What’s it like to rely entirely on an interpreter to understand what’s being said or to have others understand you?
What’s it like to have both the speaker and audience completely reliant on you to be able to communicate with each other?
Each year, first-year translation and interpretation students have the chance to experience that and put their growing interpretation skills to the test in a multilingual practice session called Mega Consec.
“It felt like playing a game of telephone. The speakers’ words went from completely unintelligible German to English, and then from English to my familiar Chinese,” the student shared. “This process not only gave me a chance to apply what I’ve been learning in my Chinese-English interpreting classes, but also showed me how the German students handle some of the same challenges. Even better, it introduced me to new friends and provided me with a deeper understanding of the cultures and languages of other countries.”
About 60 students participated in the event this year, representing seven language pairs: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Korean, and Russian (each paired with English). Students practiced their consecutive interpretation skills in both directions, using questions they’d prepared related to each other’s language and culture.
“This mutual learning opportunity complements what the students are learning in their language-specific classes,” said Laura Burian, dean of teaching, learning, and faculty development at the Middlebury Institute and a professor specializing in Chinese-English interpretation. “The Mega Consec class session gives students of different language combinations the chance to learn from each other both in terms of content—through the discussion of cultural questions—and form, through observing how students from other language programs cope with challenges in public speaking, note-taking, seeking clarification, managing turn-taking, and more.”
The Mega Consec exercise is the last session of the Foundations in Interpretation class, which includes all first-year translation and interpretation students across all languages. Students meet twice a week during the first three weeks of the semester. After that, the Introduction to Interpretation classes continue in separate language groups for the rest of the semester.
Professors provided feedback throughout the event and afterwards. Many groups encountered challenging specialized vocabulary during interpretation, such as unfamiliar place names or television show titles. Assistant Professor of Chinese-English Interpretation, Charles Cai, advised students to consider the perspective of the audience, suggesting that in addition to translating literally, they can provide brief and clear explanations to help the audience understand the concepts the speaker is referring to.
One student asked, “What is your favorite dish?” and the interpreter couldn’t understand the name of the dish in the response. Charles reminded them that they can gently ask the speaker for clarification before beginning the translation to prevent significant misunderstandings. He also said it is important for interpreters to provide a clear signal to the speaker when they finish their interpretation, such as through eye contact or a nod.
One student from the Korean-English group commented at the end: “The most significant realization I had in this class is that my interpreting skills are not as bad as I had imagined. Overall, the quality of the interpretation was quite good, which restored my confidence in my abilities.”