The Art of Faking It ‘Til You Make It

There are few things more off-putting than to hear an interpreter fill their delivery with um and uh, to second-guess themselves, and to interject side commentary. In real-life situations, this sort of delivery makes the listener tune out. On a test, it costs the candidate time, scoring units, and most importantly, it saps one’s confidence. If we allow ourselves to give in to doubt and second-guessing, it takes over. Furthermore, if you are trying to tackle something difficult that you’ve never done before (a faster speed, for example, or a particularly complex expert witness topic), all those voices of doubt that lead to a non-confident sounding delivery stop you from reaching the very goal you are trying to achieve. The good news is, though, that the opposite is true! The more confidence you project, the more confident you will feel. Continue reading “The Art of Faking It ‘Til You Make It”

The Trouble With Memory

…or, How To Forget About Interpreting and Just Listen

You know how the saying goes: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I’m sure you have heard it; we all have. But have you heard the saying for interpreters? No? Well, that’s because there isn’t one, but I’m going to float one by you. How about: The only thing that messes up our short-term memory…is fear of messing up our short term memory. Well? How about it?

Think about it this way. Remember that time you heard that rumor about your best friend’s sister-in-law and were able to recount it word for word? Or when you could explain to someone the entire plot arc of a 7-season television series? Or remind your partner, during an argument, of what exactly she promised you last week? Well, it’s happened to me, and I’m sure something like it has happened to you too.

Yet something happens when we stop listening and enter interpreting mode. Suddenly just a few sentences feels positively overwhelming. One sentence goes by and we think, “I’ve got this.” Two sentences go by and we think, “I can manage it.” And then a third goes by (or the speaker tosses in a word that doesn’t have an immediate obvious translation) and if they don’t stop talking it’s like someone has just set off the sprinkler system in our brain. We shut down completely and enter full-on panic mode. And then, in our diligent effort to remember absolutely everything, we find ourselves remembering nothing at all.

So, I ask, what’s an interpreter to do? Well, this builds a little off the premise I discussed in previous blogs, Conquering Consecutive and Save the Interpreting for Last (Published 10/27/16 and 4/24/15, respectively). The issue I raised then is that we have to understand a message first in order to properly interpret it.

The same applies to memory. In order to remember a message, you have to listen to it first!  You can only remember what you actually hear. (And don’t tell me that the problem is your notes. Okay, yes, notes may be a factor. Our notes can always be improved, and perhaps you do have a problem with legibility/organization/writing too much or too little, etc. But here’s the thing about notes. They are there to trigger your short-term memory. But if you didn’t build that memory to begin with, your trigger is useless.)

So what stops us from listening, and therefore remembering? Well, it’s that pesky little voice distracting us, of course. The one that tells us we have to remember absolutely everything. The one that panics when the person keeps speaking. The one that knows we can remember an entire episode of Friends, but doesn’t trust us to listen to a 50-word utterance without slamming on the panic button.

I liken that voice to your cranky child in the back seat of the car. “Mom! Mom! Mom! I’M HUNGRY!” goes your beloved 4-year-old son, over and over. But you can’t pay attention the 4-year old right now. Of course, you can’t very much kick him out of the car, either, but what you can do is shut him out of your brain so you can concentrate on driving.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I dare you to practice (because this has to be practiced. It’s way easier said than done) ignoring that voice of panic in your head. No, you can’t get rid of him completely, but you can choose not to engage him. I dare you to trust in your ability to do a fine job interpreting later, once you’ve finished listening to the message. The longer the speaker goes on, the harder you should concentrate on listening. That cranky kid in the back seat is just going to have to wait a while, and then once you get home you can feed him. Because once you’ve heard the whole message, and I mean truly heard it, interpreting will get easier. And that’s a promise.

[Also published at on 4/28/17]

Acrobatics: A Metaphor for Interpreting with Confidence and Humility

Those who know me outside of interpreting know that acrobatics (specifically partnered “Acroyoga”) is my not-so-secret other love. I am tempted to wax enthusiastic and convert you all to Acroyoga right here and now, but I will limit myself to explaining something I learned about acrobatics last weekend that I find to be applicable to interpretation. Continue reading “Acrobatics: A Metaphor for Interpreting with Confidence and Humility”

Zen and the Art of Interpreting

During a presentence interview with a man who had pled guilty to stabbing a stranger to death “by accident,” I could almost see an embodied form to the protests taking shape inside my brain. The vision was similar to a cartoon where the angel and the devil sit on either shoulder egging on the poor hapless human, except in this case the drawing depicted a fight between me as an ethical professional interpreter and my sense of righteous indignation.

I must say, it was a difficult battle, but Interpreter Me managed to contain Sense of Outrage long enough to finish the interview. It wasn’t just the fact that the limited English proficient (LEP) person for whom I was interpreting had murdered someone — it was his whole demeanor. He looked genuinely apologetic, the way I would feel if I unwittingly slammed a door on someone’s finger. Except in the scenario with the door, no one died. He alleged true regret, and I actually believe he felt sorry…which makes what he did even that much more unbelievable.

There is more to the story, including my Sense of Outrage kicking and screaming at the man’s admission to the fact that he “had not acknowledged” his only son born back in his home country, and the fact that he “didn’t remember” his son’s mother’s name. But with some difficulty, I shut up my inner voices and finished interpreting the interview.

While I have a right to my opinion of murderers, rapists, and other Really Bad People, there is a linguistic dilemma posed when one’s angry thoughts start overtaking one’s brain. But there are other areas of criticism and judgment that are more difficult to justify. Yes, the bilingual attorney is extremely irritating when he objects to a client’s utterance before you have interpreted it, interrupts you and then corrects your interpretation. Yes, the couple before the judge arguing about who has to pay their kid’s medical bills is behaving like a pair of selfish five-year-olds whining to their mom.  And yes, it is frustrating when your clients whisper, mumble, don’t wait for you to finish, and in other ways put your interpreting skills to the test. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t interrupted someone, talked fast or said unfortunate things to a spouse?

Here’s the thing: the people we interpret for are human and so are we. All of us hear, think and react. But the art of our profession as interpreters manifests itself in how we process our reactions. We simply must put everything out of our minds except for meaning and language if we are to do our jobs effectively. Mindful focus and concentration become paramount, and with practice we can home in more precisely on what people are saying. Background noises don’t bother us as much, and we become skillful at letting things go.

I daresay that with practice, we can also cultivate a more empathetic and open mind. The key phrase here is “with practice.” Empathy does not necessarily come naturally, and it helps to purposefully inject some perspective. The fact that I don’t often associate socially with the demographic that I interpret for in court can distance me and make me more judgmental.

On a recent trip to Honduras, while interacting with friends and acquaintances, I stopped to think, these are people who, if they were going through a rough time right now and found themselves in my New Jersey courtroom, would need me to interpret. They might not understand how to speak in a way that would make interpreting easy. They might behave childishly toward their ex-husbands or wives. On the other hand, they are normal people with everyday struggles and diverse personalities. Also, some of them tell hilarious jokes or make baleadas* that are to die for. In other words, I took the opportunity to see LEP individuals in context. Then, when I returned home with a fresh dose of perspective to accompany my Honduran mosquito bites, I practiced kindness.

As it turns out, being nice takes practice. But when we go into an interpreting situation with the understanding that everyone deserves respect, it becomes that much easier to concentrate on doing our job. And then, even in truly challenging interpreting situations, where we think maybe they don’t deserve any respect at all, we are able  to set aside those angry, sad or outraged voices in our heads.

We are interpreters. Passing judgment is the judge’s job, not ours. And thank goodness for that!

*  A baleada is a wheat flour tortilla, often quite thick, folded in half and filled with mashed fried beans and other ingredients. A Honduran specialty.

Originally published in the Summer 2014 edition of Proteus, Official publication of NAJIT.