glasses and out of focus lights

The Trouble With Memory…

or How to Forget About Interpreting and Just Listen

– By Athena Matilsky©

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.

Athena 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. Constance Marina says:

    I love this post, Athena, and I love your analogy of the cranky kid in the back seat of a car! We are often our own worst enemies when we are interpreting consecutively. Our listening mode has to become that, along with the usual courtroom noise, we turn off our own noise, the one in our heads!

  2. Maria Teresa Perez says:

    This is so true!! Miss Matilsky You have a way with words…and your analysis is right on the money. Thank you for sharing such an abundant insight of knowledge to enrich our profession.

  3. Vicki Santamaria says:

    You’re absolutely right, Athena. Any nervousness can make an interpreter’s mind go blank. I do the best job when I’m in “the zone”–a mental state where I shut out everything except the voice I’m supposed to interpret. It’s hard to shut out a courtroom full of people, but it can be done.

    In my own case, I am extremely distractible and have found that taking notes is more distracting than helpful. The only things I write down are names and numbers (such as addresses and dates) and long sequences of nouns or events.

    I think it’s probably best for people training to be interpreters to concentrate first on building their memories and ability to concentrate without worrying about note taking. With enough practice, a person finds out what he or she has trouble remembering and needs to jot down. Concentration comes first.

  4. Gladys Matthews says:

    Hi Athena,

    The way you describe it is so simple, yet powerful; or powerful because simple. We have to tell ourselves, “I can do this.” And of course, one has to focus on listening.
    Thanks for the post.

  5. M. Liliana Pingel says:

    Hi Athena,

    Thank you for the topic, this is definitely my struggle. I am new in the field of an interpreter, I have been mostly doing medical, but would like to get more court interpreting opportunities.

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