Bravissimo! The Interpreter as Performer

A couple of weeks ago someone sent me a link to a video from Spain of a talk show host conversing with a student who had called in to the program. The host asked the viewer what she was studying, and the young woman answered “traducción e interpretación” (translation and interpreting). What happened next has caused a certain amount of indignation and criticism in the interpreting world. In Spanish the words “interpretación” and “intérprete” can also refer to performance and performer. When the host heard that the woman was studying “interpretación” she thought she meant she was studying acting. The word “traducción” should have tipped the host off, but she naturally went to the meaning most familiar to her in the world of show biz.

The video made me consider this double use of the words interpreting, interpretation and interpreter, something that has always intrigued me. Are we interpreters performers? Of course we are, but only in certain very fundamental ways.

My own contact with performing onstage is singing, which I have done all my life. I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag, but give me a melody and an audience, and I am there! My husband says I’m a ham, and maybe that’s part of it, but when I sing I feel that I am communicating something beyond myself. It’s the music, it’s the words, it’s the meaning and I how I feel about it.

I believe that what connects spoken language and sign language interpreting with performance art is talent, skill, and attitude at the service of a shared goal of communication.

Now of course there are huge differences between these two types of performance. The main difference is one of purpose. The task of the musician, dancer or actor (especially nowadays) is primarily to entertain, although the true artist seeks to go beyond mere entertainment in order to communicate whatever deeper meaning the composer, choreographer or dramatist has envisioned upon conceiving the work to be performed. On the other hand, the purpose of the spoken language or sign language interpreter is usually that of communication only. We seek to entertain at our peril!*

Like the performer, though, the interpreter must have certain qualities in order to be good at his craft. The most basic is talent. Not all bilingual people can become interpreters. There must be a certain relationship with language, an innate ability to move from one language to another, producing equivalent meanings like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Like a good interpreter, a good performer must have talent. Check out the first few shows of any American Idol season!

Almost of equal importance is a deep and extensive knowledge of the two languages in which one interprets. This is not just a matter of acquiring vocabulary. No two languages share the same syntax, grammar or idiomatic expressions. These are our basic building blocks—the tools of our profession that we acquire during many years of study and dedication. In the world of entertainment, the really excellent singer or dancer (we’re not talking about here-today-gone-tomorrow pop singers or hip-hop “artists”) has years of hard work and perseverance behind her.

We must be prepared. As a singer, I learn the words and notes of a piece of music, and then I work on the expression, the dynamics and the general feel of the piece to get it into my head and body so completely that there is no possibility that I will make a mistake. As an interpreter, I have no such luxury. Although I can sometimes have a very good idea of what the witness/attorney/judge is about to say, there is no way I can know in advance. In order to minimize the potential for mistakes, I must learn as much as I can about a given case, prepare glossaries, familiarize myself with the events in question and try to anticipate any curve balls.

But I believe that the most important attribute shared by all of us performers, both in the language interpreting world and in the entertainment world, is that of attitude. How do we approach the task at hand? I believe that the elements of this attitude are: the ability to purposefully put the self to one side temporarily, the ability to stay in the moment while still being aware of the very recent past and the ability to be mindfully focused and actively involved in what is going on.

I must confess that I am always nervous both before a performance and before a complex interpreting assignment. As soon as things get started, though, it my fears seem to disappear. It’s no longer “me” out there singing my heart out. It’s no longer “me” in the deposition room facilitating communications. Granted, I am not always totally successful in immersing myself in either type of performance, but on a good day, it’s like magic. The day I can no longer maintain the focus I need to communicate either in song or in words is the day I step away from the mic and walk out of the courtroom.

*There are, of course exceptions. There are sign language interpreters who work in the entertainment field, and whose interpretation is meant to communicate the meaning and sometimes the beat of music in performance. Click on this  link to view some amazing interpreters:

See TV host Toñi Moreno on the program Entre Todos, TVE

Some performance tips the interpreter can use:


0 thoughts on “Bravissimo! The Interpreter as Performer”

  1. CKInterpreting Services says:

    Excellent article.

  2. Good article. One correction: we interpreters who work between spoken and signed languages are not called deaf interpreters. There are Deaf interpreters, but they generally work as intermediaries between hearing interpreters and Deaf clients who need additional help communicating with each other.

    1. Kathleen` says:

      Thanks, Daniel. I hope my corrections are acceptable.

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