Maximizing Existing Processing Capacity in Legal Interpreting

By Denise Green, Sign Language Interpreter, NIC

Interpreters’ brains are calibrating innumerable bits of information every second we are on the job. Despite the old adage that we only use ten percent of our brains, and although the actual percentage of unused potential is widely debated, the truth remains that we are using up valuable processing capacity when we have thoughts and feelings about the work we do. By training our brains to detach from thoughts that do not further our active goal, we can make the best use of our energies and therefore bring our best skills to each unique interpreting situation. Mental energy can be reallocated to the task at hand, thereby improving the quality and efficiency of the resulting interpretation. I posit that all interpreters hold a deeper level of skill than we realize and that we need only tap into these latent abilities through training of our mind. The ability to utilize this technique will improve with practice, but benefits will be immediately experienced.

The basics are this: an incredible amount of information is being cycled in, prioritized, processed, and emitted by an interpreter, especially in a high-stakes setting such as legal interpreting. At a certain point, channel capacity (the maximum bandwidth of information that an interpreter can handle at one time) is reached. During language processing, interpreters will frequently find themselves held up by a particular bit of information that will slow (or altogether halt) the flow of the message. Simultaneously, the speakers continue creating new content requiring continuous interpretation. This can create something of a content “traffic jam” and disrupt (or otherwise negatively affect) the speed and quality of the output. By learning to recognize thoughts, re-prioritize them, and take immediate action on some and dismiss others, there is more attention left for the task at hand, and the quality of output is improved. Essentially this technique installs a traffic light at busy “intersections” of the brain, resulting in better interpretation.

Being able to recognize those thoughts that take your attention away from managing an interpreted interaction is the first step. Researchers Dean and Pollard (R. Dean, B. Pollard, 2001) categorized these demands on our attention into four categories; environmental, interpersonal, paralinguistic and intrapersonal. An example of an environmental demand would be an uncomfortable temperature in the courtroom. Interpersonal demand might consist of tension between you and your team interpreter. Paralinguistic demand can occur when a defendant is speaking with a mumble or stutter. Intrapersonal demand might include any of the above. Since any sort of demand on interpreters’ attention will cycle through their inner dialogue, interpreters must focus on making a shift to shield themselves from intrapersonal static.

Once you have identified a thought as nonessential to the task at hand, you can make a conscious decision that action need not be taken immediately, and that you should let it go and move on. I often use the phrase “scan and drop” to refer to the handling of these thoughts. Your mind is scanning information as it comes in, as if on a conveyor belt, and when a thought is identified as nonessential it can be dropped from the line-up.

This technique of refocusing our attention on the present (in this case to the essential acts of interpreting) is very similar to the practices used in mindfulness meditation. Techniques such as these are applied in many settings including mental health, chronic pain management, athletic training and improving general well-being. In mindfulness meditation once you become aware of a thought, you release it. When applied to the language interpreting process, you train yourself to recognize a thought, prioritize it (choosing whether or not to take action), and then release it.

I suggest trying this technique out in a short exercise. Find any short video clip and interpret it. The content of the clip is of little import. Picking a scenario or content area that you struggle with is a good way to understand how this technique cuts right to the core and offers a startlingly simple practice for immediate improvement, different from the kind of rote practice that is rightfully employed by novice interpreters. Interpret the clip without stopping, as if it were live. If there are technical issues, just continue to interpret to the best of your ability. In this exercise it is of no interest why you made a mistake; merely recognize it, decide what action, if any, to take, and move on. Recognize, prioritize, and move on: scan and drop.

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With practice we can learn to truly discern which thoughts are in service to our work, and which are not.

When the clip is over, ask yourself how many of the thoughts you experienced were actually in the service of the interpretation, and how many intrapersonal thoughts were “stealing” brain space (which is effectively human RAM). Perhaps some of them sounded like this, “I just mispronounced that word. Should I repair the error? What will the judge/my team/the jury think of me? What will they think of interpreters in general? I always make this error. I need to work on that.” Now consider the amount of time you would have had to actually focus on the accuracy of your message if these thoughts were scanned and dropped at the first sign of departing from your one true task of interpretation.

Watch the video again, and when experiencing a similar moment give yourself permission to make a mental note of any errors, let them go, and move on. Again, this technique is not as concerned with the choices you make as it is with improving the frequency and efficiency of these choices. There are many techniques for learning to make better choices when interpreting in the courtroom and I encourage pursuing them. This technique assumes a greater than functional level of judicial interpreting skill and seeks to maximize the capacity you have already attained.

As legal interpreters, we are purveyors of an untold variety of otherwise “undesirable” messages that can be stressful to deliver, such as complicated emotional conflicts or fast-paced exchanges of language (seemingly) designed to ruffle a defendant. You will have thoughts about many different things while you are working. Interpreters are human, and we experiemce personal reactions to the environmental, interpersonal, and paralinguistic factors. It is our ethical duty to unrelentingly strive to cull these subjective reactions from the target message.

Noting and flagging information is actually your brain doing its job of catching standouts, a required skill of an effective interpreter. Experiencing thoughts that seem peripheral to the interpreting process is not necessarily something to aim to unlearn. Having additional feelings and thoughts about these things we are experiencing is where we get derailed. Rest assured that if a thought is as important as it feels then it will certainly resurface at a more appropriate time. It may help to reassure yourself of this while you are “dropping” specific thoughts. The truth is, our brains are working all the time, and our egos often try to convince us that its thoughts are of the utmost importance. With practice we can learn to truly discern which thoughts are in service to our work, and which are not.

As professional interpreters working in a setting as venerable as the judicial system we may feel as though we have reached a plateau in advancing our interpreting abilities. In sharing this technique, it is my aim that interpreters may exceed their current capabilities and continue to improve the quality of the services brought to the courtroom. The ramifications of interpreters’ work in legal settings cannot be overstated; utilizing every modicum of skill we have is to the benefit of all parties. By utilizing this novel approach to maximize processing capacity, interpreters may find a considerable amount of latent ability just waiting to be invited into the courtroom.

[Denise Green is an American Sign Language interpreter and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural and Communication Sciences from Empire State College and an Associate’s degree in ASL/English Interpretation from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She holds national interpreter certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and is a member of its Hawai’i chapter. She lives in Maui, Hawai’i. Ms. Green can be contacted at]

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