Effectiveness of Interpreter Training in the Japanese Interpretive Context and Opportunities for Improving Interpretation 

An Impact Assessment of a Training Program in Japan 

Naoko Yamada, Ph.D. 
School of Regional Development Studies
College of Human and Social Sciences
Kanazawa University
Kakuma, Kanazawa, 920-1192 Japan

Jeffrey C. Skibins, Ph.D.
Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies
East Carolina University
252-737-1374 office
ORC ID: 0000-0002-8870-3741

This exploratory research examined a four-day interpreter training program in Japan for impacts on participants’ self-reported increases in knowledge and skills. Pre-, during-, and post-training open-ended questionnaires were administered to all 17 participants. Results showed the training program was effective at increasing knowledge of interpretation’s definitions, principles, and goals. Participants indicated extended opportunities for understanding the profession as a whole, as well as how to operationalize interpretation and develop strategic outcomes would increase the overall effectiveness of trainings. Future training programs could use a strategic reflection process to emphasize skill development in the design and delivery of interpretation. Results derived from this empirical research provide a guideline for developing a training framework contextualized to the practice of interpretation in Japan.

interpretation, training program, impact assessment, effectiveness, opportunity

One of the advantages of interpretation is its plasticity. Interpretation can be applied in multiple venues and address myriad strategic objectives. Researchers have investigated requisite practitioner skills and knowledge necessary to meet best practices for interpretation (Skibins, Powell, & Stern, 2012; Stern & Powell, 2013). Research has also shown how training programs can increase practitioner knowledge and skills (Walker & Weiler, 2017; Weiler & Ham, 2002). However, the application and associated professional training should be context specific to maximize impacts (Black & Ham, 2005). 

Studies of tour guide and interpreter training have demonstrated a variety of context-specific issues. For example, tour guides at training programs in Australia regarded their presentation skills as strengths while their interpretation techniques as weakness (Ballantyne & Hughes, 2001) and training participants in a tour guide organization in Australia placed paramount importance on the knowledge pertinent to guiding practices and networking skills (Carmody, 2012). Training participants in Tonga benefitted from information on visitor expectations, experience brokering, and interpretive principles (Weiler & Walker, 2014). Tour guides in Panama, Galapagos Islands, and Argentina sought diverse information in a training program, such as visitor profiles and expectations, the interpretive approach to communication, customer service, and leadership and group management (Weiler & Ham, 2002). Interpreters in Japan desired definitions and goals of interpretation, interactions with other interpreters, and practical exercises in a training program (Yamada, 2014). A single training guideline does not seem to fit all contexts. 

To maintain relevancy to a variety of societies and the international profession, interpreter training ought to be designed based on culturally contextual training needs informed by empirical evidence. Recently, needs assessments relating to interpreter training have been reported in the U.S. (Powell, Depper, & Wright, 2017) and Japan (Yamada, 2014). However, little work has been done to assess the efficacy of interpreter training, or its cross-cultural relevancy, particularly in Japan.

This exploratory research sought to identify the influence of a training program on the development of Japanese interpreters’ skill and knowledge. Such information should allow us to better align a training program with context specific issues.

In summer 2016, a four-day-long interpreter training program was offered at a Tokyo Metropolitan Natural Park in Japan. It has been offered by the Association for Interpretation Japan since 1992 and targeted introductory level individuals who had little or no interpretation experiences as a fulltime, volunteer, or prospective interpreter. Ten men and seven women enrolled in the training program.

A textbook was developed by the Association for Interpretation Japan and included the definitions of interpretation (Ham, 2013; National Association for Interpretation, n.d.; Tilden, 1957). One lead trainer and several assistant trainers conducted the program. The program was composed of the definition and principles of interpretation, self-history analysis, experiences of guided walks and personal interpretive programs, research on resources, delivery techniques, communication exercises, planning and implementing a short walk, theme/goal/objective, risk assessment and management, and performing a short walk. Multiple opportunities were offered to the participants to discuss their thoughts, learnings, and experiences in small groups, and to daily reflect on their experiences in journals.

Anonymous pre-, during-, and post-training self-reported, open-ended questionnaires were administered to all participants. The pre-survey was sent prior to the training to determine baseline conditions. The during-survey was administered at the end of each day of training (i.e., four times) to examine the impact of the daily sessions on participants’ knowledge and perceptions. The post-survey was administered through email one month after the training program and was completed by seven respondents (41% response rate). The post-survey measured the impact of the training on knowledge and application of learned skills.

Questions in the pre-, during-, and post-surveys were classified as “effectiveness” or “opportunity” (Table 1). The total frequency of responses exceeds the number of participants (i.e., 17) in some instances, because respondents were able to provide multiple answers and some questions were asked on multiple occasions. The number in parenthesis presents the frequency of responses.


Understanding of Interpretation Definitions and Principles
The most frequently identified theme associated with responses for “What is your understanding of interpretation?” in the pre- and during-survey and for “Is there anything that you have felt you understood more deeply?” in the post-survey was as a transferal of information (pre = 9 and during = 19). Participants also identified interpretation as being experiential, offering first-hand participatory activities (pre = 3, during = 18, and post = 3), rather than being only information transmission.

They viewed interpretation as having a theme/goal (during = 11 and post = 2), being relevant (during = 9), enjoyable (during = 9), and organized (during = 7 and post = 1), which were equal to Ham’s four qualities of interpretation. For some participants, interpretation was intriguing audience’s interests (pre = 2 and during = 8), making audience aware of (pre = 2 and during = 8), causing a change in audience (pre = 2 and during = 8), communication (pre = 1 and during = 8), and making a connection between an object and audience (pre = 1 and during = 7). This understanding indicated effects of the training program.

Important and Useful Learning
The theme most frequently identified in the during-survey responses to “What was the most important learning for you today?” was the principles of interpretation (10), followed by a theme/goal (9), diverse forms of interpretation (8), being experiential (7), and the definition of interpretation (6). Some respondents appreciated diverse viewpoints on a resource (4) and enjoying one’s own interpretation as a basis of interpretation (4). Themes identified in responses to “What was useful for you among the things that you learned in the training program?” in the post-training survey involved having a theme/goal (3) and being experiential (3) as a useful learning. These important and useful learning themes could be considered effects of the training program.

Expectations for the training course
The most commonly described responses to “What do you expect of the training program?” in the pre-survey involved learning delivery techniques (11), followed by interacting with other participants (6), understating interpretation (4), and learning communication (4). Two trainees listed experiencing interpretation, the environment surrounding the venue, and something new. These expectations suggested an opportunity to consider in a future training.

Difficulty in understanding 
While the respondents most frequently reported no difficulties (during = 16 and post = 1), some themes emerged in responses to “What was difficult to understand or practice today?” in the during-survey and “Among the things you learned in the training program, is there anything that you feel difficult in practicing?” in the post-survey. The respondents felt difficulties in identifying a theme/goal (during = 10 and post = 2), designing a program (during = 8 and post = 2), making interpretation relevant (during = 5), and comprehending the definition of interpretation (during = 5), a training session (during = 5), the purpose of interpretation (during = 4), and evaluating whether a program was adequate or not (post = 2). These difficulties may be viewed as insufficiently fulfilled areas in the training program and suggest a future opportunity. 

Desirable Skills and Knowledge to Further Develop
Themes were derived from responses to “What skills or knowledge do you wish to further advance?” in the during-survey and “Is there anything that you wished to have learned?” in the post-survey. Interpretation skills and knowledge were their major concerns (during = 27 and post = 3), which include designing interpretation (during = 15 and post = 1) and making interpretation relevant (during = 4), organized (during = 3), and enjoyable (during = 3). Other identified themes involved communication (during = 10), delivering techniques (during = 8), speaking (during = 8), and public speaking (during = 6 and post = 1). These desires may indicate a future opportunity.

The purpose of this case study was to evaluate the cross-cultural effectiveness of an interpretation training program in Japan. Overall, the training program did increase participants’ knowledge and skills. However, several gaps were identified, and exploratory data suggest a need for responsiveness to contextual issues.

While participants perceived the definition and principles of interpretation as important, these subjects were reported as difficult to understand and apply. A better format for operationalizing these concepts, in a Japanese context, is needed. Participants reported learning specific techniques through practice to operationalize the definitions and principles could help to advance abilities.

The gap between understanding and operationalization may be an indication of the ambiguity of interpretation for participants. This may have been due to a lack of goals and outcomes explained in the training program and the textbook. Participants should have the goals and outcomes of interpretation and those of a particular organization for which they work better clarified. If an interpreter is unclear about the purpose for which they are designing an interpretive program, they may encounter difficulty in completing it. It also is not possible to assess whether an interpreter is successful without a clear understanding of what an interpreter is doing for what outcome (Ham, 2013).

To reduce the gap between understanding and operationalizing the definition and principles of interpretation, two approaches can be taken. First, identifying organization-specific goals as well as the expected outcomes of interpretation is necessary for an interpreter to see her/his role at her/his setting. For example, three expected outcomes of interpretation that researchers advocated ought to be enunciated in the textbook (Ham, 2013; Stern & Powell, 2013). Illustrating what one’s interpretation can and cannot do allow trainees to understand the profession as well. 

Second, the process through which such outcomes will be accomplished should be explained. The participants regarded being experiential as the most important essence of interpretation. Interpretation should be offered through direct experience (Tilden, 1957) so as to provoke emotions and thoughts and result in reflective engagement (Ballantyne, Packer, & Falk, 2011) and mindfulness (Walker & Moscardo, 2014). In this training, participants were offered multiple opportunities to reflect their thoughts and learnings in a small group during the training and to write a reflection journal at the end of each day. These reflections have likely contributed to their skill and knowledge development.

This research was subject to several limitations. The findings represented only a single researched case with the small sample size. Additionally, data were gathered through self-report questionnaires, and response rate for post-training responses was low.

A future training program could focus on two aspects. First, it should focus upon understanding core concepts: definitions and principles, goals, and expected outcomes of interpretation. It should help trainees to operationalize what interpretation is, what it accomplishes, and what the profession is. Articulating an organization-specific goal is critical in this process. Second, focus on exercising the learned concepts. This will help participants’ confidence in acquiring the skills to incorporate the core concepts into the design and delivery of interpretation. In so doing, encouraging trainees to reflect their learning experiences and roles in achieving local and global goals is needed.

As Stern et al. (2013) address, training alone may be insufficient to create the conditions that produce quality interpretive programs and encouraging both trainees and trainers to be sensitive about an interpreter’s role to be played in one’s setting will be important. Paying attention to the Japanese interpretive cultures will be critical in developing a training program. 

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