glasses and out of focus lights

The Trouble With Memory…

The article below was originally posted in 2017. Memory is an interpreter’s best friend; here’s to “remembering” a useful contribution. Enjoy. 

or How to Forget About Interpreting and Just Listen

You know how the saying goes: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I’m sure you have heard it; we all have. But have you heard the saying for interpreters? No? Well, that’s because there isn’t one, but I’m going to float one by you. How about: The only thing that messes up our short-term memory…is fear of messing up our short-term memory. Well? How about it?

Think about it this way. Remember that time you heard that rumor about your best friend’s sister-in-law and were able to recount it word for word? Or when you could explain to someone the entire plot arc of a 7-season television series? Or remind your partner, during an argument, of what exactly she promised you last week? Well, it’s happened to me, and I’m sure something like it has happened to you too.

From “I’ve got this” to shut down in a few sentences

Yet something happens when we stop listening and enter interpreting mode. Suddenly, just a few sentences, and it feels positively overwhelming. One sentence goes by and we think, “I’ve got this.” Two sentences go by and we think, “I can manage it.” And then a third goes by (or the speaker tosses in a word that doesn’t have an immediate obvious translation) and if they don’t stop talking it’s like someone has just set off the sprinkler system in our brain. We shut down completely and enter full-on panic mode. And then, in our diligent effort to remember absolutely everything, we find ourselves remembering nothing at all.

So, I ask, what’s an interpreter to do? Well, this builds a little off the premise I discussed in previous posts, Conquering Consecutive and Save the Interpreting for Last (Published 10/27/16 and 4/24/15, respectively). The issue I raised then is that we have to understand a message first in order to properly interpret it.

The same applies to memory. In order to remember a message, you have to listen to it first!  You can only remember what you actually hear. (And don’t tell me that the problem is your notes. Okay, yes, notes may be a factor. Our notes can always be improved, and perhaps you do have a problem with legibility/organization/writing too much or too little, etc. But here’s the thing about notes. They are there to trigger your short-term memory. But if you didn’t build that memory, to begin with, your trigger is useless.)

The culprit and a promise

So what stops us from listening, and therefore remembering? Well, it’s that pesky little voice distracting us, of course. The one that tells us we have to remember absolutely everything. The one that panics when the person keeps speaking. The one that knows we can remember an entire episode of Friends, but doesn’t trust us to listen to a 50-word utterance without slamming on the panic button.

I liken that voice to your cranky child in the back seat of the car. “Mom! Mom! Mom! I’M HUNGRY!” goes your beloved 4-year-old son, over and over. But you can’t pay attention the 4-year old right now. Of course, you can’t very much kick him out of the car, either, but what you can do is shut him out of your brain so you can concentrate on driving.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I dare you to practice (because this has to be practiced. It’s way easier said than done) ignoring that voice of panic in your head. No, you can’t get rid of him completely, but you can choose not to engage him. I dare you to trust in your ability to do a fine job interpreting later, once you’ve finished listening to the message. The longer the speaker goes on, the harder you should concentrate on listening. That cranky kid in the back seat is just going to have to wait a while, and then once you get home you can feed him. Because once you’ve heard the whole message, and I mean truly heard it, interpreting will get easier. And that’s a promise.

Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

5 thoughts on “The Trouble With Memory…”

  1. Ezequiel Quijano says:

    “No, you can’t get rid of him completely, but you can choose not to engage him.” This is true of SOOOOO many things. In the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” that’s how the main character is able to conquer his imaginary friends, who were unintentionally tearing his life apart. What a life lesson!

    For ex-smokers (like me) or anyone who has had a problem with things that tug at you – a substance, bad relationships, the fear of not remembering what you’re going to interpret, some sort of self-sabotaging behavior – that little voice that says “man, I could use a cigarette right now” never quite goes away. But you can choose to ignore it like you ignore that pesky boy in the back seat, or that idiot neighbor whom you can’s stand, so you choose to ignore him because there’s nothing you can do about the fact he lives next door to you.

    “No, you can’t get rid of him completely, but you can choose not to engage him.” It does take practice. Sometimes A TON of practice. But it is definitely sound advice.

    1. Ravi Poirot says:

      Great article, but how does one take your dare and “practice”? What techniques or exercises do you recommend?

      1. Observer Editor says:

        Dear Ravi Poirot, if I have understood your question correctly, there are many techniques to develop and many exercises to that effect. Starting from an area in your interpreting you know or believe needs improvement, make a specific goal for improvement (e.g., “I will stop saying ‘um’ every three words), then practice with a recording (five, ten, fifteen minutes long) and record yourself. Listen to yourself afterward and see how you managed. If your goal needs more work, repeat the process as many times as you need to, with that same recording or others, until the defect in your performance is gone.

        One goal for practice could be precisely that: “I will choose not to listen to the pesky, parasitic voice in the back of my head and will simply focus on the content of what is being said.” Practice that over and over and over again – steamroll it! Practice really does make perfect (or at least greatly increases your confidence).

  2. Athena says:

    Thanks…I wrote this article four years ago and that is still advice I am re-learning and practicing on the daily!

  3. Nora King says:

    Truly enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

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