Students’ Experience of Multilingual Debates

Back at the start of April, our Language Coordinator, Jean-Michel DesJacques, accompanied a small group of current final semester French students to the annual Multilingual Debate at Heriot-Watt University. The students thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon and the experience of watching their peers demonstrate high-level interpreting skills. We’re hoping our students will attend again next year – those who went along this time certainly seem to have come away buzzing!

2014 HW Conference

For Mira Waligora, currently in her final year of a degree in French at Stirling, “the event was an interesting experience, the university had organised it well and there were no mock-ups, everything started, ran, and ended very smoothly. The topic debated was: “This House believes that the fragmentation of existing member-states could endanger the future of the EU.” Some very interesting points were flagged up, amongst them the importance of regional languages in areas desiring independence. However, what was of most interest is the interpreting done by the students.

The students interpreted from English, Spanish, French, German and Chinese, into French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and German. The difference in language structures could be easily noticed as French, English and Spanish interpreters could speak at more or less the same pace as the speakers from whom they were interpreting. It could be noticed that the students interpreting Chinese had to wait more often than not, until a full sentence was said before they could translate it. One of the English speakers gave all interpreters a challenge by using, metaphors and idioms, such as “luxuries in the pound shop of life”, referring to the regional languages spoken in areas of Europe. However, potentially the most impressive interpreting was done by the BSL representatives, who at times when a speech was given by a Chinese speaker, had to listen to a translation by one of the students and further translate that into BSL.

The students had been well briefed and prepared on the topics they had to work with. Listening to their work, you could hear mishaps and confusions; this is not to criticize the students’ work, which was, in itself, extraordinary. This remark is more directed at the art of translation and interpreting in today’s world in general. Language is a complex and beautiful thing. Translation is truly an art. The debate made me reflect on what really gets lost in translation. In this case in the world of politics where world leaders discuss sensitive subjects, language is of the deepest essence and the importance of an accurate and clear translation can make all the difference in the world.”

For Jana Kautska, who is also currently in her final semester of a degree in French, “participating in this event has been extremely useful as it allowed us all to peek into the profession of interpreters, for which the students at the Heriot Watt University are trained (at undergraduate as well as postgraduate level). I realized that only thanks to the hard work of the simultaneous interpreters (who must keep up with the pace of the speaker and switch promptly between the languages) does the otherwise inaccessible information become available within seconds. In addition, the complexities of switching between certain language codes became extremely apparent. For instance the code-switching between English and Chinese seemed to be very challenging as opposed to English versus German, for instance. However, although tempted for years, the ‘cosiness’ of the booth is not for me. I find conference environments rather stressful to deal with as the speakers often forget that they are being interpreted, which makes the work of an interpreter unbelievably hard. I would like to conclude by stressing my deep admiration towards the skills of the students-linguists who performed at the event. They were all very professional and considering they are still students without any real-life practice, their performance was fantastic.”

2014 HW Debate

Finally, Antonella Petillo, in her final semester of a joint degree in French and Spanish, felt that ‘it was such an honour to attend the Multilingual Debate held at the University of Herriot-Watt representing Stirling University languages students. As a languages student, what I found interesting was, first of all, the high level of interpreting provided by the same Interpreting and Translation postgraduate students who were working with impressive dexterity from and into English, French, Spanish and German simultaneously. Also, the group of European languages was joined by students interpreting from and into Chinese and into Arabic, which contributed to make it even more fascinating. I am glad to remark that half of the team of interpreters was made up of international students, which shows the increasing level of expertise and willingness to rise to the challenge among those whose native language is not English, and yet come to study to the UK for language specialized courses.
Secondly, on a personal level, I found myself caught up by the different approaches taken by the panellists in their mother tongue (be it French, English or Spanish) whilst eavesdropping the booths with my auricular to follow the translation provided, moved by a genuine curiosity toward the process of simultaneous interpreting and how specific speech situations would be tackled on the spot.

Following the debate, I had a discussion with my fellow classmates about whether we would prefer to test our own language skills by providing an accurate written translation or by having the thrill of ‘’bridging the cultural gaps’’ live from what it looks as a rather cosy booth. It seems that Stirling language students would always go for the translation challenge. Although someone did suggest: “How fascinating would it be if we got to do some Interpreting studies here too?” Maybe Heriot-Watt University has already unconsciously started to lead the way and inspire future interpreters, besides the current professional translators, made in Stirling. Let it be!”

2014 HW Students III

Thanks to Jean-Michel for organising this, to the students for their comments, and to Finn for the pictures!