An Honest Conversation with Fear

“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” ~Eric Whitacre

I like that quote. It speaks to me. I think you could replace the word “performing” with “interpreting” and paste it on the walls of all our offices. Interpreting is terrifying. But then again, so is life.

I think it’s possible that one of the reasons I decided to be an interpreter is because of how scary it is. In fact, I know that was one of the reasons. I remember considering my options and thinking, interpreting sounds exciting. And it is exciting. Too exciting. Thrilling. Petrifying. Call me brave or call me an adrenaline junkie, but interpreting is certainly not for the faint of heart.

It’s not just the action of interpreting, either. It’s the entire journey we have to take in order to earn our credentials. It’s the constant need to honestly admit to our weaknesses and our difficulties. It makes us better people, but boy is it hard!

A month or so before my university exit exams (I wrote all about that saga in a post titled No Pressure or Anything) I sat down to have a direct conversation with Fear. It was a conversation a long time coming, because I had begun to notice the pin pricks of anxiety whenever I thought about the test; the twist of the stomach, the fluttering in the chest—those physical signs that something is wrong on the inside. So I sat down. I closed my eyes. I breathed and waited to see past the racing thoughts, ready to drift into feeling. Listening.

Eventually, when it was ready, Fear spoke to me. “I’m afraid,” it said. (I don’t know about you, but my first impulse is always to shut that voice down. After all, who wants to be afraid, let alone admit it? But I was determined, so I breathed again and relaxed. I let the Fear speak.)

“I’m scared,” she continued.  “Scared of messing up. Scared of embarrassing myself. Overwhelmed at the enormity of the work left to do if I don’t pass.”

I kept breathing. I imagined what would happen in the worst-case scenario. Doom. Gloom. Sadness.

I asked Fear what she needed if everything went the way I hoped it wouldn’t.

“Love,” she answered quickly. “Support. Understanding.” Oh, I thought. That’s all? I can do love!

Once I had that honest, difficult chat with Fear, my stomach began to settle and my butterflies went away. It was kind of like that Eric Whitacre quote; the fear was still there…but I got comfortable having her around.

After I opened my eyes, I wrote myself a note. On the note, I put all the reasons why I thought I might pass my exams—feedback from professors, colleagues, and myself. Real reasons why I might be okay. Then, on the bottom, I wrote…And if I don’t pass…I will be depressed. I will eat a lot of ice cream. And then I will pull myself back up, and life will continue.

I heard another quote recently:

“What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” ~Attributed to actress Mary Pickford

Everyone knows that people make mistakes. Everyone knows that we can use those mistakes to learn and to grow. But so many of us get so scared that we don’t even try. Never succeeding it all feels better to us than failure. But if you can be honest with yourself, if you can look at your fears and your failings, you can use them to grow. You can become a better interpreter. A better human being.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, day after terrifying day. Happy October, everyone!


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

Read other posts by Athena Matilsky.

12 Comments
  • Diana Batho Clark
    Posted at 15:15h, 09 October Reply

    Thank you for this beautifully written expression of a vital experience shared by all of us interpreters. In fact I learned early on in my career to be grateful to stage fright, as the ultimate antidote to dangerous overconfidence. Of course we know there is a performing aspect to interpreting and I often feel grateful for my early stage training when I am interpreting testimony in court, because it helps me mirror to the extent possible the tone and mood of the speaker without caricature. I still feel stage fright every single time I have to interpret and I’m glad: it’s the red flag of conscience saying, be careful, respect those who rely on your speech, and do your very best because anything less will create unfixable errors with unforeseeable consequences. Thank you, Fear!.

  • Thais Garranchan
    Posted at 16:44h, 09 October Reply

    I loved your post, not only because I can fully relate to the fear and the addictive adrenaline rush, but also because of synchronicity, perhaps, I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert who dealt with her fear in a very similar way. I am glad we, and many ither interpreter out there, instead of quitting decided to enter into an Agreement with fear and followed our passion for this exciting career hand in had with positive fear! No regrets whatsoever after more than 20 years in the profession!
    Thank you!

  • Joaquin Luna
    Posted at 16:55h, 09 October Reply

    Love your article and specifically today I experienced your comments and it’s over and still love to be an interpreter ! Thank you

  • C.L. Morgan
    Posted at 18:15h, 09 October Reply

    Wonderful post, thank you for your honesty. Love your conversation with Fear and what she told you–basically affirming that you are on the right track, in the right place, time, and profession. I imagine she would say the same to most of us!

  • Vicki Bermudez
    Posted at 19:46h, 09 October Reply

    Oh my goodness…I thought I was the only one! It is really comforting to know I’m in such great company! Thank you for being so honest!

  • Iris Farias
    Posted at 22:19h, 09 October Reply

    So true! I often say that the loneliest place in town is the witness stand (even when team interpreting).
    I go through the same stress and anxiety when I work on the witness stand. Every single time. But once I get into the flow of testimony, I am able to focus.
    This was beautifully written, thank you!

  • LAURA ELENA SALCIDO BLANCAS
    Posted at 23:48h, 09 October Reply

    What a beautiful post. Thank you!

  • Sylvia J. Andrade
    Posted at 00:28h, 10 October Reply

    So true! It’s even more true now with the Zoom interpreting. We have no chance to speak to the witness and get an idea as to nationality and educational level. We’re flying blind– At least, that’s what it feels like, I also worry about security issues. That’s another topic.

  • Andreea Boscor
    Posted at 02:23h, 10 October Reply

    So perfectly put!

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 23:36h, 12 October Reply

    Psst, I have a little old school secret that in my ancient days used to be taught in college to students in a speech in public course called “Introduction to Oral Communication.” The fight or flight response (hyperarousal) is a normal stress response when taking the “stage” in any form. Embrace it. What’s not good is the physiological effect it brings. What happens is that it disturbs your electrolytes. You’re like a battery, and the stress response causes the the electric current going through your nervous system to flux, because your electrolytes are in disarray. The secret is to “ground” yourself. Just like, for example, you would ground yourself before you tinker with the inside of a computer so you don’t get a static discharge, you need to ground yourself when the stage fright starts setting in. The old secret is: Carry a paper clip in your pocket. Stick your hand in your pocket and rub it between your fingers. It rearranges the circuit and the physiological reaction goes away, leaving you with the alertness you want to keep from the fright or flight response, sans the fear. Gracias, diosa coronada.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=CwkRpAEdU-U

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 18:24h, 13 October Reply

    Hey everyone,

    Thank you all for your kind words and comments. It is so nice to see my post resonating. I think it makes us all feel a bit less alone, to share these experiences! Thais, it’s so funny that you mention Elizabeth Gilbert and Big Magic. I actually began reading the book a while back. I feel like her approach to life is very informative.

    Alfredo, I’ll have to try your paper clip trick next time I have the pre-performance jitters.

    Take care, all, and keep having those honest conversations!

  • AJ Elterman
    Posted at 15:55h, 21 October Reply

    Thank you for your beautiful and truthful writing. The fear factor and how to deal with it resonates with me too. I am still facing fear when going on assignments that require the language that is not my native fluency language and involves memorizing new terminology and special preparation. Facing the unknown feels threatening and uncomfortable, but we the Interpreters somehow thrive on the adrenaline and the reward of flow. By the way, I have also learned to identify unnecessary and harmful fear spread by mainstream media and other sources of information 24/7 and use awareness with humor to counteract it. It really makes life easier and keeps you healthy in both mind and body.

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