Acrobatics: A Metaphor for Interpreting with Confidence and Humility

Acrobatics: A metaphor for how to interpret 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.

There are many poses in acrobatics that make us nervous (and justifiably so!) Case in point, the one I performed last weekend, where I perched, stiff as a board, on my partner’s feet and waited for him to bend his knees and launch me into the air so that I rotated 180 degrees and he could catch me on the other side. In such a case, my goal as a “flyer” is to know what shape I am in at the beginning and where I need to be at the end. I must then transition smoothly and without hesitation. The moment I become nervous and flail, the trick will come apart and cause me to be more nervous for the next time. It struck me last weekend that outwardly I must be confident even if inwardly I am trembling.  At the same time, if I truly know I should not attempt a trick I must clearly state so at the earliest possible moment. Communicating with my partner and recognizing and attempting to correct my own flaws is a necessity.

Yes, I realize that interpreting is different from standing on someone else’s feet with nothing but the trust in my adductor muscles and my partner’s good judgment. However, the demand for accurate self-assessment, confidence in our presentation and recognition of our mistakes and limitations in directly analogous.

Consider the need for confidence as an interpreter. We must present ourselves as knowledgeable members of our profession in order to be respected and have our work taken seriously. We must know where we are and where we are going and have the conviction to request what we need. Similarly, we must be able to stand our ground if our interpretation is called into question.

Then again, the more nervous we are, the worse our interpretation can be. I don’t know about you, but there are a few things that make me nervous as an interpreter. A colleague observing can be a bit nerve-wracking. The entire jury silent waiting for your interpretation of witness testimony can cause anxiety. And certainly any of these situations can distract our brain enough to cause our renditions to be not quite what we would like, which in turn increases our nervousness. Taking a breath and interpreting with confidence “fake-it-til-you-make-it” style will actually change the interpretation and others’ perception of you, which in turn will bolster your confidence, until suddenly you find you aren’t faking it anymore. Kind of like how I ended up cross legged 8 feet in the air last weekend with a “What, me, scared?” smile plastered on my face.

But sometimes…the trick doesn’t go the way it should. In acrobatics, we trust in our spotter, our partner and ourselves and if there is a mistake hopefully no-one gets hurt. With interpretation, if we make a mistake we must correct it. Enter the role of Humility. Here we must be constantly self-aware and conscious of the Big Picture. We confidently put our best foot forward, do the best job possible, and then jump at the opportunity to make it better even if this means admitting we have done something wrong. Yup, it’s an ego slap. But even here, having confidence will help us to move past this. If we remember that our entire worth as interpreters is not determined by any one situation, we can admit fault and maintain the respect for ourselves as professionals and for the products of our work. Then, like the circus performers we are, we can pick ourselves up off the floor, smile at the audience, and start fresh like it was all part of the act.

Food For Thought: To err is human and to mope about it is too. J Recently I asked my partner if she still felt confident working with me after I had made a mistake which I corrected with the judge. She laughed and assured me she did, which of course I already knew. But it helped to hear her say it! With that bit of external validation I was able to remind myself that one mistake does not a terrible interpreter make. But of course we want to take pride in our profession and so swallowing that same pride can be challenging. What are your coping mechanisms? How do you project confidence and yet remain ready to put your ego to the side when it serves the big picture? Join the discussion! I look forward to seeing your responses below.

4 Comments
  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 19:52h, 23 November Reply

    Great analogy, Athena!

    Admitting mistakes, being humble, and swallowing my pride were skills I learned and sharpened with age. I can now laugh when I make a mistake and admit I am not perfect. But I suspect most interpreters (if not all) are perfectionists, and rather than learning how to admit (and correct) mistakes, they device all kinds of cover-up strategies. Taming the ego is one tough challenge!

  • Nicholas A. Gibler
    Posted at 23:33h, 24 November Reply

    I agree with what you both say, except for most interpreters being perfectionists. I think translators are perfectionists, but interpreters can’t afford to be. You don’t have the luxury. If you made a mistake or missed something, you just keep going.

    My experience tells me to keep going.

    I tell my students: It’s never about you. It’s about the people you’re interpreting for. If you make it about you, your ego will get in the way and mess things up.

    I remember I thought I was doing a great job once. It felt good. I stopped for a split second to enjoy the moment. “Hey, you’re doing great!” I said to myself.

    Next moment I was lost. I had moved my attention from them to my big fat EGO, and there went everything. I had to eat humble pie and and say, “Sorry. I missed that. Would you please repeat what you just said?”.

    So, feeling good? Remember it’s not about you. Be there, be nothing. It’s not about you.
    Feeling bad? It’ still not about you. Be there, and be nothing. It’s not about you.

    Nobody cares about you anymore than they care about the phone line when they are having a conversation. Unless the phone fails. Then it gets all the attention. Same thing.

    You be there, but your EGO is not invited.

    Keep going. Keep your attention outward. Forget about yourself. Everybody else does.

    And yes, meditation, yoga, and other spiritual practices, are great ego-taming exercises to help you do a much better job as an interpreter.

    Now, a translator is something else. The translator will look for the exact word, nuance, construction, interpretation, figure of speech… just like the writer the translator is. And a perfectionist. He/she will write and rewrite, check and recheck, revise and re-revise, and may want to go on forever, check things one more time, etc., the problem is the text may NEVER get delivered.

    Well, I have a MAXIM: Every translation is perfectible, but you have to deliver it sometime.

    That’s where you draw the line between the “perfect” translation and the “deliverable” translation.

    Thanks for the inspiration and the opportunity to share my thoughts.

  • Kevin Mercado
    Posted at 15:57h, 25 November Reply

    This reminds me of a theme form a previous post where, to an English speaking party, a good interpreter who does not interrupt and a bad performer who does not interrupt are perceived the same. Both deemed good on the quality of their English and lack of interruption.

    I try to approach interpretations methodically, and improve a little bit with each exchange. This keeps me in the right frame of mind.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 11:31h, 01 December Reply

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your responses! I wish I had seen these sooner but for some reason I wasn’t alerted to any replies. I appreciate everything you all have to say. As you can probably tell from my post, I definitely agree with the “it isn’t about me” mentality. However, we are all human, with egos, so I believe the answer to success lies in finding a productive way to “tame” those egos, however that may work (ie, I don’t think that suppression of the ego is truly attainable). Telling myself that no-one cares/notices doesn’t work so well for me, personally. However, having personal goals and an understanding about the big picture and how I fit in does help. I also appreciate the contrast between interpreting and translating…my perfectionism really kicks in big-time when I attempt translation work, and I like the idea of looking for “deliverable” rather than “perfect”!

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