Sometimes I feel like a nut…

Does anyone remember that commercial for a chocolate-covered coconut candy bar that could be bought with or without almonds? So, if you “felt like a nut” (if you felt like eating a nut, that is), you could buy the one with almonds, and if you didn’t, you could buy the one without almonds. I can still hear the song in my head. Why is it that some things just stick in your long-term memory while others don’t even come close to sticking? Memory theory suggests that when we link one concept to another related or familiar concept, it promotes long-term memory retention—like the songs we learned to memorize the alphabet, or the rhymes to remember which months have 30 days and which ones have 31. Of course, learning the songs and rhymes also involves repetition, which is a great way to move memories from short-term to long-term storage.

There are also sensory associations between events and smells, for example, or places, or music. There may be events from your childhood you cannot quite recall, but if you visit a place you frequented back then the memories may come flooding back. Or maybe you had a very bad experience while some particular music was playing in the background, and now whenever you hear that particular music you get that disagreeable feeling because you can remember the whole unpleasant experience.

There are many techniques to improve long-term retention, but the ones that are truly helpful for us, as interpreters, are not the ones that create mnemonic acronyms. The University of Florida’s Student Academic Resources Center has a PDF with “9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory,” and at the very end, it lists the following strategies: Selectivity, Association, Visualization, Elaboration, Concentration, Recitation, Intention, Big & Little Pictures, Feedback, Organization, Time on Task, and Ongoing Review.

As interpreters, we have to know how to store information in long-term memory so we can retrieve it when needed. That includes terminology, vocabulary, syntax rules, semantic and pragmatic variables of language use, and general “universal knowledge” such as the names of currencies used in different countries, for example, or the different legal systems that may exist in the countries where the language(s) we interpret are spoken. For long-term storage of that information we can use strategies such as Elaboration (work with information and encode information in new ways), Recitation (repeat information verbally in your own words) and, of course, Concentration (stay focused and attend to specific stimuli.) But only Concentration is useful for short-term memory storage and retrieval, which is what we need in the consecutive and simultaneous modes. Additionally, we need Selectivity (what is important to learn—or in this case, retain), Association (associate or link together chunks of information—also known as “chunking” in interpreting theory), Visualization (picture in your mind the information you are learning—or hearing as you interpret), maybe even Big & Little Picture (recognize different levels of information—as with Selectivity, prioritize what are the most important parts of a message, second most important, etc.), and definitely Organization (reorganize information in meaningful, logical ways.)

Sometimes interpreters just want to remember every single word they hear and translate them all, without stopping to think about the relative importance of those words, or the relative order in which they need to be conveyed in the target language so as to form an idiomatic, natural-sounding utterance. There may be times when the last thing said by a speaker needs to be the first thing conveyed in the translation. There may be times when key elements of a message are in the middle of an utterance, in between hedges and other sounds that carry no semantic content, so the interpreter must know how to prioritize what is going to take up more of the cognitive load in short-term memory. In other words, if you are going to overload your short-term memory retention capacity, make sure that the key information is not the one that gets lost if your cognitive processing capacity short-circuits.

I know, easier said than done, right? It actually takes a lot of intentional focus and a new way of assessing the source language message. It is also the surest path to accuracy and completeness in your consecutive and simultaneous renditions: visualize, identify the hierarchical importance of the information received (in terms of grammar as well as semantic and pragmatic content), associate or chunk the information (especially in the simultaneous mode), and organize your rendition so it always sounds as if that’s what the speaker would have said if he or she could speak in your target language.


More References:

Mohs, Richard C. “How Human Memory Works.” 8 May 2007. Available at

“How Memory Works,” The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. Available at

“How to Improve Memory,” Psychology Today. Available at

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact:

Main photo (cropped) from “Cats on film: Great Films featuring cats(The Matrix, “déjà-vu” scene) by El Acorazado Cinéfilo – Le Cuirassé Cinéphile from the blog EL ACORAZADO CINÉFILO – LE CUIRASSÉ CINÉPHILE, under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license. First body photo “Almendras Chilenas” by Jorge Sebastian Portillo at flickr, under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Second body photo “Souvenir shop” by momentcaptured1 at flickr, under the CC BY 2.0 license. 

4 thoughts on “Sometimes I feel like a nut…”

  1. Elisa Portela Brodbeck says:

    Great article Janis! I look forward to reading more! This just popped in my e-mail, just when I was getting ready to close my PC for the night. Please keep me on your list! You are so generous to continue to remind all of us, especially the “old-timers” that we can still learn something new to add to our interpreter’s bag of tricks, and also continue to strive to be better next time!. When I’m not so tired (just returned from a trip to California and haven’t caught up on my sleep yet), I may think of a story that has to do with short and long-term memory!
    Take are of yourself and, como le decIa mi padre a sus amigos al despedirse: Cuidate que de los buenos quedamos pocos.” Sorry, sometimes my accents don’t cooperate.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Gracias, Elisa. I am so happy you enjoyed this piece and I hope you get to catch up on your sleep! Always a pleasure to hear from “old friends”!

  2. Georganne Weller| says:

    Hi Janis!
    As always, I enjoy reading whatever you write and always find it useful. I think that the importance of short-term and long-term memory for interpretation purposes hasn’t been researched or applied to training as it deserves to be.. We use the term “elaboration” a little differently in sociolinguistics, versus “restricted code” to measure the ability to expand on a message with greater communicative skills and more elaborate syntax, using subordinate clauses and not just coordinate structures, but it is all a part of our ability to use language. Thanks again, ABRAZOS.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Georganne, I love hearing from you, even if it’s through these brief exchanges. I always try my best to bring a little more to the table, and with a little bit here and a little bit there, we can all have a banquet! I hope to read something from you one of these days in this blog. You know this is a space for all NAJIT members to use!

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