Summary of Professor Damien Fan’s Promotion Lecture

劉北辰 Benson Liu, 蔡姮瑩 Rita Tsai

Professor Damien Fan gave his promotion lecture—“Changing the Agenda: The Need for Curricula Reform in Interpreting Programs”—on March 18. In the talk, he emphasized the urgency of reflecting on the past, present, and future of interpreting curricula and education with scrupulous honesty.

Interpreting programs in Taiwan will be facing an existential crisis as the pool of students continue to shrink and external factors (e.g., technological advancement, geopolitical development, policy changes) undermine the professional status of interpreters. At the same time, many students either prolong the time to complete their studies, or simply drop out. These phenomena imply that there might be a mismatch between a program’s expectation for students, and vice versa. Consequently, resources are misallocated while students are found to be discouraged, disenchanted, or misled during and even after their studies.

There are two fundamental issues with the interpreting curricula in Taiwan: the lack of recontextualization of interpreting curricula and the misconception of interpreting.

Contextualizing interpreting curricula means placing the curriculum in the grander scale of time and space to examine its appropriateness. The current curricular structure was transplanted to Taiwan thirty years ago from Western Europe. With changes that were only patchy and cosmetic, they are now out of place and outdated.

In addition, interpreting programs have long suffered from an inferiority complex because translation and interpreting have been considered merely as a subset of foreign language skills. To legitimize their existence in higher education institutions, Taiwanese interpreting programs inadvertently or intentionally ignore their vocational nature and choose to be forced to adopt academic undertakings. However, such academic efforts are conflated with exaggerated claims about the value and raison d’etre of (conference) interpreting.

Conference interpreting is often glamorized, romanticized, and glorified. Distorted views about the profession displace the curricula from the local context and lead to a lack of wholesome discussions about interpreting. They also turn classrooms into assembly lines that reduce interpreting training to merely the drilling of skills.

In addition to recontextualizing the interpreting curriculum, it should be reconceptualized as well. Currently, there are two misconceptions about the popularized “triad of interpreting” (i.e., language proficiency, reformulation skills, and domain knowledge—the three pillars needed to become a good interpreter).

First, cognitive ability and personality traits are two other essential pillars but are conveniently ignored. Cognitive ability is the foundation of all skills. It determines whether interpreters can inhibit interference, update mental representation, and shift attention during interpreting. Personality traits could very well determine if students can proactively manage stress as well as influence how far they can go in their training and career. These two aspects should be taken into consideration during screening, teaching, and career counseling.

Second, interpreting trainers expect students to enhance language proficiency on their own. However, most interpreting students in Taiwan do not have good enough language proficiency to begin with. They should therefore be provided with more guidance and assistance. Making translation courses mandatory will benefit their learning. In translation classes, where time pressure is less of an issue, students can better acquire interlingual reformulation skills and develop discourse analysis abilities. When time pressure is reintroduced during interpreting courses, students will be able to focus on analysis and decision-making, which are the actual “expertise” of experienced interpreters, rather than the execution of reformulation skills.

In light of the aforementioned issues, two major reforms have been introduced at GPTI. One reform is transforming the one-off Professional Exam into a semester-long intensive course, which will hopefully dissolve the obsession of passing exams in a Confucian society like Taiwan, and help students learn and practice with a healthier mindset. In the course, students are given multiple and diverse checkpoints throughout the semester and opportunities to interpret at live events. The live events are treated as formal interpreting assignments for students to utilize the business skills and professional conducts they learned from the course “Interpreting as a Profession: Professional Orientation and Workshop.” This two-part course is the other reform that has been introduced. In the first half of the course, students learn how to negotiate with clients, draft quotes, build CVs, and learn about tax and financial issues, ethics and professional conduct, the history of the profession, etc. The second half of the course introduces various types of interpreting settings (e.g., liaison, legal, distance interpreting, etc.). Students can explore the diversity of the interpreting industry in a structured and safe space.

These reforms are currently only in their first iterations. Interpreting programs will need to keep abreast with changes in the industry, international order, business environments, and technology. More importantly, they will need to heed the changes of people’s values. Therefore, interpreting programs should listen to students’ voices to continue to adjust, evolve, and help students maximize their potential. When students have a better, healthier, and fuller understanding of what interpreting is, they will help shape a better future for the profession.