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Published: 23 May 2016

Meet the academic: Dr Elena Davitti

Find out why Dr Elena Davitti from the Centre for Translation Studies finds interpreting to be an exciting career with an adrenaline rush around every corner.

Please introduce yourself – perhaps you could tell us something that isn’t on your staff profile page?

My name is Elena Davitti and my expertise is in interpreting, in all its modes (conference, dialogue, video-mediated). As well as being a Lecturer in Translation Studies here at CTS (Centre for Translation Studies in the School of English and Languages), I am Programme Leader of the MA Interpreting and MA Translation & Interpreting courses.

Interpreting for me is more than a profession; it provides the tools to broaden my horizons and to deeply understand languages, cultures and ways of thinking other than my own while playing a meaningful role in society.

I am myself a trained conference and dialogue interpreter with professional experience in a variety of settings, including medical and pedagogical. There, I gained first-hand experience of what it means to be a bridge between languages and cultures, making a difference for someone in a delicate and stressful situation by being their ‘voice’, and enabling them to fully communicate, express their feelings and explain their needs in another language. This is a much fuller and richer experience than 'just translating words', which is a common misconception about our profession!

What’s your favourite memory of being a student?

One of my favourite memories of being a student was the first time in the interpreting booth when I felt completely ‘in tune’ with the speaker.

After months of practice, adrenaline rushes, and feeling butterflies before attempting a task that seems impossible at first (ie, listening, speaking and processing information at the same time), one day the magic happens and you get the wonderful feeling of being almost able to ‘read the mind’ of the speaker, to anticipate their thoughts and to guess what they are going to say.

This is when you are able to move beyond the literalness of a speech and reconstruct the ideas behind it in a way that is absolutely plausible and accurate, and that sounds completely natural in the target language. This is what we call real interpreting, and that is the moment that makes you think, as a student: yes, I can do this!

How and why did you become a professional academic?

I have always been fascinated by the interpreting profession, and willing to find out more about its underlying dynamics and mechanisms. After interpreting assignments, I always felt the urge to reflect upon my experience, dig deeper into what happens in our brain when we listen and speak at the same time, find out how emotions affect our performance, and examine what techniques to use in order to interpret words or expressions that do not have an equivalent in the target language.

This attitude led me to embark on a PhD journey, during which I worked on a project focused on the impact of embodied cues (eg, gaze and body movement) on interactional dynamics in face-to-face interpreter-mediated interaction. The expertise acquired through a multimodal and micro-analytical approach to interpreting helped me expand the scope of my analysis to complex, video-mediated forms of interpreting, which is the focus of my current research.

This research permeates our curricula and heavily informs the way we design our interpreting modules. For instance, CTS is a centre of excellence for research on video-conference and remote interpreting, and we are the first university to teach remote and mobile interpreting based on research findings in this cutting-edge field. We also value the importance of exposing students to real-life scenarios and their challenges by sharing case studies and findings from our research that are based on authentic data, thus raising awareness of what happens in real life and enabling students to acquire all the critical and self-reflective skills they need to understand the implications of what they do. This approach has been very well received by our students, who have gradually learnt to see the link between theory and practice and realised that research in interpreting actually addresses very practical problems that all interpreters are confronted with.

What excites you about your current role?

My current role is extremely exciting as it is multidimensional: it encompasses teaching at postgraduate level, being programme leader of two MA Programmes, supervising exciting doctoral research projects, carrying out research within a number of international projects that we run in the department, going to conferences to present the results of our work, publishing papers, dealing with student queries and questions, organising exciting simulations of real-life interaction, and so on. Never a dull moment!

What is your particular area of academic expertise, and why are you passionate about it?

My research aims to deepen our understanding of the dynamics of communication happening through an interpreter. This is done through a very fine-grained analysis of authentic interaction (video-recorded and transcribed) in which I look at what is said (the verbal aspect) in combination with embodied features such as the use of gaze, gesture and body orientation, which have an impact on how we come across and communicate with one another.

Findings have multiple implications, one of the main being interpreter training and education. [See question above: 'How did you become a professional academic?'] . My current research is expanding towards other increasingly frequent forms of interpreter-mediated interaction, namely via video-link. My focus is particularly on mobile forms of interpreting in medical settings, so my research complements the work being done on video-mediated interpreting in legal settings, which is one of CTS’s flagship areas.

Why should people study at postgraduate level in your academic area?

Firstly because interpreting is a very exciting practice, which keeps changing under the influence of various external factors, such as technological advances, globalization and migration trends. One exciting area for both practice and research is that of emerging forms of interpreting, for instance video-mediated interpreting in legal and medical settings, which is becoming widespread.

Interpreting equips students with many key transferable skills to succeed not only in novel and unpredictable situations of interpreting but also in other walks of life.

These skills, which make our graduates very attractive to employers, can be boiled down to excellent oral communication and interpersonal skills, analytical and critical thinking (for instance the ability to assess a situation, seek multiple perspectives, identify problems, find solutions and make informed decisions), and last but not least flexibility and multitasking skills (ie, the ability to manage complex situations, juggle multiple input, set priorities and thrive in changing conditions).

What are you looking for in a PGT student?

Beside excellent knowledge of English and of another working language, it is key that our students have curiositas (eagerness for knowledge, inquisitiveness, willingness to find out what happens in the world, stay abreast of news, understand the nuances of an argument, etc).

To fully appreciate and love this profession, you also need to be someone who enjoys and thrives when working under pressure. Interpreting is all about quick thinking and quick decision-making. It’s a constant adrenaline rush but the feeling afterwards is so rewarding, and that makes up for all the stress. Finally, a certain aptitude for multitasking is also a plus!

Does a particularly good memory of your time at Surrey stand out for you?

Yes, all the simulations we held this year with our interpreting students, from mock conferences with invited expert speakers, to videolinks with other countries (to simulate interpreter-mediated cross-border proceedings and police interviews or medical emergency scenarios), to a tour of campus with our portable simultaneous-interpreting system.

I could really see how each session enriched our students with stronger skills, new knowledge and increased awareness of the challenges and beauty of our profession under changing circumstances. It was beautiful to see how they faced up to new challenges with increasing confidence and self-awareness.

Find out more about our language and interpetation courses.