Keep Calm and Interpret

While "Keep calm and carry on" might be a bit overused these days, it's still a powerful message, and it especially applies to interpreting. Whether you are a conference, court, community, medical, diplomatic o especially military interpreter, keeping cool under pressure is very much an essential part of the job. This usually isn't a problem for experienced interpreters, but if you are a relatively new interpreter, how do you go about controlling your nerves? 
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  • Be prepared. The best way to control your nerves is to prepare for the assignment as much as you can. In theory, at university and in workshops we learn that we always have to request material ahead of time, but the reality of our profession is another: you might request materials and only get them half of the time, which can be quite frustrating. However, the internet and all the lovely resources at our fingertips have really changed the way we can do research. For instance, Judy was recently hired to interpret at a high-level court hearing, but the attorney never gave her any detailed information. He did, however, give her the name of the plaintiff, and Judy used that information to look up his case in the public court records system. Those records don't include a copy of the actual complaint, but at least Judy knew what the charges were. It's a start, and unfortunately, in this profession, you have to learn to work with incomplete information. Dagy recently had a difficult conference interpreting assignment, and never received the PowerPoint presentations, even though she requested them repeatedly. She decided to make the best of it and used the basic agenda that she had to read up on the legislation that would be discussed.
  • Put on your power suit. This might go without saying, but we still see plenty of interpreters who are not dressed as professionally as everyone else in the room. In addition to the fact that professional dress is mostly required, wearing a good suit (your lucky suit, perhaps) also usually does wonders for your self-esteem. We both have a few suits that we know fit well and that will make us feel strong and confident. We'd feel less confident in yoga pants. What you wear really can change your attitude. When in doubt, wear a suit. It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed, and first impressions go a long way. You can put everyone else in the room at ease by walking in with confidence and well dressed.
  • Fake it if you must. We are not suggesting that you should fake interpreting skills that you don't have. Please be sure to only accept assignments for which you are fully qualified, but sometimes nerves can still play a huge part (they certainly do for us once in a while). Even if you are nervous, it's important to not show it. Take a deep breath, sit with a straight back (or stand up straight if you are in front of an audience), focus on positive body language, and trust your abilities. The first few minutes might be challenging, but things usually do get easier with time. Be sure to warm up your voice beforehand. Naturally, your assignment shouldn't be the first thing you interpret that day, so do a few short interpreting exercises just before you start or before you leave home.
  • Put others at ease. You probably interpret all the time, but remember that some of the people in the room might never have worked with an interpreter before, so the situation might be stressful for them, too. If it's appropriate, take a few minutes to assure them that you are there to bridge the linguistic barriers, and if there's time, briefly explain how it all works. Judy recently went to an administrative hearing that included an in-person committee, committee members on the phone, a plaintiff on the phone, and an attorney on yet another phone. It was a formidable challenge for all parties, and early on, one of the committee members asked Judy if she could interpret in the following format: "He said.... she said..." Judy explained to the committee member that best practices in our profession dictate interpreting in the first person, and that put him at ease.  We think educating both clients and the public about how interpreting works is very much part of our work.


Unknown on April 30, 2014 at 9:29 AM said...

Thank you so much for this inspiring post. More of a reminder, and it’s good to have these from time to time.
In fact I’m not quite sure to agree entirely with the power suit issue though. There’s a world of possibilities in terms of dressing professionally between the power suit and the yoga pants. It’s important to be comfortable in order to project a confident image. There’s nothing worse than someone dressed up in a suit but feeling awkward in it. You can spot them from miles (like those not used to walk on high heels). So without going for blue jeans and old rags, I believe one can find a compromise that will do the trick. Combining elegant trousers with a leather jacket can work perfectly well. Ok, I’m digressing… don’t get me started on fashion 
But allow me to share a tip given to me by one of my former teachers. I still use it in situations where I find myself tensing up or intimidated: Have a good laugh! And by that I mean watch a funny video or share a joke… anything that will make you laugh out loud. This is physical: you cannot be tense when you’re laughing. It’s good for your breathing and relaxes the diaphragm and your facial muscles (of course, you’ll have to find a discreet place to do it, as it might be inappropriate in certain situations).


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on April 30, 2014 at 1:22 PM said...

@Scilla: Thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful comment! It's great to have you share your experiences here -- many thanks. Yes, we fully agree: one must find professional dress that is comfortable and fits well, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a suit, although a suit is an easy standard. We know all about wearing a suit that's too tight (or too big) -- it's uncomfortable and can really impact your performance. Let's continue this fashion conversation in the future - fun! Your tip (elegant trousers and leather jacket) sounds lovely. Here in the US, it's also important to stay relatively warm, as most indoor spaces are freezing cold, even when it's the middle of summer outside. We usually wear long sleeves under our jacket and bring scarves to drape over our knees (yes, it really gets that cold).

Love your tip about laughing out loud, which one could do in the bar, on the bus (well, maybe not) and perhaps in the bathroom. Laughter really is the best medicine, and the added relaxation bonus is the cherry on top.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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