Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from an interpreting assignment listening to NPR radio, as is my custom. The program was “Fresh Air,” and Terry Gross was interviewing an author named Michael Lewis on a piece of his in the magazine Vanity Fair about his experience hanging out with President Obama on a day-to-day basis. The interview was fascinating, but one thing really struck me. Mr. Lewis stated that Mr. Obama sought to avoid making decisions about everyday things so as to save his energy to make more important ones. I went online to read the article in its entirety. Here is the section referenced:

‘ “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting.’  (Lewis, 2012)

Wow. I couldn’t help but relate this little nugget of information to our own work. Surely there are few professions out there that require as much constant and repeated decision-making as interpreting. I continued researching this phenomenon, and came up with the following from the New York Times:

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain… ” (Tierney, 2012)

So it’s not just the thought process of converting information from one language to another, it’s not only the intense focus or performance anxiety that cause the fatigue we all know so well, but also the constant decision-making so necessary to render an accurate version of what we are hearing into another language.

The decisions that we have to make in our work are far more complex than just figuring out what to wear or what to eat. Unlike when buying a car or even drafting a translation, we have no time to weigh the pros and cons. The decision has to be made right then and there, and the consequences of our decisions must be faced with equal immediacy. Talk about stress!

Now, I’m one of those people given to making snap decisions, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t like to shop around. Because I usually have things planned out, I know exactly what I want and exactly what I am willing to pay. I remember going into a furniture store once with my husband to buy a dining room table, chairs and hutch. We walked in, I immediately saw what I wanted (a nice simple Mission-style set that I still have), and we were out of there in forty-five minutes. My husband, who tends to want to consider all options, was aghast. “Are you absolutely sure this is what you want?” he asked. Of course I was sure. My goodness, how I hate shopping and comparing and analyzing and all that! My philosophy when it comes to decision-making is something like: “I’ve made my decision; now let’s go home.”

So in the courtroom, I am naturally disposed to make quick choices without dithering. Speaking of dithering, I’ll never forget the time I was at a simultaneous interpreting training, where I witnessed a phenomenon that left me and the other people there absolutely astonished. As we took turns interpreting what we were hearing on a tape, one young lady evinced an extraordinary ability, although perhaps not one best suited to simultaneous interpreting. For every longish word from the source language, she would give two or three selections in the target language. For example, for the word “device,” she might say: “aparato, mecanismo, dispositivo” (apparatus, mechanism, device). And so good was her diction, so rapid her delivery, that we understood every word! She simply could not make a decision as to which word was best in a given situation. The result was, of course, that she began to fall farther and farther behind, until she finally trailed off into silence. The instructor just looked at her and said, “I think you know what you need to do, don’t you?”

And so do we all. There are various strategies we can use to make the decision-making process easier and thus less fatiguing. The first and most obvious is team interpreting. When interpreting for long periods, we must absolutely take breaks from the constant need to make quick decisions and adjustments. When we can just stop the process for a bit, we are then better able to go back and take up the reins again. We can even use the time to learn from our colleagues how they handle the decision-making process and store up techniques for our own use.

Accumulating terms, expressions and glossaries is most certainly a strategy that all of us use to help with decision-making. I believe that one of the reasons that we interpreters are always so intent on finding the exact way to translate a given term, so bent on grasping terminology and “freezing” it so as to be able to produce it at will, is that we are attempting to avoid as much of the decision-making process as we can. If we have a set vocabulary we can whip out without thinking too hard about it, we can then concentrate on making the more difficult decisions.

Finally, we need to prepare for our cases as much as we possibly can to decide in advance, like a translator, which terms are the best to use in a given situation. It is, of course, ideal to be able to at least listen to the person or persons whose speech we will be interpreting, but there are always surprises, as we all know.

But I kind of like the following strategy best. Like President Obama, I need to find someone who will make the day-to-day choices for me so that I can devote my decision-making skills to my work and thus avoid degrading my ability to make decisions. I just know I would be a perfect interpreter if only I could find someone to pick out my clothes, make me breakfast, load my briefcase, feed my cats and drive me to work!

Sandra Beatriz Hale. 2004. The Discourse of Court Interpreting: Discourse Practices of the Law, the Witness and the Interpreter. Sydney, Australia. University of Western Sydney.

Bethany Korp-Edwards. 2012. Time for a Paradigm Shift V: Where Do We Go From Here? National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators Blog. Retrieved from:

Michael Lewis. 2012. Obama’s Way. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from:

John Tierney. 2011. Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue? The New York Times
Retrieved from:

Andrew Erickson, Primary Author; Nancy Festinger, Isabel Framer, Judith Kenigson Kristy, Editorial Team. 2007. Team Interpreting in the Courtroom. National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators Position Paper. Retrieved from:

Holly Mikkelson. 2008. Evolving Views of the Court Interpreter’s Role: Between Scylla and Charybdis. Published in Martin, A. and Valero Garcés, C., eds. Crossing Borders in Community Interpreting: Definitions and Dilemmas. John Benjamins. Retrieved from:

Zambrano-Paff, Marjorie. 2011. The Impact of Interpreters’ Linguistic Choices in Bilingual Hearings. In SelectedProceedings of the 13th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium, ed. Luis A. Ortiz-López, 190-202. Somerville, MA:Cascadilla Proceedings Project. Retrieved from:


0 thoughts on “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you, Kathleen! Now I understand a lot of things better. And, BTW, I behave just like you with regards to shopping.

  2. Loved your article and I also follow your proclivity for quick decisions. I must have unconsciously figured out that the quicker I get something off my plate, the more time I will have to handle everything else. No procrastinating for me!

  3. David Mintz says:

    Nice post. Thank you.

    You might be interested in the book “How We Decide” by the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer (disgraced, because of a faked-quote scandal involving one of this other books — wait, things move so fast, maybe he’s already been rehabilitated!).

    Maybe others can relate to this: I sometimes like being liberated from decision-making as well, and that might explain part the appeal of rigorous, regular exercise — once the decision has been to undertake such a program, mind you. When it’s time to run eight miles at a moderate pace, then you put on your shoes and go, move your feet until it’s done, end of story.

    Or if you’ve ever taken a yoga class: the instructor says do this, and you do it; says do that, and you do it. Simple.

    And yes, shopping sucks, especially for groceries. All that deciding, and what do you get? Survival.

  4. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    There’s the key! Simplify our lives! This is why I try to get to work (gulp!) about an hour early every day, and have everything I need in place and ready. Not having to scramble for things I can have prepared ahead of time is helpful. I have a colleage who recently shared how he doesn’t plan anything at all (and I’ve met some very, how shall we call it, open, flowing, go-with-the-flow interpreters who are just great!); all I could say was that I know I’m not that way. I do sweat the small stuff, and having to worry about that stuff when what I really need to do is concentrate, well I figured that out a long time ago. For me, organization is key where I can be organized. Goodness knows the information we have to juggle when we are thrown our source utterance in interpreting is the one thing we can’t control. 🙂

  5. Kathleen Shelly says:

    Thanks for all you kind responses. I will definitely look into getting a copy of the Jonah Lehrer book, David. Thanks for the exercise suggestion as well.

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