Interpreter as Actor: An Epiphany

Three years ago I retired from thirty years as a Spanish<>English court interpreter. Before that I was a classical guitarist — a good one, but not so phenomenally good as to make a reasonable living out of it. At around age thirty, I quit music and stumbled into court interpreting, thinking it might be an interesting and viable way to pay the bills.

All my life I have had a taste for adrenaline rushes and dopamine rewards of the kind you get from things like performing music on a stage, or skydiving, to which I was addicted for ten years. I discovered that interpreting in open court, especially in scenarios like witness interpreting, is a performance before an audience, and that it provided enough challenge, pressure, and excitement to satisfy the adrenaline junkie in me.

A lot of proceedings are largely scripted. I once worked with a defense attorney who, when prepping his client for a plea, spoke of when we go on stage — an expression I adopted and used forever thereafter.

Properly trained interpreters use the same grammatical person as the person whose words they’re interpreting, and in so doing, they are in a sense assuming the identity of that person. Most of us, at least to some degree, reproduce tone and expression, the better to convey the meaning as we understand it.

Often the outcomes in criminal proceedings are all but foregone conclusions, as if preordained, written in a script. Spoiler alert! The verdict is: guilty.

I have rarely encountered any discussion in the professional literature, online forums, or anywhere about how we interpreters and translators, like actors, spend our days and make our livings expressing other people’s ideas and opinions rather than our own. One exception I know of is the novel The Translator by the undeservedly little-known Ward Just, where this issue is mentioned in passing. No wonder so many of us spout off as we do when given the chance!

Formulaic repetition; predictable outcomes; the ritualistic formality with which the players, if you will, play their parts in a courtroom; the way interpreters are constrained to reproduce other people’s thoughts, not their own; their use of expressivity to help get the meaning across: in all these ways, the court interpreter’s job is like acting out a script. But this rather obvious notion of interpreter as actor was recently driven home to me with shocking clarity.

Last spring I succumbed to an urge to audition for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night, and I was cast as The Fool. Did I have any real theatrical experience? No. But the director liked my audition, and my musical abilities were useful to the production. Staged in the summer in an outdoor amphitheater, the show was extremely successful and well received. The other cast members were superb. I never had more fun in my life. One thing I found remarkable about this marvelous experience was how completely natural it felt to be on the stage, acting in a play. I have always had my attention-seeking, narcissistic, histrionic tendencies. Even so, this felt unexpectedly, almost absurdly normal. Why?

A few weeks after the play closed, I served as interpreter for an unusual event. You may recall news reports from September 2022 about the Venezuelan migrants whom Florida Governor Ron DeSantis used for a political stunt, conning them into boarding a plane bound for Martha’s Vineyard. With no warning whatsoever, members of the local community immediately mobilized to provide services and support. Not only were our unexpected guests well cared for; the same people who handled last year’s surprise invited our Venezuelan friends back to the island for a reunion to mark the one-year anniversary. I was asked to interpret for a ceremonial event — my first time interpreting before an audience in more than three years. When there came a pause in my part of the action long enough for my mind to wander, it dawned on me: I had worked as an actor for thirty years! Of course it felt normal, natural, indeed familiar to perform in a play.

No, doing court interpreting and doing Shakespeare are not the same. It may not be just one easy step for all interpreters to move from the former to the latter. But are not interpreters located on a continuum that includes almost everyone? At one end, the only people who are their pure, authentic selves all the time are infants (and maybe, people with certain mental disorders); at the other extreme, actual actors. Virtually all of us, to some degree, go through life acting out our various roles. In their professional lives, interpreters are located especially close to the actor end of the spectrum.

As Shakespeare’s character Jaques says in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts […]

David Mintz spent most of his interpreting career on staff at the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, and now enjoys retirement. His personal website is


Featured image (cropped) “As You Like It Act III, Scene III” from the Boston Public Library at flickr, under a CC BY 2.0 license. Text-body photos: from “TERTULIA 17 DE ENERO: CARLOS BLANCO- ‘La guitarra de principios del siglo XX bajo el prisma de Francisco Calleja’” by tienda ramirez at Espacio Abierto Tienda Ramirez, under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ES license; from “Informe revela: No existe una crisis de refugiados de Venezuela” by “Mario” at PERIÓDICO ALTERNATIVO, under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.

10 thoughts on “Interpreter as Actor: An Epiphany”

  1. Roody Aupont says:

    great work. thanks for enlightening my inner artist.

  2. Ines says:

    How very true David! I always said that I feel like a different person when I speak my second or third languages. It is an immersion in that culture, not only in speaking, but thinking and acting.
    And now reading your piece I realize that indeed, we are actors, whether interpreting or translatiing!
    Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

  3. Elizabeth Hand says:

    This is totally true. Sometimes I see a new, timid interpreter and wonder, “This poor new colleague! Wasn’t she trained to stand [wherever seemed most inconspicuous near the LEP]? And didn’t they bother instructing her that she has to project her voice and make it match the tone of the LEP?” Then it dawns on me that I did NOT acquire these skills in any interpreter training course but rather in acting classes as a youngster. I believe that the more we embrace this concept of interpreters as actors, the higher quality “performance” we will achieve.

  4. Robin Ragan says:

    I interpreted for many of the Martha’s Vineyard fiasco victims. Some of them underwent psychological evaluations
    and I was honored to interpret for those sessions.
    This profession really does send us in to the most amazing places where we learn and grow.

  5. Arnaldo Buzack says:

    As a fellow musician cum interpreter I would love to see a discussion on how much both activities are related, with other interpreters who also play an instrument. Now, theater? You may be on to something, to a certain extent, sure.. But, if we’re performing, we must be playing the most boring script mankind has ever produced…

  6. I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking article. I am a Spanish translator and interpreter in North Carolina. Most of my interpreting assignments are simultaneous (via Zoom) and I find that when I’m “in the zone” and feel like I am doing a good job conveying the ideas expressed by the speaker I start modifying my voice, like an actor, with such intonation that it almost sounds like I’m the original speaker. It is so rewarding and I learn something new every day. I love being an interpreter!

  7. Kathleen M Morris says:

    Loved David’s piece! Have often had similar thoughts, and even toyed with the idea of volunteering for some unskilled task backstage in community theatre (or in a crowd scene).

    Interpreting and music definitely intersect, on many levels. As a community chorus singer, my simultaneous skills stand me in good stead when memorizing musical passages. Likewise, memorizing music helps keep my “consec” abilities sharp!

  8. David Mintz says:

    Wow, many thanks to all for your feedback and insightful comments. I would like to say to those of you with musical training and experience: yes, it must surely be a good background from which to come to interpreting. And it most definitely helped me jump into acting. The systematic, conscious use of memory is common to both. You learn a piece, or you learn a role, and neither is as difficult as one might think when we study the logic and structure of the composition we’re committing to memory, as opposed to a superficial approach, just trying to cram in a sequence of words or notes. But it’s also true of interpreting: we do our best work when we’re concentrating not on words but on ideas. I guess one big difference is the kind of memory involved: you study a role (or a piece of music) over time and commit it to long-term memory; when you do consecutive interpreting, you’re simply remembering what somebody said just now (not as easy as it may sound!). Perhaps we could compare interpreting to sight-reading: just get up there and go.

    @Robin so, you worked with some of our Venezuelan migrant friends? For me, it was highly unusual to be able, for once, to just talk and hang out with people rather than interpret for them. Throughout my career I was scrupulous about keeping professional distance. On this occasion, my wife and I had the pleasure of spending a day with some of these folks, providing lodging to one young guy, going to the beach with a group of about six, and having a delightful time. And we heard hair-raising stories about crossing the Darien Gap. Not fun. One beautiful irony about this story: this group of migrants whom DeSantis so callously manipulated has ended up better off than they would of been if they’d just gone through the standard meat grinder a/k/a the system. People here on the Vineyard have done and continue to do a lot for them. A top-notch immigration lawyer got them all U-Visas [] as a result of DeSantis’ criminal machinations.

    A final comment for all of you working interpreters. You have to have confidence and courage to walk out onto the stage to perform in front of an audience, certainly. But this is no less true of interpreters. I’m retired now, and when I look back on the days when I would get up and do witness interpreting in open court, I find it almost incredible. You are heroic and audacious!

    1. Remedios Bashi says:

      David, thanks you for such a well written and insightful article. I agree with all the points you make. I’ve often thought my experience in acting as a teen often gives me the courage and state of mind to perform in court. It has been a pleasure reading about your experiences in retirement.

  9. David Gilbert says:

    Very well written and thought provoking. The article resonated well with me having played many roles in my life in areas of intelligence and security. In relation to the interpreter following a script, expressing the thoughts of others and not of their own, I wonder whether that is in fact as true as we would like to believe. Is not the thought expressed by the interpreter yet another form of interpretation? A departure from the original script is arguably unavoidable, especially when framed within the context of evidence. Is the court interpreter, as an agent of the declarant, a separate entity or one in the same? If the interpreter is the former, then it raises issues of hearsay, if the latter, then I would argue that the court is indeed a stage and that the accurate transfer of original thought through an invisible interpreter is fictional. Yes, we are all actors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *