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]

Interpreting for Justice

The problem with court interpreting is that it’s messy. Heck, life is messy, and court interpreting is just a manifestation of our daily struggle with chaos.

Allow me to explain.

For months now I have been mentoring students to study for their tests; notably I’ve been coaching them for the federal exam, which is fast approaching. And tests, of course, are their own embodiment of the devil incarnate. But in a way, they are so simple. Tests are black and white. Points are awarded or not. A phrase is in the dictionary, or it isn’t. In other words, tests are clean. Continue reading “Interpreting for Justice”

Everyday Quandaries of a Court Interpreter

Just another day in court: Trapped in the middle of a contentious divorce trial
between two pro se parties full of rage and completely unversed in the rules of law and trial proceeding.

After hours of arguing, Mrs. Divorcee calls her first witness: her 92-year-old
mother. The tiny, sedate lady approaches the stand, takes her oath, and refuses
to raise her voice above a (very faint) whisper. Furthermore, she doesn’t really
want to answer her daughter’s questions (and to be fair, her daughter’s “direct
examination” consists wholly of questions such as: “Is it true that I told you
he was a bad person?”) She merely wishes to issue a monologue under her breath
about how much she dislikes the soon-to-be ex-son-in-law. She explains
indignantly after the fifth request that she raise her voice, “but then they
all [indicating the judge and court clerk] will be able to hear me!”

Finally the excruciatingly painful direct examination ends, and the cross-examination begins. In an attempt to demonstrate his soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law’s lack of credibility, Mr. Divorcee begins asking her what she can and can’t remember, including today’s date. This is when things go from hairy to hairier. In Spanish, the witness says, again under her breath, “the date…what day is it. What day is it? No, what day is it?” I begin to interpret this into English and she looks straight at me, raises her voice for the first time and snaps in Spanish, “SHUT UP!”

Let’s be real here. This is an amusing anecdote. But it also illustrates some of the every-day quandaries that we interpreters face. We are under an obligation to facilitate communication so that court proceedings with people who don’t speak English are equivalent to those of people who do; no more, no less. We are supposed to try to be invisible. But our mere presence in the room and our proximity to the litigants changes that courtroom experience. The 92-year-old witness was most likely looking to me to provide an answer to her out-loud ponderings. If I had not been there (i.e., if she had spoken English), the incident most likely would not have played out the way it did.

Likewise, what of those litigants trying to get the court’s attention? If they say, “permiso, puedo preguntar algo?” even if they ask very quietly, I have no problem saying in English, “I’m sorry, can I ask a question?” But sometimes they simply try to catch my eye, raising their hand a fraction of an inch, trying to get not the judge’s attention, but mine. It turns out I’m not invisible. But they are not saying anything, so what can I interpret?
Then there are the litigants who try to show you evidence. They have photos they try to shove under your nose, receipts they forgot to hand to the sheriff’s officer and again, there is nothing to interpret.

I find that a little bit of education goes a long way; explaining that I am there only to interpret, that they should speak clearly and slowly and direct all testimony to the judge. Many judges will include that in their instructions, and perceptive judges will notice when the litigant is trying to show the interpreter something and redirect the parties’ attention. If all else fails, I can say, “your honor, the interpreter is being given documents.” But this always feels a bit sticky. Am I overstepping my boundary? If I were not there, the litigant might be trying to show this directly to the judge, but they might not.

English-speaking litigants don’t have someone whose sole job in the courtroom is to make sure they understand the proceeding. No, we interpreters are not there to simplify the language or help with the proceeding in any way other than providing linguistic equivalence, but their interaction with the interpreter is most likely more comfortable and less intimidating than their relationship with the judge.

In the end, it seems that our task is impossible. There is no exact equivalent to the non-interpreter proceedings; you either speak English and there is no interpreter, or you do not speak English and there is one. When there is one, the dynamics of the room change. Is our job then not to create equivalence but to minimize differences? I am curious to know your thoughts. In the meantime, I will cross my fingers that today’s divorce proceeding does not end with a tongue lashing directed at yours truly!

Published at on 12/26/14