The Power of the Inflected Voice

We hardly pay attention to the way in which we say things, but we certainly know intuitively that we should raise our volume when we want to emphasize something, or lower it when our intention is a bit more secretive or intimate. We know to slow down when we think our listener is not understanding, or to rush when we think someone is trying to interrupt our train of thought. Seldom do we speak without some sort of inflection in our voice, be it to make a forceful statement, to ask a question, to show surprise or delight, or disgust. Yet, when we interpret, we sometimes forget to include those inflections in our voice as we render someone else’s words.

Modulating our voice not only makes it more pleasant for our listeners but also contributes to the accuracy of our renditions. For example, if a witness were to say “I was not carrying that gun!” – stressing the “I” – everyone would understand that statement to mean “someone else was carrying it, not me.” On the other hand, if he were to say “I was not carrying that gun!” – stressing the word “that” – then the message would be quite different, more along the lines of “I may have been carrying something, but it was not that gun.” If the witnessed stressed the word “not,” instead, he could mean he had the gun in his pant pocket but was not actually carrying it in his hand. So you see, voice inflection can have a great impact on the message we convey and what the fact finders will weigh in order to assess credibility or arrive at a verdict.

The human voice can convey emotions without actual words, and as interpreters we cannot always reproduce those nonverbal elements, such as when someone sobs or laughs; but we can change the pitch of our voice so it is softer when someone cries while testifying, rather than using a shrill—and incongruent—pitch. The pitch of our voices is created through vibrations of the vocal folds. The rate at which these folds vibrate changes the way our voices sound, with faster rates equating higher pitches. Imagine a very angry female witness telling the opposing side’s attorney, “You are not understanding me!” in what will sound to you – the interpreter – like a desperate cry. Now think of yourself conveying those same words in a low husky voice. That simple change in the way we use our voice may have jurors perceiving a completely different message from a pleading or submissive witness as opposed to an irritated or overbearing one.

Voice inflections can convey politeness, respect, boredom, sarcasm, disbelief, pity, gratitude, and just about any attitude humans can have when addressing each other. We as interpreters also have to be very careful not to insert our own attitudes towards a witness or a case in our voice inflections when we are interpreting, or to overdo what comes across so it sounds aberrant or artificial.

When we perform, in the broadest sense of the word, we actually have to be really good actors. Think soap opera, rather than newscast. I read an article in The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts’ webpage about nine years ago (no longer there, I’m sorry to report) that defined acting in a way that could very well be applied to interpreters—just trade “camera” for “courtroom”: “Actors are able to delve into the roles they play as though putting on the suit of another person’s body. When they appear in front of the camera, they are not acting the characteristics of that person, they are that person.”

When an interpreter “becomes” the person for whom he or she is interpreting, it is easier to place the right inflection in the voice during the target language delivery. It has been my experience that this, in turn, helps with the short-term memory retention in the consecutive mode, because we are not thinking of words in isolation; we are thinking of the message as a whole.  In the simultaneous mode it helps us anticipate where the speaker is going with the overall discursive thread, and I have found that engaging in this holistic type of performance helps me stay focused much longer while maintaining a high degree of accuracy. Plus, it is a lot more fun to render target language equivalencies with the proper voice inflection than with a monotone delivery.


NOTE: This piece was first published as a NAJIT blog in 2014.

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 taken from “Egennyttan och journalistiken” by Joakim Jardenberg at jardenberg, under the CC BY 2.5 SE license. Body photo taken from “Better Call Saul ‘Uno’” by Jose raul at NO ENTIENDO EL FINAL, under the CC BY 3.0 license.

9 thoughts on “The Power of the Inflected Voice”

  1. Luis Garcia, TXED says:

    Thanks, Janis. Great piece of wriitng and solid advice to those who are starting out, and a solid reminder for the rest of us!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Luis! It’s so good to hear from you and to know this piece has been helpful for the seasoned interpreter as well as the newcomer! Saludos.

  2. Ruby Stephens says:

    My sentiments exactly–tone is as important as the words an interpreter chooses. Thanks for expressing this so beautifully, Ms. Palma!
    By the way, it was a pleasure meeting you at the CATI conference. I want to be you if I ever grow up.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Ruby! It was wonderful to meet you and all beautiful and warm people who were at the CATI 2023 conference in Charleston!

  3. Julia Davis says:

    Thank you for bringing this up. I agree completely and would like to add a particular point of application that is so basic that it is sometimes overooked:: distinguishing questions from answers, and one voice from another.

    Recognizing that all of the English voices in the courtrooom are channeled though only one interpreter’s voice and with a lag, we are obliged — in my view — to do something to compensate for that. Inflection is a primary tools to accomplish that..

    When that tool is not sufficiently employed, I call it “interpreting without punctuation,” because it reminds me of the experience I have with hand-written documents that employ no punctuation. These are tricky, especially if the document attempts to recount a conversation. You’ve probably seen it. All the words are there, but I do not understand how they fit to together or who has said what until after I give it some study.

    In interpretation, our voice inflection is our punctuation. We need to remember to use it, even emphasize it, or our LEP clients will not know who has said what or how the words they are hearing fit together.

    1. Excellent points, Julia. It is so true that we change our inflection to denote a change in speaker. Also, I like the comparison you made about punctuation.

    2. JANIS PALMA says:

      What a great analogy, Julia! Thank you for adding that to this conversation!

  4. Reme says:

    Great article, Janis! I always like to think of our linguistic work as a sort of “channeling” the speaker. Inflection is another way to convey the same sense in a message.

  5. sohbet says:

    very very nice

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