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Training Conference Interpreters for Canada: the MCI Program

By Malcolm Williams

Have you ever watched a televised House of Commons, Senate or general election debate in which the politicians’ statements were being interpreted from the other official language? If you have, then the chances are you were listening to the voice of a graduate of the Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI) Program offered by the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation.

Over the last few decades, working as a conference interpreter for Canadian government institutions has been one of the most attractive careers available to graduates of university translation schools and to others with the required credentials. Indeed, even though employment opportunities for translators with the federal government’s Translation Bureau have dried up in recent years, the Bureau has continued to hire trainee interpreters to meet the needs of Parliament and federal departments and agencies. These trainees are products of the MCI Program, one of only two graduate conference interpreting programs in Canada.

The School has been running the Program in partnership with the Bureau for many years. Under a memorandum of understanding that is renewed every five years, the Bureau provides 75% of the teachers — generally senior interpreters with considerable experience — for the Program, while the School provides the remaining teachers, the facilities and administrative support and coordinates the Program.

The Program is designed to train interpreters working in the two official languages. It does not provide instruction in foreign language interpreting. To graduate from the MCI, candidates must demonstrate proficiency in interpreting into both English and French: in the jargon of the interpreting profession, they must be “bi-active.”

A demanding program: the entrance examination

Over the years, the MCI has gained considerable “notoriety” for being a very demanding program. The word on the street is that its standards are too high and that it is a “brutal” program. However, it is important to realize that the program context is the determining factor. First, the clients — for the most part, Parliament and other federal institutions — are high-profile, so the consequence of error can be significant. Second, contrary to the situation prevailing in translation, what the interpreter delivers is the finished product. There is no opportunity to revise, edit, or otherwise refine the product before the listener receives the message. Accordingly, applicants have to demonstrate considerable potential from the outset.

That being said, the School recently relaxed its eligibility requirements – without relaxing the standard – in order to attract a larger number of applicants with excellent potential. Until this year, applicants needed a degree in translation or professional certification conferred by a FIT-accredited association to be able to sit the MCI entrance examination. Otherwise, interested applicants had to take a qualifying year of 10 courses at the School to develop and demonstrate translation proficiency. For the 2016 entrance examination, applicants with an honours  degree in any discipline and documented evidence of proficiency in English and French were eligible as long as their grade point average (GPA) was at least 6, or 70%.

Over the years, between 30 and 40 applicants have been eligible to sit the entrance examination annually, and 20% to 25% of them actually pass it. The morning session usually comprises four components: (a) shadowing; (b) interpretation with text into the A (dominant) language; interpretation with text into the B language; (d) a multiple-choice general and language knowledge test. All tests except the last are taken in interpretation booths.

The “shadowing” test involves repeating in your B language a speech delivered in that language. Its purpose is to determine not only whether candidates can understand and speak their B language to communicate a clear, coherent message, but also whether they can listen and speak at the same time — our Bureau colleagues often refer to this as a “hard-wired,” or “physiological,” ability.

As for the “interpretation with text” tests, candidates have five minutes to study a transcript of the source speech. They then interpret the audio version of the speech, which is 5–7 minutes long. Candidates are not expected to communicate every detail accurately, but they are expected to deliver the speaker’s main messages clearly and coherently. Too often candidates fall into the trap of translating the first few paragraphs of the transcript without identifying the main ideas that the speaker is conveying in the speech as a whole. As a result, they start off strongly but then lose the thread of the speaker’s argument and deliver disconnected sentence fragments.

Why a general knowledge component? Conference interpreters work at high-level and complex events, and they are required to process speeches covering a multitude of current affairs issues and areas of specialization — the economy, national defence, health, the environment, and science policy, to name just a few. We therefore need to find out not only whether candidates’ general knowledge is adequate but also whether they are interested in Canadian and international current affairs and follow the news closely.

Candidates who pass the morning components are invited to the afternoon session. They choose two current affairs topics from a list and are then given time to prepare two five-minute presentations on those topics: one in English and the other in French. After they make their presentations, the examination board asks them questions on their chosen topics as well as on their academic and professional background. The interview lasts 30 minutes and gives the board another opportunity to assess candidates’ language proficiency and knowledge of, as well as interest in, the world around them. At this stage, it is not uncommon to learn that candidates’ general knowledge is in fact inadequate or to hear them admit that they are not really interested in politics or economics at all.

A demanding program: courses and the path to the final examination

Candidates who pass the interview receive an offer of admission to the Program for the fall of the same year. However, they can postpone admission for one year to gain more knowledge and experience before registering or to earn money to pay their tuition fees. Because the MCI is essentially a professional, not a research-based, program, students are currently ineligible for scholarships.

The Program is a very intensive, full-time one. Courses start in September, and the final examination is held toward the end of June the following year. Students must earn at least a B grade (70%) in all fall, winter and spring courses to be eligible to sit the final examination.

In the fall session, students take four courses in consecutive interpreting (two toward English and two toward French). These courses are held in the School’s interpretation laboratory. They also take a documentation course. Successful candidates go on to take four simultaneous interpreting courses and a theory course in the winter. The spring session consists of two practical training courses in the lab, a Bureau-organized practicum entailing five days of conference interpreting under the supervision of a professional interpreter, another theory-oriented course, and the final exam. Depending on their grades, students who fail courses — and nearly every year some fail — can retake them the following year.

In the final exam, candidates interpret three speeches: two toward their A language (pass mark = average of 70%) and one toward their B language (pass mark = 70%). The speeches are 10–15 minutes long. The examination board is chaired by the program coordinator and includes two senior interpreters from the Bureau (one Anglophone and one Francophone) and two experienced independent interpreters (again, one Anglophone and one Francophone).

Students who fail the final exam have one opportunity to retake it.

A demanding program, but a rewarding one

Yes, the Program is very demanding. It is hard to get in, and it is hard to complete it successfully. Generally speaking, only candidates with several years of professional experience under their belt pass the entrance exam and the final exam, though there are brilliant exceptions.

That being said, the rewards are significant. The MCI has earned an enviable reputation in the interpreting community and is comparable to university interpreting programs in Europe, so it is undoubtedly a ticket to a rewarding career. Successful candidates are almost always offered a chance to join the Translation Bureau as trainee interpreters at the TR-02 level and can become interpreters at the working level (TR-03) within two years, earning a very respectable salary. Others choose to work for provincial governments, such as that of New Brunswick, or to join the freelance ranks, where work for MCI graduates is plentiful and well paid.

In short, there is pain, but so much to gain if you can last the course!

Malcolm Williams holds a PhD in Translation Studies. He is an associate professor at the School of Translation and Interpretation of the University of Ottawa, where he coordinates the Master in Conference Interpreting (MCI) Program. He is a certified member of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario and co-chair of the examination board of the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC).

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