How did these words get in my head?

By Janis Palma ©2017

Lately I’ve been asked a lot about test-taking “tips”. Of course, the federal certification exam for judiciary interpreters was recently administered, so it’s at the forefront of many certification candidates’ minds. However, rather than suggesting some test-taking “tips”, I’d like to offer this one particular skill-building tip.

You cannot do well in any interpreter certification exam if you simply do not have the skills.

“Oh, but I do have the skills,” you say.

Well, then, in that case you should have no trouble at all with the test. For those who are not so sure, let’s start with the most basic of all skills: vocabulary.

Words are our fundamental building blocks. Our job is linking words in one language with words in another language that mean exactly the same thing. Of course, there are rules for the way in which we string these words together so they make sense, because words, after all, are just arbitrary groupings of sounds that we learn to discern within a “code system” we call language. There are also rules for what a word will mean depending on how we use it or where we place it in a sentence, because there is a limited number of sounds humans can make or string together, so the same sounds are used to mean different things depending on their context. During the acquisition of a second or third or fourth language, we start to associate words that mean the same thing in these different languages: house is casa, maison, haus, etc. And we also learn which words do not mean the same thing: house is not silla, pomme, or schlauch.[1]

How does the brain find those equivalent terms so quickly while we are engaged in consecutive or simultaneous interpreting? Well, it’s all a very complex relationship between our neurons and their synaptic connections, which is how the brain sends information from one place to another.[2] As we learn a language, all the lexical, grammatical, semantic, pragmatic information, etc., about that language is stored in our long-term memory. To make it simple, let’s say that when we learn more than one language we can teach our brain to creates paths, or synaptic connections, between the words or concepts in those different languages, so that every time we hear “X” in one language the brain will connect it to “X” in the other language.

If we are not careful, however, these paths can also be created between the wrong words or concepts, such as false cognates. The good news is that if you have created a path between two words that do not really mean the same thing, you can actually “re-route” that path to the right equivalent. The brain is a wonderful thing!

As interpreters, this is an exercise we need to engage in consciously as we build up our vocabulary range in both source and target languages because the paths become stronger and more reliable through the repeated linking of the words and phrases in the source and target languages.

The oldest technique to create these paths is memorizing glossaries. Once you have created that path in your brain, you may not need it for years, but it’s there. When you least expect it, a term you rarely use in your day-to-day interpreting comes up and your brain finds the path!

Creating your own glossary is another good way to build up these paths. The process of researching the meaning of one word in a source language, then finding the word with the same meaning in the target language, also tells the brain to create a link between them and store them in long-term memory with a synaptic connection from one to the other. Don’t forget to memorize the equivalent terms once you have completed the research. You may create your own flash cards, or make up games with fellow interpreters so you not only memorize the proper equivalents but also build friendships that will surely last a lifetime.

Another way in which we create these links is the repetition of boilerplate language, such as initial appearances, guilty pleas, or jury instructions. Synaptic connections can be created for entire phrases and sentences, not just words. The more of these paths we can create in our brains, the more confident we will feel about our performance.

Words are our most valuable currency as interpreters. We “buy” every other skill we have with this currency, and the more we have the “richer” our performance will be in either simultaneous, consecutive, or sight translation. Conversely, if you have significant gaps in your vocabulary, you will feel like you are inside one of those inflatable play houses for children, always wobbling and about to fall flat on your face.

Test-taking anxiety is usually caused by insecurities about some aspect of the performance expected from the test-taker. If you work on your vocabulary range in both source and target languages, and build up those paths in your brain between the right equivalents, your performance is much more likely to meet the required minimum standards for certification and your test-taking anxiety is much more likely to fade away.

That’s my “test-taking tip” for today.



Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

  • Susana Ekis
    Posted at 15:11h, 27 October Reply

    I agree totally with enriching your vocabulary to do the best possible job. I believe, also, that as we get older, and have already passed all the tests, we benefit greatly and our performance is better if we often review our glossaries of words less used.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 15:54h, 29 October Reply

      Very good advice, Susana. Thank you!

  • Patricia V. Bluestein
    Posted at 15:27h, 27 October Reply

    Thank you, Janis, for a wonderful article. You show the process so clearly, and give the best advice for anyone preparing for tests or just learning new vocabularies!

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 15:54h, 29 October Reply

      I am so happy to know this was helpful, Patricia. Thank you.

  • Maria de Villiers
    Posted at 15:51h, 27 October Reply

    Very enjoyable reading, Janis!! Thank you!

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 16:20h, 27 October Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it, María!

  • Mike Mahler
    Posted at 16:03h, 27 October Reply

    I agree with Janis 100 % but I would add that regular reading of all types of material in your language pairs is very important. I find that reading contemporary novels is a great way to build your vocabulary. And it is enjoyable!

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 15:56h, 29 October Reply

      Yes! Reading is definitely one of the most enjoyable ways of building up your vocabulary. Thanks for reminding us, Mike!

    Posted at 17:13h, 27 October Reply

    Wonderful suggestion… From where I sit, this looks a lot like translation. Interpreters should definitely invest more time reading and writing.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 15:57h, 29 October Reply

      Translation takes us through the process of researching terms and is therefore a great way to build up vocabulary. Thanks for mentioning it, Maribel!

    Posted at 17:28h, 27 October Reply

    Marvelous analysis of our work and how our minds work!
    Typical Janis, disciplined, methodical and extremely brilliant.

    • Janis Palma
      Posted at 15:58h, 29 October Reply

      You are making me blush, Ramon, LOL. I am so glad you enjoyed the blog post.

  • Vicki Santamaria
    Posted at 19:01h, 27 October Reply

    The importance of increasing your vocabulary never diminishes for an interpreter/translator. Even after 31 years as a court interpreter, I have sticky notes posted in my office with words that came up in a protection order hearing that I didn’t immediately know the best translation for.

  • Janis Palma
    Posted at 16:00h, 29 October Reply

    Yes! Sticky notes are wonderful aids, too. Thanks for mentioning that, Vicki.

  • Maureen Villalobos
    Posted at 15:11h, 03 November Reply

    Great article Janis. I love the never-ending learning part of our profession. We have to keep up with all the changing words around us and that is not an easy task. Language evolves and so should we, but as interpreters/traslators we have the added duty of storing all the “archaic” infornation somewhere because we know sooner or later we will need it again! The brain is aawesome! Thanks for reminding us of it!

  • James Atemba
    Posted at 18:08h, 19 December Reply

    That’s a wonderful article and makes one keep reading and reminding oneself that there’s no end to learning

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