Appreciate Yourself! Being Your Own Best Critic

In the small county seat where I work several times a week there is a traffic circle. It is  a small oasis in a not-very-attractive little town. In spring and summer there are shade trees and flowers. There is a central fountain, and a number of benches are formally positioned for the use of those wishing to eat lunch there, meet friends or just enjoy the scene. On the northern section of the circle there is a monument to a police officer who was killed in the line of duty some years back. When I see it, I am reminded of the trial of the man who shot and killed the officer, a trial during which I learned many lessons, the most important of which was that no outsider can really appreciate what it is the interpreter does, and that we err when we feel that we are due some recognition from  general observers for a job well done.

One big difference between interpreting and other professions

Now, in some ways interpreting is an unusual field. The interpreter is often the only one in the room who understands what everyone else is saying, and the only person capable of communicating what is said so that all may understand. Unless another interpreter is present, only the interpreter knows how well or how poorly he has done his job. In other professions, it is usually quite apparent to the consumer when the doctor, the dentist, the plumber, the electrician, the hair stylist, etc., has really achieved excellence in his chosen field. Not so in the case of the interpreter.

Our own best critics

So we interpreters must be our own best critics. Sometimes we astonish ourselves with our own brilliance. The equivalent words come easily, the idiomatic expressions flow seamlessly from one language to the other, the thorny grammatical constructs of the source language are re-coded to form equally complex structures in the target language. Other times, we do very well indeed; not every expression is exactly on point, but we are satisfied with our performance. And then there are occasions, far fewer we hope, when we are only adequate. We convey the meaning, but without finding that mot juste, that perfect equivalent we seek.

We are never less than adequate.

Our ability to assess our own performance is particularly important in consecutive  interpreting for witnesses in a judicial setting. In order to reflect as accurately as possible the words and the tone of the speaker, we must monitor our rendition constantly and improve it as much as possible as we go along while attempting to maintain some consistency. This is much easier when we have a colleague prepared to give us a little nudge in the right direction, to provide a word or phrase we are groping for. We don’t always have that luxury. (Just as an example, there was the time I needed to find an equivalent for an expression a witness was using. Literally, it would be translated as “I made myself dead.” At first, I rendered it as “I pretended I was dead.” Afterward, since she used the expression many times, I was able to change my  rendition very quickly to “I played dead.” The first version was adequate, the second was much better; a literal translation would have been unacceptable.)

The trial and what I learned

And that brings me back to the trial I mentioned above. My task was to interpret the  testimony of the man who had witnessed the crime and its aftermath. Since his testimony would be relatively brief, it had been decided to use only one interpreter. As it turned out, I interpreted for one full afternoon session and the following morning. Not too bad.

I had the advantage of being the interpreter for the witness prep. I knew generally what the man would say, I was very familiar with his way of expressing himself and I had interpreted the prosecutor’s instructions on how to answer questions put to him by the defense and the prosecution. There were going to be complex and difficult questions and answers dealing with time and space. “How far away were you from the defendant’s vehicle?” “Was the man with the gun seated in the driver’s seat, or in front passenger seat, or in the rear right passenger seat, or in the rear left passenger seat?” “How close was the defendants’ vehicle to the patrol car?” “How much time elapsed between the moment you heard the vehicles approach and the gunshot?”

Yes, the prosecutors had tried to cover all the bases. I was also well prepared, but I hadn’t reckoned with the sheer emotion surrounding this trial. This case concerned the murder of a man who was the beloved son, father, brother, cousin, friend or colleague of half the town. Most of them found a way to be present at the nine-day trial at some point. The gallery was always full.

At first the testimony was routine. I felt I was doing a really good job. Questions and answers were going smoothly. I was handling the registers well—maintaining in Spanish the more formal vocabulary and phrasing of the attorney’s English, and rendering the witness’ Spanish answers in colloquial English.

Then we got to the difficult part. You see, the officer had died in the arms of my witness before the emergency personnel arrived. As he struggled to find the words to describe the officer’s death and how he had tried to ease his passing, the witness had to pause often to compose himself. “Un momento, por favor.” “One moment, please.” The weeping in the courtroom was audible. I couldn’t bring myself to look at anyone, so I kept my eyes straight ahead and kept on going.

Expectations and realizations

It was a harrowing afternoon and morning. But I knew I had done my very best. Foolishly, I sort of expected someone, anyone, to thank me, to let me know they  appreciated how well I had interpreted this difficult testimony. I had friends and acquaintances in the gallery. Not a word. The prosecutors didn’t even give me a glance. Nothing. Then I realized, “Hey, for crying out loud, this isn’t about you! These people are far too involved with their own feelings and reactions. If I want feedback, it will have to come from me alone.”

My assessment? Well, sometimes I was brilliant, but mostly I was just very good. Every once in a while I was merely adequate, but never less than adequate. I can live with that.


American Translators Association. A Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Interpreters

WikiHelp. How to Appreciate Yourself More Than You Do.

99U Insights on Making Ideas Happen. Why Your Inner Critic Is Your Best Friend

3 thoughts on “Appreciate Yourself! Being Your Own Best Critic”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I want to take a moment to thank you, Kathleen, for your article. It was very insightful.

    1. Kathleen says:

      Thanks, Rebecca!

  2. Andrea says:

    Rebecca, I want to thank you for your article. As I’m wrapping up my preparations for taking the State Oral exam for the first time tomorrow, it was just what I needed to relax, plus insightful translations for some expressions that, who knows if they won’t be on my exam!

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