I have been reading the answers to the question about soft skills in interpreting and to the one about interpreters being made or born and I seem to read between the lines that although interpreting is an acquired skill there is something more to it than what can be taught. It also seems to me that this often comes up in informal discussions with interpreters. So I would like to know: Do you believe there is an x-factor for interpreting skills or aptitude and in that case - is it possible to define what that would be?
asked 11 Apr '12, 17:29
I think that’s what aptitude researchers are trying to determine, but confirmation of a definitive list of individual skills and traits that are predictive seems elusive. The research being done is showing statistically significant predictors, but a lot of the research is with very small sample sizes, and the aptitude researchers out there are all coming at the issue from slightly different perspectives (some are looking at cognitive abilities - see Brooke Macnamara’s work; others are investigating aspects of personality, for example).
Out of interest, Mariachiara Russo (2011) does a great job of pulling together all the aptitude research from the last 40 years and notes there’s a lot of consistency in terms of agreeing on an ‘ideal’ interpreter profile. Russo goes on to say that the range of expected skills can be generally grouped as
(i) language knowledge and cognitive skills (inc. general mental ability, general and cultural specific knowledge, ideational fluency - verbal & associative fluency etc, working memory);
(ii) interpreting related skills that can be acquired; and
(iii) personality traits.
I think the issue of whether good interpreters are ‘made’ or ‘born’ arises from the fact that some of the required abilities and traits for interpreting are innate - general mental ability for example, and temperament is also enduring, however is not fixed until early adulthood, and some aspects remain malleable. Other factors relevant to becoming an interpreter are ‘trainable’ though...so you need a mixture of the ‘can do’ and the ‘will do’ in people. You can have all the natural gymnastics talent in the world but not the inclination to refine it to the level required to be an elite gymnast, for example. You need to ‘want it’ as well as ‘have it’, right?
Some of the research has thrown up interesting variables that have promise, such as motivation, cognitive flexibility, and learning ability (cf. the work of Sherry Shaw and Sarka Timarova). I personally really like the list of qualities and abilities expected of a prospective interpreter as outlined by AIIC on the AIIC website...I have cut and pasted the list below. I think it’s a decent overall description of some of the cognitive requirements, and it doesn’t neglect the social dimension which is being recognised as increasingly relevant in the current research.
Perhaps the ‘x’ factor isn’t actually an individual skill/knowledge/ability - perhaps the ‘x’ factor is having all of these factors to an efficacious level in one person! :-)
If you are interested in the topic of aptitude, a special issue of the journal “Interpreting” was dedicated to aptitude for interpreting, following a conference for aptitude researchers organised by Lessius University College & University of North Florida, and held at Lessius in Belgium in May 2009. Seven of the papers presented at the aptitude symposium were later published in the journal. The link to the table of contents in the special issue journal is here:
I would suggest associative thinking. The more associations an interpreter can make at any given moment, the better. And associative thinking is fast, which is good for the work we do. The link to the more logical thinking we use when interpreting is general knowledge. To me it seems that general knowledge underlies the best-known interpreting theories/models. The more GK we have packed away in long term memory, the more possible associations we can conjure up. Of course one must monitor to make sure one hasn't jumped from apples to oranges, but that is another way of saying that we fit associative thinking into the set of interpreting skills that we learn during training and hone in our professional practice, and we employ it within a framework of general and procedural knowledge.
Associative thinking is also closely linked to improvisation, a 'soft skill' that I cited under that thread.
So if an 'x-factor' is something unexplainable or at least hard to describe, associative thinking fits the bill for me.
...well, neurological research tells us that left-handed ladies who've started learning their second-language before age 4 may well make for the best potential interpreters :-).
This age-old question always makes me ponder that our collective (rightfull!) insistence on training should not bar us from admitting that there is such an un-democratic thing as talent: if I may be pardoned the simile, we don't really believe that Einstein and his brother John Doe, brought up as siblings and given the exact same training, would both have come up with E=mc2, do we? ;-)
In a nutshell, I've always believed that very good, solid interpreters are made, but excellent interpreters are indeed born...and of course training only makes them more so.
I fully agree that associative thinking is of the essence. And I would add that the other unexplainable something is very much related to personality traits. There is no doubt of the interplay between individual personality traits and job performance. And, for me, THE personality trait that can be considered the "X factor" impacting the most on achievement is emotional stability (control of anxiety and neuroticism).
answered 11 Apr '12, 20:35