Volume 6 (1) ~ May 2014

ISSN # 2150-5772 – This article is the intellectual property of the authors and CIT. If you wish to use this article in your teaching or in another format, please credit the authors and the CIT International Journal of Interpreter Education.

Improving Psychological Skill in Trainee Interpreters

David P. Atkinson and Ineke H. M. Crezee
AUT University, Auckland
Previous research has shown the importance of psychological skill to the performance and success outcomes of freelance translators, including factors of occupational self-efficacy, explanatory style, and locus of control (Atkinson, 2012).
In this article, we discuss the notion of psychological skill as it applies to freelance interpreters and provide some materials and ideas that can be used in education settings to support student interpreters and ease the entry-to-practice transition. The article includes three self-assessment questionnaires that interpreter educators can give to their students to use for diagnostic purposes in terms of evaluating their psychological skill. We also include some suggested activities that can be used in the classroom to help interpreters to improve aspects of their psychological skill.


The interpreting industry in Australasia is primarily composed of freelance interpreters. Freelance work requires relatively high levels of particular skills—self-motivation, self-confidence, and self-promotion. The three main interpreter-training programs available in Auckland, New Zealand, result in diplomas, certificates, or degrees in interpreting, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The programs include a mix of interpreting theory, ethics, contextual studies (i.e., terminology and features of particular areas of industry, such as law, medicine, and business), and interpreting practice (AUT University, 2012; Unitec, 2012; University of Auckland, 2012). None of them, however, particularly emphasizes training students in the area of psychological skill to help them to prepare for the special challenges of freelance work.[1]
Upon successful completion of these programs, students are expected to graduate with the traditional skill sets required to interpret competently within their areas of focus. Graduates are expected to be reflective practitioners as they move forward in their careers, with regard not only to their interpreting skills, but also to their psychological skills. In other words, they are expected to develop into both competent and confident professionals who are not only capable of performing the tasks assigned or offered to them, but are also reasonably confident in their ability to do so. Professionals skilled at self-reflection are able to, on an ongoing basis, identify their weaknesses and focus on areas to improve. Devoting time within an interpreting program to self-assessment and the enhancement of psychological skills will encourage this kind of reflection, and it may particularly benefit those practitioners who end up working as freelancers, given the potentially isolating nature of this type of employment.

The Concept of Psychological Skill

Psychological skill is defined herein as the effects of self-efficacy, explanatory style, and locus of control on interpreters’ work. In this article, we center on self-efficacy and explanatory style, due in part to restrictions on the use of Spector’s (1988) Work Locus of Control scale, which we applied in previous research (Atkinson, 2012). This study originally arose out of a perceived lack of research and teaching focus on the attitudinal/personality/self-evaluative side of translation and interpreting practice.
Traditional interpreter and translator training focuses almost exclusively on technical and linguistic skill advancement, leaving psychological skills largely untouched, or addressing them implicitly rather than explicitly. Based on previous research on translators, which showed statistically significant correlations between measures of success in translators and positive aspects of psychological skill (namely, good levels of self-efficacy and a positive explanatory style; Atkinson, 2012), it appears important to develop those skills in students who are starting out professionally.
Those who start out with low psychological skill will not necessarily fail in their profession (unless they have extremely low levels of psychological skill, to the extent that they may become paralyzed through depression or lack of confidence); but development in this area will help those about to graduate. Based on related research and findings drawn from the field of psychology (Atkinson, 2012; Shea & Howell, 2000), components of psychological skill can grow organically throughout the duration of one’s interpreting career, assuming the absence of strongly negative events of the type that could make a person want to quit their career. However, the initial development stage of entry-to-practice can be tough for novice practitioners. An “inoculation” of good psychological skill, particularly of occupational self-efficacy, can make this early period easier to go through, and may mitigate attrition from the field by ill-prepared practitioners.
We have observed, among students we have taught, that people with good levels of psychological skill have some difficulty understanding the relevance of it to themselves, or even to others. Those who are more introverted, or who tend toward self-blame or negative thinking under stress, find such discussion more relevant to them, because they understand the impact that such thinking can have on the tasks or studies that they attempt (Bartlomiejczyk, 2007). Such effects may result in procrastinating or in not attempting the task at all, or they may be related to excessive anxiety (Chiang, 2009).
An important assumption in this article (supported by research), and one that should be explicit in interpreter training programs is that a good level of occupational self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Bandura & Locke, 2003; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998) and a good explanatory style (Laird & Metalsky, 2008; Weiner, 1986, 2006) are desirable skills. A “good level” of occupational self-efficacy is that at which a person feels confident enough to take on a task that is a little bit more challenging than usual tasks. This encourages people to stretch and develop themselves, rather than stay in their comfort zone. Having occupational self-efficacy at an optimal level also means that people will not attempt efforts that are technically too difficult for them—in other words, in which there is a high probability of failure. In interpreting and translation, this is particularly important, because the quality outcomes can be critical. “Good explanatory style,” a related skill, means that a person’s explanatory style is normally a positive one—an individual takes a reasonable amount of personal credit for successful outcomes, which in turn boosts self-efficacy and encourages further efforts. It also means avoiding a negative explanatory style, in which people tend to consistently blame themselves for failure and/or attribute success to luck. Such a negative style has been associated with helplessness, negative affect, quitting, and even depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Robins & Hayes, 1995). This is generally a negative state of affairs for interpreters and translators, particularly because working as a freelance interpreter or translator can be quite isolating, which may augment such problems.

Summary of Findings in Relevant Previous Research

Previous research has focused on the relationship between psychological skill and professional success. Using various measurement scales, Atkinson (2012) found—among an international sample of 92 professional interpreters and translators with a minimum of 6 months’ of experience—that work-related self-efficacy was statistically significantly related to measures of success such as income, hours worked per week, quantity of jobs per week, number of years in the industry, and job satisfaction. This research was conducted using quantitative correlational methods to measure 21 work-related and psychological variables, and was further investigated using ordinal regression models that showed the contribution of occupational self-efficacy, in particular, to the researchers’ ability to predict key measures of professional success among the sample.
Using these regression models, occupational self-efficacy (as a key component of psychological skill) was a strong predictor of income, allowing numerical prediction—from a set of both psychological skill and work-related variables—of participants’ income bracket, level of job satisfaction, and the amount of work desired (Atkinson, 2012). Correlational analysis also showed that occupational self-efficacy, locus of control, and explanatory style were statistically significantly related to measures of professional success, such as income, quantity of work, and job satisfaction. Participant interview data analysis supported the hypothesis not only that psychological skill contributes to success, but also that it is improves as a result of success. In interviews, participants mentioned that having higher levels of psychological skill was a factor that helped them to advance themselves, because they were confident enough to accept new challenges—the successful completion of which, in turn, led them to further develop their confidence (Atkinson, 2012). Participants reported facing difficulties involving dealing with client feedback, challenging client misunderstanding around the nature and financial value of language work, and promoting and networking their own business.
Core competences on which interpreter training programs generally focus include research, transfer, writing, decision-making skills for translators (Fraser, 2000; Göpferich, Bayer-Hohenwarter, Prassl, & Stadlober, 2011; PACTE, 2011); and cognitive, memory, and psycholinguistic issues for interpreters (Kurz, 2003; Liu, 2008). In Translation Studies, psychological and personality issues have tended to be ignored or regarded as insignificant (apart from in isolated studies, such as Hubscher-Davidson, 2009). Thus, one of the gaps that we see in interpreter and translator education and training is the explicit effort to build student confidence and create awareness among students of how their psychological skills and self-evaluations can affect their actions and choices.
Bontempo and Napier’s work (2009, 2011, 2012) provides an exception to the relative lack of research on psychological factors in the field of interpreting (aside from cognitive, memory-related, and psycholinguistic issues to do with performance—i.e., process research). Bontempo and Napier have explored interpreter performance and pedagogical issues in terms of interpreter personality characteristics; Bontempo has also raised concern regarding the possible link between interpreter personality and vulnerability to vicarious traumatization at work (Bontempo & Malcolm, 2012).
Bontempo and Napier (2009, 2011) asked whether personality assessment can form a useful part of interpreter selection for training programs. Personality, understood here as a constellation of behavior characteristics with long-term stability, is perhaps most famously modeled using the “Big-5” construct (Costa & McCrae, 1992; Goldberg, 1990). Personality in general has some solid relationships with work performance—particularly neuroticism, which is correlated with negative occupational performance, and conscientiousness, which is correlated with positive occupational performance (Neal, Yeo, Koy, & Xiao, 2012). The perfectionism construct, related to general personality but actually part of motivation theory, has also been a relatively good predictor of positive performance (Rice & Slaney, 2002), although excessive perfectionism can also have negative effects. Self-esteem, although potentially more transient and changeable than core personality, and more related to what are sometimes labeled “core self-evaluations,” is also related to performance (Judge & Bono, 2001b; Judge, Jackson, Shaw, Scott, & Rich, 2007).
Bontempo and Napier (2012) have observed the same general patterns in relation to interpreter performance, with the major predictors of sign-language interpreter performance of a U.S. sample of interpreters being self-esteem and openness to experience (a component of the Big-5 personality model). They conducted the same study with an Australian sample and found the major predictors of interpreter performance were self-esteem and conscientiousness (again, a component of the Big-5 model). These findings tie in with concern for aptitude testing of people applying for interpreter training programs, so as to select the best candidates and reduce the failure rate (Russo & Salvador, 2004).
However, we focus in this article on what can be done after students have been accepted to an interpreting program, irrespective of any preprogram selection procedures. By its very definition, personality is difficult to change; psychological skill is less so.


The basic method proposed here is self-assessment, which can be undertaken by using the scales provided in Appendices 1a, 1b, and 1c, using a self-report methodology (also used in Atkinson, 2012). This is relatively simple: Students read the scales and follow the instructions, summing their total scores at the end. Strictly for students’ own self-evaluation, we provide score ranges, indicating students’ placing for each scale. The scales are validated, have been used in prior research, and have undergone quality control measures (see Section 3.1 below).
The self-assessment procedure might run as follows. First, the students complete the scales and add up their scores, as per the instructions given. This gives them an idea of where they stand with the psychological skill components. The interpreter educator then explains the general range of scores and what they mean regarding psychological skill. It is vital that students complete the scales first, before explanation, because this will help to reduce effects such as social desirability bias (Nederhof, 2006).
The next crucial step in self-assessment is dealing with the results. After students complete the self-assessment, we recommend that they be given the opportunity to talk to the interpreter educator if any concerns arise. This is particularly important for those who may feel significant self-doubt after looking at their scores. The educator can provide information, after using the scales, noting what scale indications might be problematic, based on the information given here in the appendices. The debriefing is a standard technique for social science research, in case that research brings up some problem or anxiety on the part of the participant (Sieber, 2004). The same basic principle applies here, except that in this case we are also interested in teaching and improving on the basis of such feedback, rather than in simply reducing potential harm.
After the students have had time to think about their own responses, there should be an opportunity for the scores to be discussed in a general manner in the classroom. For example, the ranges and general significance of each part of the range can be discussed with students. It is recommended that this be done in as encouraging and supportive a manner as possible, so that students do not come away with the impression that they are “stuck” where they are. On the other hand, it may be that those with extreme scores could benefit from assistance and perhaps career counseling (offered discreetly), so they can verify for themselves whether they are suitable for interpreting, in terms of the “person–job fit” model (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005).


Self-Evaluation Scales

All three scales have been tested psychometrically by their original authors and have been used subsequently by other researchers. They have had their internal reliability (Cronbach’s alpha) tested by the main author; the alpha values were adequate for the explanatory style scales and very good for the occupational self-efficacy scale (Atkinson, 2012).

Occupational Self-Efficacy Scale

The Occupational Self-Efficacy scale was originally designed as a work-related self-efficacy scale by Schyns and von Collani (2002). It was designed to measure the degree of self-efficacy that users had, and focuses on their occupational self-efficacy rather than general self-efficacy. In essence, the scale measures how confident people feel towards their particular job—how capable they feel about using the skills they have to solve problems and to create successful outcomes. Note that self-efficacy is not the same as self-esteem, because it does not include a component of self-worth as a person (Judge & Bono, 2001a).

Two Explanatory-Style Scales

The explanatory-style scales were originally designed as a single general-use scale for looking at locus of responsibility for negative and positive events (Brewin & Shapiro, 1984). This entails users making judgments on whether they see positive events and negative events as being caused by themselves or caused by external forces, such as situational factors or other people’s actions.
The original scale involved two sections—Responsibility for Positive Outcomes (RPO), and Responsibility for Negative Outcomes (RNO). Factor analysis showed that there were at least two factors in the scale (Brewin & Shapiro, 1984), and our research showed that this separation was justified (Atkinson, 2012). The RPO section of the scale is divided into two sections, with three questions asking whether respondents consider that positive outcomes are due to luck, other people, or other external forces, and three questions asking whether respondents consider that positive outcomes are due to internal causes, such as effort and skill. The RNO scale, on the other hand, has six questions asking respondents about their perceptions of responsibility for negative events that happen to them. Most people will end up being higher on one scale than on the other, as these nominally measure opposing ends of the same construct.

Discussion and Recommendations

Explicit teaching about psychological skill will assist students in increasing their metacognitive awareness of how the presence or absence of this skill affects them, helping them understand the mechanics of how the components work. There are a number of options for teaching students about psychological skill. Three of these that we focus on are explanation, modeling, and role-play, which range from the theoretical to the practical (Sample scenarios are provided in Appendix 2). The descriptions here of these are necessarily brief.[2]


Explanation describes to students how the components of psychological skill work within us—in other words, the theoretical mechanics of the components. The method of delivery is fundamentally a lecture about the basic details of self-efficacy and explanatory style in a user-friendly manner (lecture with examples, backed up with PowerPoint or similar media). Explanation of the components is an essential first step in developing student understanding. Many people are not consciously aware of the effects of particular types of self-evaluation on their subsequent behavior. Explanation can be supported with a video clip or other visual presentation to emphasize the key points. Visual presentation also provides a good link into the modeling method of teaching.
Half an hour or so to explain the basics of psychological skill should be sufficient. Accompanying the explanation with plenty of real-life examples can be useful in helping students to understand how these principles operate. Examples can be particularly helpful for those students who come from cultures in which Western-style psychology has yet to have a large influence in the public consciousness and/or is not part of the educational milieu. In our teaching practice in Translation and Interpreting (T&I) Studies, we have observed some students in this category who have benefited from examples to clarify their thinking about the components of psychological skill and how these might work for them.


Modeling is the opportunity to learn from others by observing their behavior and then modeling that behavior. It takes education a step further from explanation, and builds upon it. Modeling is a fundamental component of learning, particularly of procedures and of behaviors (Bandura, 1971; Dowrick, 2012) and is described in Bandura’s theory of observational learning (Fryling, Johnston, & Hayes, 2011). Modeling can be achieved in the learning setting by having students observe behavior between various actors or watch videos. Role-play, another way to teach psychological skill, can also provide modeling in the classroom setting.
For example, the instructor can demonstrate the difference between explanatory styles regarding a single event, such as a criticism of interpreting performance, and show a number of ways in which the interpreter can explain the outcome. In an excessively negative explanation, the interpreter blames herself in a negative and unconstructive manner; in an excessively positive explanation, the interpreter blames others or the situation for her performance. The instructor can then present a “balanced” situation, in which elements of both personal responsibility and external causes are integrated and turned into something that the interpreter can deal with, without going to the extremes of self-punishment or refusing to take responsibility.
Modeling can also be demonstrated by showing video footage of professionals’ responses to challenging work situations, or by inviting in professionals to discuss their experiences. A custom-made film clip might present a range of different situations, in which the principal actor performs a think-aloud-type protocol, explaining thoughts and decisions as they happen. Invited professional interpreters might explain to the class how their self-efficacy and explanatory style have been put to use in a number of specific situations. (Using professional interpreters as guest speakers would require that they be briefed beforehand, to ensure that they understand psychological skill and can communicate relevant information to the students.)


Role-play is often very effective for learning, practicing, and honing particular behavioral responses or patterns of action; it also presents good opportunities for modeling (Johansson, Skeff, & Stratos, 2012; Lane, Hood, & Rollnick, 2008). In the classroom, interpreter educators can role-play different characters at once (in other words, play the part of two or more individuals in a conversation), or they can involve particular students who feel confident enough to take on a role with the educator or with other classmates. Students who are high in confidence and volunteer to participate may benefit less directly from such training, because they typically already have good psychological skill. Nonetheless, their contribution offers an excellent peer modeling opportunity for other students in the class.
Instructors can also have teaching colleagues, or even professional interpreters, participate in the role-play—professional interpreters would have an advantage in being familiar with the situations the role-play might involve. In another method of role-play, the interpreter educator might have a student read a script concerning client criticism of an interpreter’s performance and model the responses of high and low self-efficacy. Here, the teacher demonstrates role-play and also provides a model for the students. This can give students the confidence to try such an activity themselves, perhaps in pairs or triads.


Based on the research discussed in the Introduction, we advise allowing at least one formal teaching session within interpreter education and training programs for the development of psychological skill. The session can include a consideration of burnout, stress, and trauma concerns for interpreters, and sharing strategies to mitigate these (Bontempo & Malcolm, 2012; Crezee, Hayward, & Jülich, 2011)—in other words, broad psychological issues affecting interpreters. The research drawn from the broader field of psychology is clear that self-efficacy and explanatory style can be influenced by intervention (Hyde, Hankins, Deale, & Marteau, 2008; Proudfoot, Corr, Guest, & Dunn, 2009; Sofronoff & Farbotko, 2002). Such intervention undertaken as a part of basic interpreter education, to build awareness of the role of psychological skill in improving interpreter resilience and enhancing professional practice, will complement the current emphasis on technical and linguistic skills. We hope that our recommendations also provide inspiration for further research in this area, to observe and measure the effectiveness of different methods for teaching psychological skill development.


We thank AUT University for making this project possible under the auspices of the 2012 Post-Doctoral Fellowship. We also particularly thank the anonymous reviewers for taking the time to give detailed and helpful feedback to improve this article.


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Appendix 1a: Occupational Self-Efficacy Scale (Schyns & von Collani, 2002)

The following questions ask you about your general beliefs about work and about your work as an interpreter. Think of a range of situations, both past and future, and answer the following questions based on how much you agree or disagree with each statement. Even if you feel that the question may not apply to you, try to draw upon your experience to answer.

Disagree strongly Disagree moderately Disagree slightly Agree slightly Agree moderately Agree strongly
1) Thanks to my resourcefulness, I know how to handle unforeseen situations in my job. 1 2 3 4 5 6
2) If I am in trouble in my work, I can usually think of something to do. 1 2 3 4 5 6
3) I can remain calm when facing difficulties in my job because I can rely on my abilities. 1 2 3 4 5 6
4) When I am confronted with a problem in my job, I can usually find several solutions. 1 2 3 4 5 6
5) No matter what comes my way in my job, I’m usually able to handle it. 1 2 3 4 5 6
6) My past experiences in my job have prepared my well for my occupational future. 1 2 3 4 5 6
7) I meet the goals that I set for myself in my job. 1 2 3 4 5 6
8) I feel prepared to meet most of the demands in my job. 1 2 3 4 5 6


After students have completed the scale, they can sum their scores. Scores on this scale range from 8 (very low occupational self-efficacy) to 48 (very high occupational self-efficacy).
Score Ranges
The range of scores can be a useful guide to students: 8–16 = very low occupational self-efficacy, 17–24 = low, 25–32 = moderate, 33–40 = high, and 41–48 = very high.

Appendix 1b: Explanatory-Style Scale: Responsibility for Positive Outcomes (Brewin & Shapiro, 1984)

Please answer the following questions concerning your attitudes towards positive events in general life and in your work as an interpreter.

Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
1) It will largely be a matter of luck if I succeed in life. 1 2 3 4 5
2) If I get what I want in life it will only be through hard work. 1 2 3 4 5
3) In my case getting what I want has had little or nothing to do with luck. 1 2 3 4 5
4) I have found that success in anything is built on hard work. 1 2 3 4 5
5) Most of my successes have happened without my really trying. 1 2 3 4 5
6) Success seems to me to have been largely a matter of having been in the right place at the right time. 1 2 3 4 5


After students have completed the scale, they can sum their scores. The sum of scores of Items 2, 3, and 4 indicate the tendency towards believing in personal responsibility for successful outcomes. The sum of scores on Items 1, 5, and 6 indicate the tendency toward believing in the responsibility of external forces or other people for successful outcomes.

Score Ranges

The sum of scores for Items 2, 3, and 4 range from 3 to 15. A score of 3 indicates a very low degree of belief in personal responsibility for success, whereas a score of 15 indicates a very high degree of the same.
Concerning Items 1, 5, and 6, a score of 3 indicates a very high level of belief in personal responsibility for success, whereas a score of 15 indicates a very low belief in the same.
Table 1: Responsibility for Positive Outcomes scale scores

Low responsibility Moderate responsibility High responsibility
Items 2, 3, and 4 3–7 8–11 12–15
Items 1, 5, and 6 12–15 8–11 3–7


Appendix 1c: Explanatory-Style Scale: Responsibility for Negative Outcomes (Brewin & Shapiro, 1984)

Please answer the following questions concerning your attitudes towards negative events in general life and in your work as an interpreter.

Strongly disagree Disagree Neither agree nor disagree Agree Strongly agree
1) I usually blame myself when things go wrong. 1 2 3 4 5
2) For most of my misfortunes and disappointments I have nobody to blame but myself. 1 2 3 4 5
3) When I have been criticized it has usually been deserved. 1 2 3 4 5
4) My misfortunes have resulted mainly from the mistakes I’ve made. 1 2 3 4 5
5) When relationships with others have gone wrong I have usually felt that I was to blame. 1 2 3 4 5
6) When people have not liked me I have usually felt there was something wrong with me. 1 2 3 4 5


After students have completed the scale, they can sum their scores. The sum of scores ranges from 6 (largely blame themselves for negative events) to 36 (largely blame others or outside influences for negative events), and is indicative of the degree to which people blame themselves when things go wrong for them.

Score Ranges

The ranges of scores for all items are presented below.
Table 2: Responsibility for Negative Outcomes scale scores

Low responsibility Moderate responsibility High responsibility
6–16 17–26 27–36


Appendix 2: Sample Scenarios

These sample scenarios can be incorporated when teaching and discussing psychological skill in the classroom. For each, instructors should present a back-story of some kind the students. The students should then be given a few minutes to consider the issue themselves. The instructor can then ask the students to discuss their feelings and ideas about the situation, perhaps first with a partner, then with the class, for those who wish to (this latter part may tend to attract the more confident students). How they respond and how they feel may be indicative of level of psychological skill. The reaction will be entirely personal to each student who considers the scenario, and the aim of the methodology is to develop self-reflection and promote in-class discussion.
Scenario Example 1: You are presented with the possibility of accepting an interpreting job that is within your abilities, but one which you consider will challenge you significantly. Would you accept it or not, and what would be your reasoning process for making your decision? Those with higher levels of self-efficacy will probably be happy to accept such a job, whereas those with lower levels may not want to stretch themselves (so much) beyond their comfort zone. In this situation, a person’s “risk appetite” (perhaps better expressed as “appetite for challenge”), which is at least partly influenced by their self-efficacy, can influence how much a person is predisposed to try new activities.
Scenario Example 2: You receive some negative feedback from a client concerning the quality of your interpreting. The client alleges that some mistakes were made which led to a contract being cancelled. Thinking about it carefully, you are fairly sure that the quality of your interpreting was of a high standard. How would you apportion responsibility for this event? Do you think that your interpreting influenced the outcome, or is it more likely to be some other factor? A question such as this should tap into the students’ explanatory-style tendencies, and get them to start thinking about how they explain the causes of events. How they respond to a situation like this should also be reflected in the way in which they used the Responsibility for Negative Outcomes scale (see Appendix 1c), which will indicate how much responsibility they tend to take.


[1] AUT University’s interpreting program teaches one session on assertiveness, in the context of building resilience in responding to criticism. This partly relates to explanatory style, and the tendencies concerning how people respond to such criticism.
[2]The primary author is currently working on another article that outlines these methods in more detail.