Procedural Memory and the New Kid Jitters

It started off like any other day. I had been working in court for just enough time to have experienced most types of hearings and a trial or two. I had just finished my last calendar case of a busy morning. The timing couldn’t have been better for the page to come in. I got marching orders to go assist the courtroom next door. No further information was provided.

It was strange that there were several people inside the doorway of my destination, one of whom was a sheriff deputy with several stripes on his sleeve. I stole a glance into the courtroom. There were long-lenses everywhere, along with television cameras. What was I walking into?

The deputy wasn’t one of my regular contacts, but he knew who I was. They had been waiting for me. My face must have shown more concern than I intended because he immediately started cajoling me to step inside. Surely the world actually stopped spinning at that moment. Time froze. I needed out –  and fast!

The new kid jitters had finally gotten the best of me. After nearly a decade as an interpreter, having experienced just about everything along the spectrum of healthcare, including life, death, and emergencies, here I was trying to come up with any excuse to hightail it out of there, all in that split second that seemed like an eternity.

I came back to reality with my best pitch, turning to the deputy to tell him I was sure that my colleague across the hall would be more prepared for this job. I stammered as I spoke, taking tiny steps backward. He proceeded to shove me through the doors with his gaze. It was as if he knew something I didn’t about performance under fire. There was no way I was getting out of this.

Into the courtroom I went. I could see in the back of the courtroom that the judge was anxiously peeking through his door, ready to come out. As I took my first steps I could see him entering the courtroom. Time was in slow motion as I headed toward the district attorney waving me toward the front. My peripheral vision told me the gallery was a sea of spectators, reporters, and intimidating cameras. I’m sure my heart was audible to every ear.

My task: I would be interpreting my very first victim impact statement in a capital case I knew nothing about. There would be no applying good practice today by asking about the case before proceeding. All the players were on their marks and cued up just as I reached the podium. I was joined by a clearly emotional woman with a note in her shaky hand. All rose, the case was called, and my auto-pilot revved its engines. This was what I had prepared for, both in training and with years of practice, and the time had come. Literally, lights-camera-action.

I was later congratulated for my strength and calm under pressure (really?). It wouldn’t be until years later that I made the connection between what I accomplished and what our training is intended to do. You see, the auto-pilot mode we achieve after years of practice, thousands of interpreting encounters, is something called procedural memory.

Procedural memory was described to me by a deputy not long ago. You know how you see in terror movies that frightened people shake so violently that they can’t get their keys into the door lock to escape danger? That’s because the fight-or-flight response prepares our large muscles to run away and we literally lose our fine motor skills. I asked the deputy how in the world they can shoot a gun with any precision under pressure if that is true. His answer was enlightening: procedural memory. The countless hours spent at a shooting range builds on the ability for the body to go into auto-pilot being under the stress of a situation. The idea is to make it second nature, like what I experienced on that day so long ago as I interpreted for the victim statement. That deputy who urged me into the courtroom knew something about procedural memory, I think.

The new kid jitters are a good thing. By showing you’re a little nervous when it counts, hopefully you’ll have somebody push you outside your comfort zone only to discover that you can do more than you may have expected. By training and gaining experience, these big situations can be better handled by our procedural memory. Thanks to it, we are able to concentrate on difficult terminology, among other unique factors.

I must admit that having had this experience early in my court interpreter career has a huge benefit. It continues to give me the courage to face situations that require me to go in cold. This would not be the first, nor the last, time that I would have to muster up some courage to face the unknown.

They say that the butterflies never truly go away when the curtain goes up for a big performance. I now say bring ‘em on; that’s the only way we grow.

Live Science. Procedural Memory: Definition and Examples

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7 Comments
  • Kevin Mercado
    Posted at 11:22h, 05 December Reply

    I remember my first time interpreting for a Spanish speaking attorney at a new court. Not only was the attorney Spanish speaking, but also a certified interpreter who’s trainings I had attended while coming up. I was probably just as nervous about this misdemeanor pre-trial as I was going into the certification exam. The attorney said “relax, this’ll be easy.”

    I usually look forward to Spanish speaking attorneys on cases, since it gives me an additional layer of knowing the record is correct.

    • Jennifer De La Cruz
      Posted at 12:24h, 08 December Reply

      Hi, all!

      First, thanks so much for keeping the dialogue going!

      Kevin: some of the most satisfying cases I have helped with have involved Spanish speaking doctors, lawyers, judges, jurors…or very involved families who are bilingual and observing proceedings. It is always interesting to feel like they are watching to criticize, but we soon realize that they are there to protect their case (their justice). In the end, even if their idea of accuracy and ours differ, the intention behind it strips away the knee-jerk reaction to become defensive.

      Di: your post made me think of how we must remember that although we are the expert (which being called Madam interpreter sure helps to remember!) we are not infallible. It is definitely a skill to balance our confidence and our ability to keep an open mind.

      Angie: you are so right. The more we know, the more we see the nuances. It is easy to get lost in the details and shades of meaning. As the years go by, we learn to make the best choices we can based on the information we have. The knowledge that we don’t know it all keeps us on our toes for sure!

      Gio: agreed! When we are faced with a new situation, stepping back and thinking about major steps to take helps us free our minds for the specifics of the case at hand.

      Kathleen: so true! I have found that the more I wish away a hearing, the more it comes on at full speed. It is what it is…that is definitely a comforting little phrase when we go into something we know will challenge us. Of course, that is not to say we will be flippant or disinterested, but we can relax and do our thing just a bit better that way!

      Thanks again and please, if you are regarding these posts, give us some feedback! We love hearing from everyone!

      Jen

  • Di Clark
    Posted at 12:14h, 05 December Reply

    New “kid” Jitters applied even though I was well past youth when I entered a courtroom as an interpreter for the first time. Nowadays I work in superior courts most of the time but my first was municipal. I watched intently as another interpreter did her thing and then “my” case came up. It went smoothly and apparently those present could hear me over the deafening gurgling in the pit of my stomach. The judge also thanked me very courteously, addressing me as “Madam Interpreter” – a first. The jitters still return, especially before a high profile deposition, but I welcome stage fright – IMHO not feeling a certain healthy anxiety could mean dangerous over-confidence. I think healthy fear of failure/embarrassment, both personal and professional, keeps me up to the mark. Wouldn’t it be nice if one always had prior knowledge of the case, the topic, the parties … but that healthy fear of the unknown also means that the surge of relief upon completing an assignment without mishap is that much more pleasurable. We courtroom interpreters are stage performers manqués … we get the stage fright but 99% of the time have to provide our own (internal) applause. Keep up the good work, comrades.

  • Angie
    Posted at 12:17h, 05 December Reply

    What a truly encouraging and insightful post! I loved it, and it just comes at a time when I needed it the most. I don’t have the new kid jitters, I have the “I know what my responsibility is and I am scared out of my mind to make a mistake” jitters. You would think that after doing this for three years already I would be way pass this, but to be honest, the more I know, the more the pressure I feel to do the best I can. It is scary and not in a good way necessarily. I am glad to know that I am building my procedural memory. That makes me feel a little better. Hopefully it will kick in when I really need it.

  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 14:34h, 05 December Reply

    We go back to “Practice. Practice. Practice.” It is true. I try to develop procedures for almost everything. It makes life so much easier when we don’t have to think about what to do next. For the how-to-do-it, practice is a must.

    And I agree, the presence of a few butterflies at the pit of the stomach is comforting to me.

    Thank you, Jen.

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 16:00h, 06 December Reply

    Yes, how well I know about this. Even now, after 16+ years I still get that awful feeling when I am up against a really difficult assignment. I say to myself, how did I get myself into this? Please God, let something happen so I won’t have to do this. Then, as it starts, everything becomes serene. Indeed, procedural memory kicks in. Now I say to myself, yes, I have done this before. As always, I just let the words come into my head, and I produce their equivalents on cue. I live in the moment only where there is no room for fear.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 09:31h, 15 December Reply

    I used to have butterflies every time I interpreted, and for certain “scarier” cases I had stage fright for days leading up to the court date! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. 🙂

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