learning inpartof life, five girls sitting on a log

We Learn from Everything Around Us

I will start by saying that interpreters are awesome people who have the ability to perform mental feats very few people can. For one thing, we can listen and speak at the same time in two different languages! That in and of itself is amazing, especially when you read the literature on language and communication.

Interpreters, almost by definition, are especially intelligent people. We store more information in our long-term memory than most people ever will in their entire lifetimes. And yet, many interpreters live in fear of “not knowing,” of “something” coming up during a hearing, a trial, or a deposition, that we will not know how to convey in the other language. The younger interpreters just getting started on their careers suffer from this the most, but so do some of the “veterans” in the profession.

Where is the knowledge hiding?

The truth is we can learn from just about every experience we live on a day-to-day basis. Not all the knowledge we need comes from books and classrooms. I remember in my college years, before I ever thought about being an interpreter, how I had friends in different fields of study and as we got together to talk about our various interests, we learned from each other. I learned about cinematography and film appreciation, I learned about music and art. In my work-study jobs, I learned about office management, historical research, international trade.

It came naturally to me to pick up on the nuances of all these different fields, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think all interpreters have that “knack.” I even learned about translation at one point, long before translation or interpreting were on my radar as possible careers. I am sure a lot of the interpreters reading this right now can think of a lot of experiences in their lifetimes during which they learned things they thought they’d never need or use, and then one unexpected day in court… wham! It came in handy. You understood exactly what the witness was talking about. And you were able to convey it with both accuracy and grace.

Everyone is a teacher

If we pay attention to our everyday surroundings, we will surely find something new to learn at every turn. You can learn from the guy selling you bagels on the street, or the teller where you bank, the paint salesperson at the hardware store, or the lady who does your pedicure. All it takes is being a little bit awake, paying attention instead of going through the motions like a mindless machine because you just never know who your next “teacher” will be.

Open your heart and your mind to all the experiences from which you can draw even a little bit of new knowledge. Go ziplining, whitewater rafting, or take a leisurely stroll at the zoo. Volunteer at a pet shelter or join a beach-cleaning crew. Mix and mingle with people with completely different life experiences, listen to them, to what they say, to how they use language, to how they view the world.

It’s not all about legal terms and legal proceedings and legal equivalents. Being a great interpreter is also knowing about life. Because life is the best teacher of all.


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.
Contact: janis.palma@gmail.com

9 Comments
  • Clara Gomez
    Posted at 14:10h, 12 July Reply

    Wonderful article. May we share it in our FB pages? Thank you Clara Gomez

    • Observer Editor
      Posted at 14:27h, 12 July Reply

      Hello, Clara. Please do share, we suggest the use of a text such as “This article was originally published in The NAJIT Observer and is reproduced here with permission.” And please use the original link [https://najit.org/we-learn-from-everything-around-us/]

      The Editor

  • Gila Khabbaza
    Posted at 14:26h, 12 July Reply

    I loved your comment. You are so right. Life is precious and ever so short and time goes by ever so quickly. We need to savor each moment and accept that we are human, imperfect, yet precious.

  • Douglas Hal Sillers
    Posted at 16:40h, 12 July Reply

    Excellent article., Janis. It truly fits the title of this section, “The Observer,” We learn so much by Observing. In addition, quite often the legal terminology is not the greatest obstacle to accuracy encountered by court interpreter, as that can be learned by study and repetition. Rather, it is the every day vocabulary that presents the most difficulty.

    Best regards,,

    Hal Sillers

  • Armida Hernandez
    Posted at 17:14h, 12 July Reply

    Excellent advice! I’ve always believed that the best interpreters are those who are open-minded and remain lifelong learners. Also, those who live well-rounded lives and who don’t limit themselves socially.

  • Kendra
    Posted at 19:41h, 12 July Reply

    Absolutely love this article!! ! I am a baby interpreter and it motivates me even more to read how you describe interpreters!!!

    Thank you!!!

  • Ligia Qahoush
    Posted at 01:00h, 13 July Reply

    Great article! Thank you, Janis.

  • Vimal Nikore
    Posted at 02:01h, 13 July Reply

    Well written article that goes far beyond the job of Interpreting.

    It is true that there is no better teacher than LIFE & experiences. Being Alive and soaking in life we learn, become wise and enrich our lives. As I empathize with the struggles and challenges of LEP, I feel grateful for my blessings.

    Thanks & keep writing

  • Nora Mitchell
    Posted at 16:04h, 13 July Reply

    Hello. I love reading your articles. They are very inspirational.

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