Feedback: Going Beyond “That Was Great”

Giving and receiving feedback during interpreting practice is great when you know how! It’s all about building relationships with the interpreters we’re going to give feedback to, and who will give feedback to us.

Interpreting practice and feedback are important. One of my graduate school professors wrote a blog post about peer assessment that inspired me to write the following about my own experiences with giving and receiving feedback.1

Interpreting practice with a partner or in groups involves giving feedback to others, and in turn learning to accept their feedback. It requires a lot of work from everyone involved. It’s not just a matter of half-listening and then telling your practice partner, “Yeah, that was great.”

A few years ago, I practiced alone and with a partner to prep for my state court exams. Last year, I prepped the staff interpreters at my hospital’s language services department for their national certification exams. I also spent six months prepping with my graduate school cohort for our conference interpreting exit exams.

I passed my state court exams, and the staff interpreters passed their national certification exams. I also passed my graduate school exit exams. From these experiences, here’s what I’ve learned about feedback in interpreting practice and how to make the best use of your time.

Set Goals

Set your own goals for how you want to get better. How do you know what your goals are? By practicing and listening to yourself and getting feedback from those who listen to you! I set my goals based on self-assessment (listening to recordings of myself interpreting) and the feedback I get from classmates and instructors. It takes a large volume of interpreting practice to see patterns and to learn what your real issues are.

For example, from listening to recordings I’ve noticed that I have trouble expressing myself in a natural way. (I sound like I’m speaking English with Spanish syntax!) Or maybe I have trouble keeping up with the speaker, and that’s reflected in really long pauses or pausing in the middle of sentences. Or maybe I have trouble because I say the exact opposite of what the speaker means. Maybe I just didn’t understand half the speech.

We all have challenges interpreting at times, and there’s not enough room here to list all the challenges I’ve had, and currently have, with interpreting. Whatever the issues, the most important question to ask when you notice something about your rendition that’s not quite right is “Why?”

When you practice with a partner, give him or her your goals at the outset so you can get specific feedback. Expect your goals to change over time. If you’re just starting out with something really tough, it’s okay if your goal is to just keep going and not give up.

Start with Self-Assessment

When you practice with a partner, let the person doing the interpreting take the lead on the assessment. Since your partner has most likely already set his or her practice goals, ask “How do you think you met your objectives?” Then you can go from there and give your feedback.

How do you give feedback? I like to make two columns in my notebook: a smiley column and a not-smiley column (see photo above). This allows me to organize comments while my partner is interpreting. For example, if my partner says her goal is to reduce the number of false cognates, I’ll write down the false cognates in the not-smiley column and the really well-phrased, natural sounding language in the smiley column. That way I can balance the critique with what my partner did really well.

Give General and Specific Feedback

Providing your partner with an overall assessment of his or her interpretation will prove very helpful. For example, you might say, “I could follow your logic throughout.” “You finished all your sentences.” or “Your voice sounds calm.” These are all general comments, but they’re important. Especially over time during subsequent practice sessions, your partner will most likely receive the same general comments related to certain aspects of the interpretation. Such comments serve to reinforce both strengths and weaknesses.

Specific feedback is important as well. Again, this requires specific goals. If your partner’s goals aren’t clear, ask questions so you can give specific feedback. For example, if I set a vague goal like “I want to sound natural,” I appreciate it when I’m pushed to define what it means to “sound natural.” (Does this have to do with the tone of my delivery, or perhaps the phrasing and syntax?) You can’t give or get specific feedback unless the practice goals are specific.

Ask for What You Need

Interpreting practice is not easy, but that doesn’t mean we should expect anyone to hold our hands through it and stroke our egos just so we can feel good. What it means is recognizing what your needs are as an interpreter trainee. We need the feedback, but sometimes it can feel like too much information or like a wave of criticism. Sometimes it can make you think, “Do I ever do anything right?

I’ve been there before, sometimes for extended periods of time, and it’s exhausting. If you’re going through the Do-I-Ever-Do-Anything-Right phase, let your practice partners know. Let them know what your goals are and that you appreciate their critical ears, but that you need them to tell you just one thing you did well during the interpretation.

Take the First Step

Since the start of my second year of graduate school, I’ve had the chance to practice with some new interpreting partners during the past six months. This has helped reinforce that everyone is different and that not everyone is comfortable with practice and feedback. As I mentioned previously, when you practice with others, let them know what you need. They will appreciate it! And if they don’t tell you what they need when it’s your turn to provide feedback, ask! Have a conversation about it. We often get so focused on the practice session that we can forget about actually getting to know the person with whom we’re practicing. It’s important to build relationships with interpreters we’re going to give feedback to, and who will give feedback to us.

Receiving Feedback

Remember that when you ask people for feedback, they’re agreeing to make an effort toward improving your interpreting practice. They’re taking time to listen to you, make notes, and explain what went well and what didn’t, and maybe offer suggestions for improvement. When someone gives you feedback that doesn’t make sense, ask more questions. But I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of challenging their comments outright in a defensive “I’m right, you’re wrong” way.

Different Perspectives Are Important

Your practice partners can be anyone. They should be anyone. For example, I interpret from Spanish into English, and vice versa. I work with partners who speak both those languages on different levels. Also people who don’t speak Spanish, but speak Portuguese and/or French, and they provide different feedback. Also people who understand English, but don’t speak a Romance language. All of their feedback is important. Even someone who is monolingual can give you really important feedback on things such as your delivery and the logical flow of what you’re saying.

Know When to Back Off

If your usually calm practice partner seems grumpy or unusually defensive, maybe you should offer to call it a day, or go easy on the feedback. The same goes for you. If you’re just not feeling it, call it a day. As I said before, sometimes the feedback you receive can feel like a wave of criticism.

Alternatively, you can do what I did recently. During a practice session, I just couldn’t stand to do one more interpretation myself, so I offered to listen to my partner during the time I was slotted to interpret and give feedback. That doesn’t give you permission to just give up all the time, though. In the past six months, I can count on one hand the times when I’ve just thrown in the towel, usually because I’ve been overdoing it and need a break.

Bonus Tip

It can’t be fun and games all the time, but know when it’s time to make room to laugh. Mostly at yourself. Seriously. In general, when it comes to interpreting practice, I’ve found the formula that works is to set goals, do the practice, take time out to do a self-assessment, and then let the listener give his or her feedback.

  1. Matthews, Gladys. “Peer Assessment: What Is It All About in the End?” Words Without Borders,

Elizabeth Essary has over a decade of experience as an interpreter in many different settings. She has a Master of Conference Interpreting from the Glendon School of Translation at York University in Toronto. In 2012, she received her national Certified Healthcare Interpreter™ certification (Spanish) through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), and in 2013 she was certified through the Indiana Supreme Court Interpreter Certification Program. She’s an accredited trainer through the CCHI Continuing Education Accreditation Program, and in 2013 served as an item writer and subject matter expert for CCHI’s written exam. From 2011 to 2015, in her work as language services supervisor at Indiana University Health Academic Health Center, she educated hospital staff on working effectively with interpreters and oversaw the bilingual staff approval program. She also developed a series of workshops to prepare staff interpreters for national certification. She is currently serving her second term on the board of the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare. You can find here blog at Contact:

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