Health and Performance as an Interpreter

Bulging disc. Click on image to enlarge.

Our mental and physical wellness can affect our performance as interpreters. It is likely that the following affect our output: diet, exercise, family issues, finances, overall health, etc. All of these can significantly impact the daily fabric of our lives.

It is important that we listen to the signals we receive from our body. Listening to these signals is akin to the “listening” we do to deliver a competent interpretation in a court room. When we interpret we are also reading and processing gut feelings; for example, we instantly are aware when we do not understand a question, or when we are not sure what a question or a reply means, etc. On the other hand, we almost instinctively know when things are going well.

I remember being separated from my wife for 22 months several years ago, due to work requirements. Not a moment passed that I was not worried about things happening 9,000 miles away. This separation so affected and changed my daily routine that I eventually resigned from the position. After a few days at home, distance was no longer a concern; “normal” had replaced separation anxiety. In retrospect, had this assignment been in interpreting, I can safely predict how my poor performance might have compromised justice.

A recent back injury brought my overall health into perspective one more time. I share this experience hoping it will help others.


A recent personal experience

Mary: “Al, are you available for an afternoon assignment?”

Me: “I will not be able to attend, Mary. Just today I was put on total bed rest, due to a back injury.”

Mary: “Sorry to hear that, Al. I will find someone else. Take care of your injury, and let me know when you are well.”

Me: “Thanks! I hope it is nothing serious; I am scheduled for tests, to determine how bad the damage is”.

Do not ignore signals from your body. A few weeks ago I was in the middle of a bad cold; coughing and sneezing were severe and my body ached. A coughing spell started and, suddenly my lower back felt as though a small explosion had taken place around the belt line. I tried to stand, only to be stopped by terrible pain radiating from my back to my right leg and all the way to my ankle. Sciatica had struck.

The pain lasted only a few seconds. I sat down and waited for it to pass. Gingerly, I made it to bed; it seemed to take hours to get on my back. To make matters worse, my right leg felt numb; if I poked it with a finger, I could feel the pressure but nothing else.

This incident happened a little over four weeks ago; I visited the chiropractor three times per week for over three weeks. During that time period I was referred to a website that may be useful to us as interpreters because of the terminology.

Recent developments

The chiropractor’s treatment helped somewhat. He eventually recommended that I visit my general practitioner, which I did. My personal doctor referred me to a neurosurgeon and at the same time requested an MRI.

I came back from a visit to the neurosurgeon’s office four days ago. The MRI confirms severe herniation of one disc (see the attached copy of a portion of the MRI). Several options are available to correct this problem, including surgery. For the time being I selected an option that does not include surgery. Meanwhile, I have grounded myself until I feel I can function at near full capacity.

What would YOU do?

This was an easy decision for me. A long time ago I had knee surgery (an old Army injury); based on that experience, I do not recommend the pain and the stress of surgery. As each case is unique, every person afflicted with a back injury must make their own decision to return to wellness.

How would you handle this?

1. Immediately decide on having a well-known surgical procedure, or
2. Physical therapy, or
3. Do you sometimes endure pain simply “because you have to?”

Please share your experiences. I am interested in learning how others have handled severe and debilitating back pain, and if you have continued working as an interpreter during treatment.

— Al Navas




0 thoughts on “Health and Performance as an Interpreter”

  1. My personal signal that I need to slow down is when I start to unconsciously “chew” the inside of my cheek, which creates a fleshy cord on that side of my mouth. It’s infallible. As soon as I back off, relax and meditate, it disappears. If I stubbornly refuse to listen, the symptom only escalates, I start to grimace and my mouth hurts. I’ve learned to pay attention to body signals the hard way!

    1. Al Navas says:

      Maria Cristina,

      I did exactly the same thing when I was in college, especially right before exams! But I cannot remember how I stopped the habit.

  2. Anna E. Watrous says:

    Dear Colleague Navas,
    I too have had to deal with working under painful conditions. About ten years ago I was diagnosed with 3 herniated discs in my neck, and two in my back. I suppose 30+ years of leaning over and whispering in defendant’s ears in CA State Courts and several auto accidents contributed to this condition. I had several pain relievers and muscle relaxants prescribed, but have always waited until my off-hours (evenings) to take them, along with bed rest on the weekends. After going to chiropractors,physical therapists, dealing with cortisone shots, etc., I have decided to consult with a neurosurgeon, to see if I am eligible for non-invasive laser surgery. Downtime is said to be 4-6 weeks. Hope you are feeling better.

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