desert rainbow

Hard Doesn’t Mean Impossible!

This week it was my turn to post on the NAJIT blog, and I asked some of my colleagues what I should write about. I was told, “Don’t teach. Tell your story.” So here it is.

U.N., here I come.

I graduated Rutgers in the spring of 2008 with a bachelor’s in Spanish interpreting and translation and a very big gringa complex. I had started learning Spanish just five years prior, and my language skills were a far cry from those of my classmates who had grown up in bilingual households. I had a pipe dream of becoming a UN interpreter, and I thought I could begin in the court and medical settings while I gained experience and worked on my French (which I started studying a semester after I began Spanish). But looming over me was the state court interpreter exam which at the time had an 89% fail rate (as far as I know, that number hasn’t changed much). I remember asking my professors if they thought I could do it, and I remember their responses being less than optimistic. “I wouldn’t want to discourage you,” they began, “but…” “The test is very difficult.” “The requirements are demanding.” “Your language skills have to be spot-on...”

Honduras, here I come!

At the time, my self-assessment of my Spanish was: not bad, but not yet “fluent.” I imagined fluent to be a state of linguistic expertise I could one day achieve, or not, depending on the success of some magical “immersion.” It took a year in Honduras and countless hours studying for me to realize that there is no such thing as fluency, at least not as I had imagined it. My language skills were, and always will be, located on a continuum, and I will never be done learning. I tend to be more forgiving about my English, learning through contextual clues without looking up terms in the dictionary, whereas I beat myself up whenever I encounter a Spanish term that I don’t know. The year I spent in Honduras was helpful, but I had to push, hard, to achieve the Spanish input I was looking for. I carved time out of an exhausting day teaching sixth grade to make friends with the moms and speak Spanish. I arranged a homestay. I journaled in Spanish. Immersion is what you make it, and you don’t magically achieve fluency by plopping yourself in a country for a year. You have to actually try.

You never stop studying

I came home and I found a job at a domestic violence shelter as a bilingual advocate. I still wanted to be an interpreter but I still wasn’t sure that I could. Sometimes I think that if it hadn’t been for one court interpreter supervisor who believed in me enough to grant me a (non-paid) internship, I would have given up on the idea completely. But instead, I traveled through traffic twice a week to complete 70 hours of court interpreter observations, followed by 80 hours of internship with a local legal aid organization. And I kept studying. The pages of my ACEBO book started to fall out, but I kept studying.

I failed my first certification test. That coincided with the first deposition I ever interpreted, where the attorney talked about me behind my back in the bathroom, not realizing I was in the stall. She was nasty about my language skills because I had interpreted her client’s words (correctly) and she wanted his answer to be different. I was so nervous I sweated through the dress blouse that I had bought for the occasion, and I learned an important professional lesson that had nothing to do with interpreting: Always pack deodorant in your purse!

There’s an inherent balance to the world. You included.

black stonesAnd yet I kept trying. I don’t know why—sheer tenacity? I’ve always been pretty stubborn. But I took the test again, and this time I passed it, at the Master level. And that’s when my attitude started to change. I realized that my language skills still weren’t perfect, my interpreting skills also weren’t perfect, but nobody’s is. I realized that part of being a good interpreter is knowing when you’ve made a mistake, and how to correct it. And I also realized that by studying, I had become quite good. I’m still not great at slang or idiomatic expressions, and I still have a complex about my language abilities. But I know what my strengths are, too, and I know how to admit that I don’t know everything.

So, because I have people in my life who push me, I went for the federal exam. And the medical interpreting exam. I landed a job as a staff interpreter at a beautiful local courthouse in New Jersey, and I stayed there for three years. But then, because all that wasn’t enough for me (because I guess I’m crazy), I decided to do it all over again. In French.

As I said, you never stop studying!

Sbookso here I am in Montreal! My French is not fluent, in that magical way I always imagined fluency to be. I worked on it over the years but it always took a back burner to Spanish, and even now in French Canada, it’s still hard to find opportunities for “immersion” when everyone always switches to immaculate English! But I’ve managed to become approved as a French court interpreter because, apparently on the continuum, my French is pretty high up there. In the meantime, I’ve started teaching, something that I truly love. I tell my students that this profession is hard, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. You just have to not take “no” for an answer.

Last year I took (and failed) the U.N. freelance exam, but I’m not going to let the muggles get me down. There have been some recent developments in my pipe dream to become a UN interpreter, in the form of continued education and persistence. My goal is starting to get within reach, and I’ll keep you posted on the specifics soon. Stay tuned!

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:

Click here to access Athena’s other posts.

10 thoughts on “Hard Doesn’t Mean Impossible!”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Athena, your story takes me back a few years. I read Siddhartha by Herman Hess and the one thing I clearly remember to this day is the message that in the pursuit of our dreams and goals, we should never lose sight of the journey itself – there may be revelations lurking in the path that are meaningful enough to enrich the journey in unexpected ways.

    Thank you.

  2. Constance Marina says:

    A wonderful post, Athena, What a terrific, humble, and admirable example of determination and intelligence!

  3. Susana Gee says:

    What a great story! I think we have a lot in common.. I am truly bilingual in every sense so language acquisition was not an issue for me, however, my deep desire to be a great interpreter and to not take no for an answer reminds me of you. It has always been my dream to be a Federal interpreter and some day, down the line, a UN interpreter. I started interpreting in 2015 and so far have achieved each one of my goals, one step at a time: first the medical then the state and currently I am awaiting my FCICE results, (a debacle not worth getting into). My next stop: the UN. Keep us all posted as to the next time you take the UN exam, when you WILL pass it. Failure is not an option.

  4. Lety says:

    Great story! It brought me back to the early years of 1987 when I came to USA , and my struggles about learning English . I enjoyed every. step of the journey, because I love languages

  5. Liz Essary says:

    YES to all of this! It’s very powerful to read an honest account of enduring self doubt, and others doubting you. Our journey isn’t just a series of perceived successes and failures, but a dynamic path of discovery that never ends and you’ve done a wonderful job of capturing it here!

  6. Athena, like all the best interpreters I know (certifed and not), you have that skill that is true modesty: knowing and saying that you know you don’t know everything. I think too many interpreters are unable to admit that to others, and so I loved reading this post from you. I’m sure it will really help those that are feeling insecure to realize that they’re not alone in those scary moments. But most important is your lesson of persistence. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Alfredo Babler says:

    Dios mío, que dedicación! Ese trajín no lo aguanta ni Mandrake. Ni que el pecho fuera de hierro y el lomo de algarrobo! Good Lord, I read this and realized I am so mediocre. I admire this kind of Class A Personality tenacity and dedication to a purpose. I guess we all dream of a UN Interpreter position at one point in our career and wonder how to even start to try to get there but I, for one, admit that I absolutely lack the kind of persistence and wherewithal needed to do what Athena does. I’m not sure if I am inspired, depressed, or a little bit of both now. Great article. Keep aiming sky-high! pun intended. I’ll live the dream vicariously through you. Keep us posted and best of luck to you in reaching your ultimate goal. God bless.

  8. René Alfaro says:

    Truly inspirational! And I am sure you will attain your goal down the road as befits your talent (and perseverance). I always read the blog silently -no comments- but your candid story does deserve a comment as recognition to your opening your heart to let us all know that in putting the effort you can turn failure into success, no doubt. Thank you.

  9. Hey everyone,

    Thank you all so much for your kind words. 🙂 My journey hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it! I always love to hear everyone else’s stories, too. Keep on sharing.


  10. Jackie says:

    Hi Athena, you are amazing! I would like to ask you something, do you think you can write me to me email address please?
    I am lost in Virginia, trying to get some advice but no luck. Please my email is

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