Northwestern invests in interpretation lab

Northwestern College students majoring in translation and interpretation (Spanish-English) can now hone their skills in a new lab that lets them learn and practice simultaneous interpreting.

Located in the lower level of Van Peursem Hall, the lab features 13 booths identical to those used at events—like international conferences—that require professional interpreters. Electronic equipment in each booth enables students to listen through headsets to recordings of either Spanish or English speakers and to interpret what is being said into the other language.

Northwestern’s investment of $75,000 in equipment for the lab gives the college a decided advantage over other interpretation programs. Northwestern is one of only four colleges and universities in the U.S.—and the only Christian college—offering a bachelor’s degree in translation and interpretation (Spanish-English). The lab is equally rare.

“We’re not aware of any simultaneous interpreting lab in the whole Midwest,” says Piet Koene, assistant professor of Spanish, translation and interpretation. “This gives our program a very big advantage.”

In simultaneous interpreting, interpretation is provided while the speaker continues to speak—typically with a lag time of three to five seconds. Koene, who holds a master’s degree and professional certification in interpretation, says the process is mentally taxing, as it involves listening, understanding the meaning of what is being said, deciding on the interpretation, and then speaking that interpretation.

“Simultaneous interpreting is one of the most sought-after aspects in the professional interpretation market,” Koene says. That’s because it takes less time than consecutive interpretation, in which the speaker pauses while the interpretation is being done. And today’s technology—with wireless headsets and receivers—makes simultaneous interpretation possible.

As students in the lab interpret recordings piped through their headsets, Koene uses a control board to select which student he wants to listen to and, at times, to let them listen to and learn from each other.

Because students must be fluent in both Spanish and English in order to learn interpretation, only bilingual students are accepted into Northwestern’s program. The translation and interpretation major gives the college a market among students who have grown up in Spanish-speaking homes. Northwestern already has 10 students in the major. The goal is to have a total of 24 by 2014.

While there are community colleges that offer two-year associate’s degree in the field, Koene says Northwestern students will advance more in their abilities in a four-year program and will be better prepared for professional certification tests following graduation. Interpretation is a high-paying career field, and graduates with bachelor’s degrees are qualified for administrative positions, such as the director of interpretation services or a translation project manager.

Interpreters need continuing education credits to stay current in their field, and Koene says Northwestern will provide that as well. In June the college will host the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association. Those attending a pre-conference workshop will get to practice and hone their interpretation skills in Northwestern’s new lab.