Hard Doesn’t Mean Impossible

This week it was my turn to post on the NAJIT blog, and I asked some of my colleagues what I should write about. I was told, “Don’t teach. Tell your story.” So here it is.

I graduated Rutgers in the spring of 2008 with a bachelor’s in Spanish interpreting and translation, and a very big gringa complex. I had started learning Spanish just five years prior, and my language skills were a far cry from those of my classmates who had grown up in bilingual households. I had a pipe dream of becoming a UN interpreter, and I thought I could begin in the court and medical settings while I gained experience and worked on my French (which I started studying a semester after I began Spanish). But looming over me was the state court interpreter exam which at the time had an 89% fail rate (as far as I know, that number hasn’t changed much). I remember asking my professors if they thought I could do it, and I remember their responses being less than optimistic. “I wouldn’t want to discourage you,” they began. “But…” The test is very difficult. The requirements are demanding. Your language skills have to be spot-on.

At the time, my own self-assessment of my Spanish was: not bad, but not yet “fluent.” I imagined fluent to be a state of linguistic expertise I could one day achieve, or not, depending on the success of some magical “immersion.” It took a year in Honduras and countless hours studying for me to realize that there is no such thing as fluency, at least not as I had imagined it. My language skills were, and always will be, located on a continuum, and I will never be done learning. I tend to be more forgiving about my English, learning through contextual clues without looking up terms in the dictionary, whereas I beat myself up whenever I encounter a Spanish term that I don’t know. The year I spent in Honduras was helpful, but I had to push, hard, to achieve the Spanish input I was looking for. I carved time out of an exhausting day teaching sixth grade to make friends with the moms and speak Spanish. I arranged a homestay. I journaled in Spanish. Immersion is what you make it, and you don’t magically achieve fluency by plopping yourself in a country for a year. You have to actually try.

I came home and I found a job at a domestic violence shelter as a bilingual advocate. I still wanted to be an interpreter but I still wasn’t sure that I could. Sometimes I think that if it hadn’t been for one court interpreter supervisor who believed in me enough to grant me a (non-paid) internship, I would have given up on the idea completely. But instead, I traveled through traffic twice a week to complete 70 hours of court interpreter observations, followed by 80 hours of internship with a local legal aid organization. And I kept studying. The pages on my ACEBO book started to fall out, but I kept studying.

I failed my first certification test. That coincided with the first deposition I ever interpreted, where the attorney talked about me behind my back in the bathroom, not realizing I was in the stall. She was nasty about my language skills because I had interpreted her client’s words (correctly) and she wanted his answer to be different. I was so nervous I sweated through the dress blouse that I had bought for the occasion, and I learned an important professional lesson that had nothing to do with interpreting: Always pack deodorant in your purse!

And yet I kept trying. I don’t know why—sheer tenacity? I’ve always been pretty stubborn. But I took the test again, and this time I passed it, at the Master level. And that’s when my attitude started to change. I realized that my language skills still weren’t perfect, my interpreting skills also weren’t perfect, but nobody’s are. I realized that part of being a good interpreter is knowing when you’ve made a mistake, and how to correct it. And I also realized that by studying, I had become quite good. I’m still not great at slang or idiomatic expressions, and I still have a complex about my language abilities. But I know what my strengths are, too, and I know how to admit that I don’t know everything.

So, because I have people in my life who push me, I went for the federal exam. And the medical interpreting exam. I landed a job as a staff interpreter at a beautiful local courthouse in New Jersey, and I stayed there for three years. But then, because all that wasn’t enough for me (because I guess I’m crazy), I decided to do it all over again. In French.

So here I am in Montreal! My French is not fluent, in that magical way I always imagined fluency to be. I worked on it over the years but it always took a back burner to Spanish, and even now in French Canada it’s still hard to find opportunities for “immersion” when everyone always switches to immaculate English! But I’ve managed to become approved as a French court interpreter, because apparently on the continuum, my French is pretty high up there. In the meantime, I’ve started teaching, something that I truly love. I tell my students that this profession is hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. You just have to not take “no” for an answer.

Last year I took (and failed) the U.N. freelance exam, but I’m not going to let the muggles get me down. There have been some recent developments in my pipe dream to become a UN interpreter, in the form of continued education and persistence. My goal is starting to get within reach, and I’ll keep you posted on the specifics soon. Stay tuned!

[Published to the on 4/6/18.]

One (Word) Picture is Worth 1,000 Words

Have you ever heard the term, word picture? If you are a trained interpreter, chances are you have. Often, it is explained as a remedy; a way to describe a term that has no equivalent in the target language. However, word pictures are much more than that; they are the manifestation of what we interpreters do out in the field every single day.

A couple of months ago the word picture concept came up in a class I was teaching, and off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any examples in Spanish. My initial explanation was that between English and Spanish, we have most of the equivalent translations that we need. Certainly there are times when we may not have a direct translation. But for the most part, I opined, word pictures were more common in languages of lesser diffusion.

I now realize what a faulty explanation that was. The truth is, all we do as interpreters is paint word pictures. And once we understand that, our job becomes so much easier.

Think back, for a moment, to the last time somebody in your family became sick. Recall, in your mind, their symptoms and the way that they acted or felt. Do you have that image in your mind now? Great. Can you describe it in any of the languages you know? Of course you can. You have the idea in your mind, and you are painting it with your words. That, my friends, is a word picture.

The thing is, we interpreters usually get so stuck in the words themselves that we lose sight of the larger picture. In an effort to capture every nuance, every modifier and every detail, we forget to pay attention to the story these words are painting. It’s like focusing really really hard on choosing our paint colors, as if the colors themselves were the most important part of a piece of art.

Meanwhile, the interpreter who is lost in the individual words themselves becomes overwhelmed. “I’m fine with one or two sentences,” we say, “but when the speaker keeps going, I can’t remember it.” What we forget is that this is not about memory. It is about listening, picturing, and understanding until a clear image of what the speaker is saying has been painted in our minds. At that point, our job becomes simple. We just have to paint that picture in the other language.

As with most things, this is always easier said than done. But the tricky part is not the initial attention we must pay or the final words we choose to paint the picture. Rather, it is calming our minds of all distractions so that we can focus on the speaker with the utmost concentration. To remember, we must forget what will come later.  We must trust in our ability to listen and to speak, and then polish our attention until it is razor sharp. “Oh my gosh, how can I remember all this,” is a nagging voice that we must eliminate in order to do our jobs properly.

If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try it out. The next time you have a moment at home (you should always test new techniques at home before applying them to a real-life situation) listen to a quick segment of a speech. Don’t think of what will come next. Work to clear your mind of anything but the highest attention to what the speaker is saying in the original language. Once you have trained yourself to pay attention, you will easily be able to express their story in your own words. The rest of the color (details, modifiers, etc.) will soon follow. So, go ahead and paint those pictures. I bet you didn’t realize you were an artist, did you?

[Also published at on March 2nd, 2018]

United We Stand, Divided We Risk it All

Happy New Year everybody! For the first post of this year, I’d like to propose a new year’s resolution that doesn’t involve us joining a gym. Not that the gym is so terrible, but if you happen to live in the northeast right now (I know, you Floridians and Californians and other Stateswhereitiswarmians can just keep smiling smugly) then I want a new year’s resolution that keeps me at home, experiencing as little of the arctic temperatures as possible. I mean, it was -28 degrees Fahrenheit in Montreal on New Year’s Eve. Just saying. Those aren’t exercise conditions. Continue reading “United We Stand, Divided We Risk it All”

Federal Interpreters or Bust!

I still remember it vividly: On October 18th, 2013, I discovered that I had passed the FCICE federal exam. It was one of those remarkable moments that remain transfixed in one’s memory no matter how much time passes. I was elated to receive the news.

Continue reading “Federal Interpreters or Bust!”

Lots of Resources for LOTS Interpreters

Last year I left my job as a Superior Court staff interpreter, and moved from New Jersey to the beautiful city of Montreal. I’m here temporarily, working on a book and improving my French. The idea is that with increased language proficiency I will be able to apply my skills as a Spanish interpreter and open myself up to new opportunities. My test date has already been set for October, so this summer I rolled up my sleeves, opened up my computer, and got to work. Except…what in the world is a Spanish interpreter to do when she discovers that not everything is spelled out in her new language? Continue reading “Lots of Resources for LOTS Interpreters”