Interpreting: It’s Just like Tetris®!

When I first started learning to interpret, I shadowed the radio in English. It took me months before I was able to even attempt simultaneous interpretation from English into Spanish. At first, it was hard enough to keep up in just one language. “Today we are expecting light showers…” the radio would say, and I would dutifully repeat, “Today we are expecting light showers…”

“And that’s it for the weather!” The radio would conclude, and I would kick myself, yet again, for being unable to listen to the information that had come in between. Listening, processing, and speaking at the same time is no easy feat. In fact, it’s very much like juggling.

…And kind of like Tetris®. You start slow. The judge says, “Good morning,” and you say, “Buenos días.” You’ve put the long rectangle into the corner and you’re confident, ready for the next block. “This is docket number FD-11-157-15,” says the judge. “Este es…” you stutter…quickly you capture all the blocks and line them up, bracing for the next ones. “We’re here to adjourn the matter of Smith v Smith, because good cause has not been shown to demonstrate immediate and irreparable harm to the children if relief is not granted.” With each unfamiliar vocabulary word, the blocks become harder to distribute. You are no longer sure if they will fit. But you do your best, catching the English blocks and fitting them into Spanish just in time to process and place the next set.

Then, oh terror, she picks up the pace and starts to read. “According to NJSA:2c-1455a…” And now you’ve missed a spot, and the blocks are coming faster, and your foundation is shakier and shakier, and either you get better at the game or you fall short in your interpretation.

And so you practice. You close your eyes and without meaning to, you picture the blocks falling, faster and faster, and each day you get more adept at flipping the blocks around before they hit the ground. You look up unfamiliar terms whenever you can. You practice interpreting in your head. Then in court, you are poised and listening for the noun when the judge says, “No written, oral, electronic or other form of communication” and quick as can be you’ve reversed the syntax and voila! You’re getting the hang of this game.

But before you can call yourself a pro, you’ve got to handle every speed, every angle, every set-up. You have to know all the vocabulary, keep up with the pace, handle the grammar and the linguistic nuances. Once you’re there, if you’re having a good day and you get on a roll…gosh does it feel good. You’re catching the words, you’re stringing them into sentences, you’re converting them into the new language while ever alert for what will be thrown at you next…you’re catching the numbers, you’re avoiding false cognates, you’re remembering everything…interpreting is a game and you are winning!

Then they introduce the expert witness in slot machine disassembly, and you’re back to the beginner level once more. You realize that we never stop learning, we are constantly humbled, and it never gets old.

Welcome to the world of simultaneous interpreting…it’s just like a game of Tetris®.

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One thought on “Interpreting: It’s Just like Tetris®!”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I don’t know much about Tetris, but I appreciate the analogy. I also appreciate the idea of seeing interpreting as a game and we are competitors. Although our work is very serious, we need to remain human in what we do.

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