Young woman against a white brick wall

The Art of Faking It ‘Til You Make It

– By Athena Matilsky

There are few things more off-putting than to hear an interpreter fill their delivery with um and uh, second-guess themselves, and interject side commentary. In real-life situations, this sort of delivery makes the listener tune out. On a test, it costs the candidate time, scoring units, and most importantly, it saps one’s confidence. If we allow ourselves to give in to doubt and second-guessing, it takes over. Furthermore, if you are trying to tackle something difficult that you’ve never done before (a faster speed, for example, or a particularly complex expert witness topic), all those voices of doubt that lead to a non-confident sounding delivery stop you from reaching the very goal you are trying to achieve. The good news is, though, that the opposite is true! The more confidence you project, the more confident you will feel.

So how do we convince ourselves and those around us that we’re the best interpreters ever? We fake it until we make it. This is easier said than done, and as test season approaches, I thought that the topic deserved its own post.

I’ve broken it down into three sections that you can apply to your own life as you see fit.

1) Practice, Practice, Practice!
Confidence must be cultivated. That means that you should treat every opportunity like it’s the real deal. If you are studying for an exam, then every practice interpretation should mirror the test conditions. Interpret whichever section you have chosen, from start to finish (feel free to choose bite-sized sections to minimize overwhelm). When you hit a difficult spot that you don’t know how to interpret, leave it in the original language and move on. The important thing is never to stop. Afterwards is the time to analyze and see what you can do better, of course. That’s when you research words, listen to examples, and then you repeat the exercise until you’ve polished it to near-perfection. But while you are interpreting is not the time for analysis or research. It’s the time to tell yourself you’re the best interpreter there ever was, even if you don’t yet believe it. If someone’s watching you, make them believe it.

2) Allow for Silence
One thing I’ve noticed, especially with sight translation, is that we have a lot of trouble allowing ourselves to pause. This is a phenomenon that has been noted in more places than interpretation; when it gets quiet, we get nervous. So, if we are interpreting, and we’re the cause of the quiet, we become frantic. Enter the Um Parade. Our ums fill the silence, but they’re not nice to hear. The good news is, you are allowed to pause. So next time you’re not sure of how to resolve a difficult syntax issue and you need a moment to think, take a breath and quietly determine your solution. It feels weird at first, but it is more pleasant on the ears and puts you in a better state of concentration, leading to higher accuracy. This applies particularly to sight translation, but it can also be applied to consecutive. With simultaneous, the challenge is to simply keep interpreting without getting flustered or adding fillers. See above: Practice, Practice, Practice!

3) Be Prepared to Fumble
As interpreters, we tend to beat ourselves up when we’re not perfect. I’ve noticed it’s a common trait that pretty much every interpreter shares (yes, I’m counting myself!) But if you’re looking for perfection, you should find a new profession. Interpreting requires us to navigate a host of difficult emotional, mental and even physical challenges, often in an unfamiliar environment on a range of topics for which we may or may not be prepared. We have good days, and we have bad days. In other words (shocking, I know!) we are human. So instead of

aiming for perfection, my advice is to understand we won’t be perfect, but to learn to keep going when something goes wrong. That means that if I’m interpreting simultaneously and I hear a word, even that easy word that I totally should know, and I suddenly can’t for the life of me interpret it, I keep going. In real life, you can research it in a break and make a correction if necessary. On a test, consider it collateral damage and move on. But don’t beat yourself up. This is part of faking it ‘til we make it; not letting ourselves collapse just because we weren’t perfect. If you’re studying with a partner, don’t even let them know you know you’ve messed up; you can tell them at the end, and then try to improve the next time. See above: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what I have to say on the topic! If you’re looking for more advice relevant to test-taking, check out a recent webinar with Virginia Valencia from Interpretrain and yours truly: https://youtu.be/5vAHosQtSho. And for a breakdown on studying each mode of interpretation, check out previous blog posts: Conquering Consecutive, Solving Simultaneous and Sailing through Sight. Feel free to share your own tips and observations below.

Remember: You’re the best interpreter there ever was!


Athena 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/

9 Comments
  • Martin N Anderson
    Posted at 14:43h, 28 July Reply

    This is very good advice. I would add one thing: Speak up. An interpreter who seems timid and/or can’t be heard exudes a lack of confidence. Alternatively a full, clear voice can carry you through difficulties you wish later you could have handled differently. Also remember how annoying it is when attorneys, judges, or witnesses don’t speak loud enough.

  • Terri Shaw
    Posted at 15:18h, 28 July Reply

    Excellent advice. I can recall many occasions when I have done what you advise.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 15:27h, 28 July Reply

    That’s a technique that some frown upon but that I embrace wholeheartedly. It has helped me though sticky personal and professional situations. The important thing is to monitor oneself honestly and closely.

    Thank you, Athena.

  • Andrea Aranguren
    Posted at 17:49h, 28 July Reply

    Thank you so much! I truly enjoy your posts and they are very helpful for this journey of becoming a court interpreter!!! 🙂

  • Constance Marina
    Posted at 19:57h, 28 July Reply

    Excellent suggestions, Athena!

  • David Mintz
    Posted at 15:45h, 31 July Reply

    Thank you so much for this non-boring blog post.

    It was perhaps 20 years ago when a colleague and I slapped together a presentation for a NAJIT conference about court interpreting as a performing art. I don’t think we had much to offer beyond the obvious, but people seemed to enjoy the discussion of the fact that a background in being on stage (doing music, theatre, dance, anything) makes for good preparation. I would add that doing a sport and being called upon to accomplish something athletic in front of a crowd serves the same purpose. Learn to act like you know what you’re doing even as your heart is pounding with anxiety. You’ve nothing to lose and much to gain.

  • Choonsoo Kang or Charlie Kang
    Posted at 07:31h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks for your great advices.
    The Art of Faking it ’til you make it is actually my motto. I have finished Master of Law in Korea, now I’m really into English communication study. I realized learning English like natives takes long time but I’m trying to enjoy it all the time. I assume I’m perpect court interpreter always recalling “fake it, ’til you make it”
    So in order to enjoy English communication, I’m constantly practicing English.
    And I’m willing to do volunteer work in Korea in the part of court and judicial interpretation.
    Again thank you very much.
    Charlie Kang
    In S. Korea.

  • Observer Editor
    Posted at 03:11h, 10 August Reply

    Viola, you are mistaken. There was no censorship and no messages were held back. Messages by NAJIT members who comment frequently are automatically approved by the system, that is all. The others must be approved manually. The NAJIT Observer is managed by a group of volunteers and, at this moment, only one person checks the comments.

    Your accusations and tone are uncalled for.

    The Editor

    • Viola
      Posted at 19:30h, 10 August Reply

      Thank you for the clarification. Please remove the last message accordingly.

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