students? Sure, 50% of graduates might go to the EU to work but what about preparing you for freelancing?

Ask a few intelligent questions and you will get a very good idea of how you might (or might not!) benefit from the course.

4)    Read staff profiles

This might sound strange and, to be honest, you can only do it properly for a few universities, but it is a neat trick. All decent universities will have a list of staff and their research interests somewhere on their site. These “research interests” can be very revealing. If, for instance, staff are doing research on practical aspects of translation and interpreting such as training, working with clients, or policy then the likelihood is that the degrees they offer will have a more practical bent. If, on the other hand, staff tend to research stuff like “15th century postmodernist esoteric literature” then it is likely that they will be more theoretical.

This is, once again, about matching what you want out of a degree with what the university are likely to provide. If you want to study a postgraduate degree then the chances are that you too will end up doing some research. In that case, research interests that interest you take on even greater importance.

Too long; didn’t read?

In short, finding the right university course is all about knowing what you want them to provide and finding a course that gets as close to that as possible. It can take time to find the right place but your career will thank you for doing so later.