This past March, I had the privilege of hosting a community coffee hour for one of my biggest heroes. Our guest of honor was Holly Mikkelson, who, among other notable accomplishments, created the ACEBO self-study interpreting materials.
She never ceased to amaze me during our conversation, least of all with her humility. She spoke almost apologetically, as though the fact that she took an informal study resource and turned it into the first set of comprehensive audio court-interpreting practice materials in North America is made any less incredible by the fact that the whole project started around a kitchen table. Her work has elevated our profession and enabled so many of us to wrap our minds around the challenging techniques posed by interpreting.
“Did you know that your materials would be hard?” I asked her (if you’ve ever used Interpreter’s Edge, you know those practice exercises are no joke).
“I certainly did!” came her response.
“What would you recommend to people in the field, both newbies and veterans of the profession?” I asked.
“For people who are just starting out, I’d say keep plugging away,” she said. “And you’re never going to be perfect. Interpreting is the art of being good enough.”
“You should always try to come as close to being perfect as you can,” she continued. “Remember the people you interpret for, and interpret for them, for the people who don’t speak the language and really depend on you to know what’s being said. If you take that attitude into your exams, you’ll be a little more relaxed and confident and not worry so much about being perfect. Interpret for those people, not for this imaginary inquisition that is going to be examining you.”
That concept resonated with me, and it reminded me of something that our Glendon MCI (Master’s in Conference Interpreting) Director Andrew Clifford always told us, something that I now say to my students:
“Interpreters have good days, and they have bad days. When you go into the room on exam day, you will be nervous; you may not have slept great the night before; your brain might feel a bit fuzzy. In real life, that will happen, too. So, when you are tested, you are tested not to see you at your best, necessarily, but to potentially see you at your worst and to have your worst be good enough.”
What it comes down to is that interpreting is an art form. Our renditions are impacted by many factors, some personal, some external. Although we often try to treat it otherwise, interpreting is not an exact science.
To admit this fact is to acknowledge the tremendous risk taken on by our colleagues and ourselves.
That’s why part of being “good enough” means being honest with ourselves. We must know what we do well and capitalize upon it. We must learn to clear our minds of stress and panic to focus on the task at hand. Finally, we must notice our weaknesses and build awareness of our blind spots.
We must know when we’ve made mistakes and correct them.
To acknowledge that we are imperfect is to see what stands in the way of perfection and ensure that any personal weak spots do not negatively affect our clients.
To be an interpreter is to know that we are not perfect, but that if we work very hard, perhaps we can be good enough.