My First Semester at GPTI or “Why Am I Doing This to Myself?!”
Niklas Dornes, Interpretation Track
Although my first Master’s degree was in philosophy, I have also studied Chinese intensively during my university years. Later on, there were occasional translation and interpretation cases and I even taught translation at the University of Bonn, Germany for a couple of years. So, why in the world would I give up a good job in the translation industry to go back to university in order to pursue a degree that prepares one for a career in the translation industry? (Sounds kind of circular, doesn’t it?)
There are a couple of reasons for this. The main one is that I am somewhat of a perfectionist and thus notoriously dissatisfied with my “current” (meaning: always) level of Chinese. However, sitting in a cozy chair at home – even when doing a translation job – will barely increase your level of Chinese, simply because you are not pushing your comfort zone.
So my reasoning went something like this: What would be a good way to keep pushing your linguistic boundaries in order to keep improving constantly? Probably doing interpreting, because with interpreting, you are forced to know certain words and expressions on the spot without being able to think about them. Thus, you have no choice but to train your brain to have even complicated wordings or high-level vocabulary within one centimeter of (mental) reach. Therefore, let‘s study at a translation department!
Admittedly, I could have also just tried my luck as a freelance interpreter, but there was also the thing that I love Taiwan, so I needed a reason to get back here somehow (and thus “kill two birds with one stone,” if I may quote the favorite saying of one of our teachers).
Now, let’s skip the part where I had to take the entrance exam, postpone my studies for one year because of COVID-19 and lose many, many, MANY hours of my life to the “idiosyncratic” (to use a friendly expression) water rapids of Taiwanese bureaucracy…
And let’s move right to the question whether or not my expectations have been satisfied. Did my Chinese improve? Yes. Did my English improve? Yes. Did it improve in the way I expected? Not entirely. My impression is that the first semester of our studies is not necessarily designed to intensively work on your language skills or to deeply train a specific interpreting technique. Rather, it is aimed at having you make contact with all the different kinds of interpreting (and even translating) that exist out there and give you a taste of them all. While this might be an approach that makes sense from the point of view of organizing a studies program, it‘s not necessarily what helps you to make huge progress language-wise in a given amount of time. Also, there is not much repetition going on, but rather an ever new influx of new material, topics and possible translation approaches. While stimulating, it may also leave you with the impression that you actually are simply hopelessly lost when it comes to interpreting (or might this reaction even be intended by the organizers of the program?!)
Now, you might be asking, “Why not provide the necessary repetition yourself by reviewing the material from class at home?” Well, I am glad you asked! There is not much time (and probably energy) left to do so, since there are a considerable number of classes and amount of homework that come with them. Once you are done with the work for the week, you are not going to do voluntary extra work springing from an idealistic, enthusiastic attitude (believe me). This is especially true for us foreigners, who have to take one extra class on “Academic Chinese” (more on that later).
Given the circumstances described above, I had to heart-achingly soft-pedal my lofty goals of skyrocketing linguistic progress to a more pragmatic, survival-oriented approach: Go to class, do the assigned homework and – as much as possible – take your homework as a way of repeating the vocabulary, formulations etc. Now, I don‘t want to make this sound too bad. Our teachers are not only highly-skilled professional interpreters, but in fact also instructors who have clearly had some sort of educational training. Thus, classes are always fun, lively and illuminating. Simply mentally prepare yourself and beware of what you signed up for!
Lastly, I want to deliberately highlight the “Academic Chinese” class which is mandatory for all foreigners who cannot provide a C2 level Chinese language certificate for listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, even if you are the proud owner of such a certificate, I would urge you not to skip this class! Mr. Xu (徐振峰教授) is definitely the most accomplished Chinese teacher I have come across so far. He is able to provide you with totally new approaches and perspectives when it comes to writing and understanding Chinese. Not only can he explain confusing or complex linguistic issues, but he also provides an understanding of the thought pattern that underlies the structure of a Chinese text. Such praise does not come out of my mouth lightly, but since I have been teaching Chinese myself have and encountered quite a number of Chinese teachers, I can wholeheartedly recommend this class for all who wish to push their Chinese to the next (near-native) level. From the viewpoint of improving my language skills, this class so far has turned out to be the most fruitful and illuminating.
I want to end this short essay with some words of encouragement: When you come to this program, make sure you bring with you a lot of energy, a strong motivation, at least a C1-C2 level of English and Chinese, and commit to the schedule as a full-time job. Then, you will be rewarded with a high-quality study program.