Info at a glance...

2023 session dates

30 July - 12 August 2023

2024 session dates

4 - 17 August 2024

Working languages for this session

English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian.

Course Venue

Hilton Cambridge City Centre
Downing St,
Cambridge CB2 3DT,
More info...

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How to prepare

Some thoughts and advice...

by Chris Guichot de Fortis, Course Director

Here you are, on a high-level conference interpretation course, and I would like to congratulate you on your choice!  This is a path that will give you great professional, intellectual and personal satisfaction and fulfillment.  However, you may not know – or at least not yet – the many difficulties and anxieties that will, all too often, be your companions throughout your training period.  

I have been teaching for at least twenty years in interpretation schools in Belgium, France and the UK.  Year after year, to my great sadness, I have seen that the majority of students studying for a qualification in Conference Interpretation (or taking continuous professional development courses) come up against considerable emotional and psychological stumbling blocks that they never expected to encounter, and that unfortunately are unavoidable. 

My goal in this article is to forewarn – and therefore forearm – you about the personal and psychological pressures that are an integral part of the interpreting profession, and of the initial and continuing studies that give access to that profession.  I hope in this way to give you the full picture, both to spare you harrowing mood-swings and personal doubts and questions, and to allow you to devote yourself fully to further learning and improving in this profession.  Essentially, I would like you to be competent and fulfilled interpreters, and at the same time to be happy on your chosen path.

  1. From the beginning, I am certain that you have always been (one of) the best in your school and/or university classes, since interpreting schools are always on the look-out for the most gifted and motivated students.  This has perhaps carried on into your working life as an interpreter.  On this Course, however, you will no longer be number one! This is of course logical, but this fact alone requires you to make the mental effort of seeing yourself with different eyes, serenely and confidently, as a “small fish in a big pond.”

    You will also have to understand that you have chosen an extremely difficult challenge.  This could well be the first time in your life that you are trying to acquire a range of further technical skills that you will not be able to master right off the bat.  You will have to work very hard, and be patient, before these skills are acquired and things begin to fall into place.  The good news is that, as long as you have the necessary linguistic and intellectual abilities, and as long as you work like a mad person, the skills and confidence will usually come.  The moral of the story:  be patient, work hard, listen to advice and don’t be surprised or depressed if you aren’t able to cope right away, or if you have both good and bad half-hours, or even days…

  2. You may not know this yet, but conference interpretation is an art.  The interpreter is constantly improvising, most often without a safety net, which requires access in real time to a wide-ranging set of skills and complex reflexes that do not come naturally and are initially fragile.

    Here is a telling description of jazz, which perfectly describes the complexities and the wonders of simultaneous interpretation:
    « Controlled spontaneity. Like ink painting, like haiku, like archery, like kendo fencing – jazz isn’t something you plan, it’s something you do.
    You practice, you play your scales, you learn your chops, then you bring all your knowledge, your conditioning to the moment.
    ‘In jazz, every moment is a crisis’, said Wynton Marsalis  ‘and you bring all your skill to bear on the crisis’.
    Like the swordsman, the archer, the poet and the painter – it’s all right there – no future, no past, just that moment and how you deal with it.
    Art happens….. »
     (Christopher Moore - A Dirty Job)

    You must understand that we are artists and performers, walking a tightrope; our profession requires – by its very nature – that we put ourselves on the line, that we invest ourselves intensely, wholly, and very personally in our performance, that we give it our all.  This is how we will become conference interpreters, worthy of this title, worthy of the message, worthy of our remuneration and worthy of our delegates!

    The flip side of such an investment is that your trainers’ comments and critiques may sometimes appear to become personal and/or counter-productive – or at least they may seem to be this way to you. Trainers and students must always remember that students are being evaluated and judged as conference interpreters, and not as human beings.  On your side, you students must find a way of accepting and acting on the feedback you receive from your trainers, without taking it personally or calling into question your value as a human being; I assure you that students all too often tend to misinterpret trainers’ comments and critiques in this way!

  3. Our profession may be considered a performance art, and conference interpreters are performers or artists, getting up on stage and digging deep to move, inspire and inform a public which needs them to be able to participate in a given event.  Therefore, interpretation “consumers” often feel as if the interpretation they are listening to is (as it were) a show, and therefore that they implicitly have a legitimate right to judge and comment on the interpreter’s performance, just as critics and the public do at an opera, the Olympic Games, or the theater.

How does one best prepare for Cambridge?

By Robert Weigel, CCIC 2010, A – English, B – French

Let’s assume that you have only 2-6 weeks remaining before you hear the bell ring to open the first session. What should you do?

Not everyone agrees, as you would probably expect, concerning how and even whether one can prepare for Cambridge.

Former course participants (“alumni”) who interpreted regularly in the year preceding Cambridge have told me that they did not undertake any special preparation prior to Cambridge. Some of the alumni offering such opinions were indeed very good at Cambridge and might question whether it is possible to actually prepare for Cambridge. I suspect they mean that it would be very difficult to specify an adequate and effective programme of preparation for Cambridge.  I would say, by contrast, that it is possible to prepare somewhat for Cambridge, but only somewhat.

My colleagues and I actually agree to a large extent, when it really gets down to it.

Most prospective course participants are unlikely to become vastly better interpreters over the course of the final month prior to Cambridge, although the exercises one might possibly undertake prior to Cambridge could really be helpful over the longer term, once everyone returns home.

  1. First and foremost, therefore, it is important to come to Cambridge rested and to stay restedwhile you are there. Cambridge is an intensive course of study – the feedback can be rigorous indeed.  You will benefit most if your mind and body are rested when you arrive. The importance of rest cannot be understated – Cambridge is “interpreting PLUS”.
    As a corollary to that, take care of your health, before you come to Cambridge and while you are there. Eating properly, exercising (perhaps with doctor’s consent) and getting to sleep early are all important. If I had to choose between only resting and taking care of myself during the final weeks on the one hand, and cramming down a bunch of material and practicing extensively before Cambridge on the other – and you may well be called upon to make this choice – I would choose the former.

  2. The real lessons of Cambridge have much to do with how you think about interpretation and about yourself as an interpreter, getting a taste of yourself working at a higher level and charting a course to achieve that. It is not a test for which you can memorize or consume large amounts of information and be guaranteed success.
    Prepare yourself mentally for Cambridge. Cambridge is that rare opportunity to get really good input from really experienced interpreters who might just help you, and that’s probably why you enrolled. Some modest desire to listen to criticism is required in order for this to succeed. This supposes that you will also come equipped with a sense of humour. Not everyone does ….

    In the short time remaining, practicing simultaneous until you’re exhausted is unlikely to help you much, although if you haven’t worked a half-day in the past several months (some students have other day jobs, e.g. working as translators), it is probably worthwhile to work into every language you plan on working into as a target language at Cambridge at least a little bit before you arrive, just so that you are not “cold” and so that you revive that sense of yourself as an interpreter prior to Cambridge. The Cambridge course will call you to become more aware of your own work.

  3. What if you are very rested already, have not interpreted recently and would like to do a bit more before Cambridge?

    Returning to the colleagues who did not prepare, they had, I suspect, maintained their basic interpreting reflexes in top form, even if they came to Cambridge to fine-tune their technique. They colleagues were not exhausted when they showed up in Cambridge because the weeks immediately preceding Cambridge fit into one of their regular rest periods! So, if you have not done much recently, “warm up” your simultaneous technique but “stock up” on rest!

    Now, if you are trained in it, practicing long consecutive (with notepad) might help you, not necessarily for purposes of consecutive per se, but with re-considering the de-verbalization and reformulation aspects of your simultaneous work, particularly into any B languages. Some will that find opinion controversial.

    If you do practise simultaneous interpretation prior to Cambridge, record your voice. Listen to your voice now, in every one of your active languages (current or future). Cambridge is a time to become more aware of yourself as an interpreter generally and to think about what you might do differently.

    If you haven’t done sight translation in a while, sight translate just once or twice into each of your active languages (current or future), using a timer to force yourself to complete the text at a rate similar to a delegate racing through their most dramatic rendition of a written text.

    Do not place great emphasis upon learning copious amounts of vocabulary, other than to continue the terminology-building exercises already incorporated into your professional regimen. If your lexical skills or word choice or grammar suffer in any of your languages, the professors will be sure to tell you, but once more, Cambridge is not primarily a vocabulary quiz, even though specific solutions to word puzzles will be undoubtedly be proposed.

    Would I attempt to study subjects I know will be covered at Cambridge? (Yes, I would.) If you are given the opportunity to prepare certain topics, working to understand those topics better before coming to Cambridge and possibly improving your vocabulary along the way, by all means, please do so. Otherwise, rest your mind. Attempting to review all kinds of subjects might wear you out. Your flashy vocabulary is unlikely to disguise other aspects of your interpretation that require additional work.

    If you are a freelancer and you have translation clients, I would urge you to consider informing them that you will be 100% unavailable for these ten days. That will help you to stay rested and to rest your mind in the evenings while you are at Cambridge.

    You should also plan some of your free time before you come to Cambridge, for rest and for sightseeing, because planning everything on-site adds extra complications on certain days. Go punting with the group because it is fun and it is beautiful. There is a small museum on polar exploration just down the street from the Royal Cambridge Hotel and the Fitzwilliam Museum is overflowing with exhibits. Some of us went running on the paths in the fields in the morning. Plan on doing something besides just staying inside the entire middle weekend. Buy the DK Shakespeare book Chris recommends and attend some of the performances of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. They really are very good – one of our performances got rained out and the members of troupe performed several scenes of the play for us under a tall pine tree in the rain. Flexibility pays, from start to finish.

[Many thanks to my wonderful and amazing colleagues Ouassila Belaloui, CCIC 2010, A – French, B – English, C – Spanish, and James Norman, CCIC 2011, A – English, B – French, C – Spanish, for assisting me with this.]