Zen and the Art of Interpreting (When You Really Wish You Could Say What You Were Thinking!)

This is a reprint of an article originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Proteus

During a presentence interview with a man who had pled guilty to stabbing a stranger to death “by accident,” I must say I could almost see an embodied form to the protests taking shape inside my brain. The vision was similar to a cartoon where the angel and the devil sit on either shoulder egging on the poor hapless human, except in this case the drawing depicted a fight between myself as a professional interpreter and my sense of righteous indignation.

I must say, it was a difficult battle, but Interpreter Me managed to contain Sense of Outrage long enough to finish the interview. It wasn’t just the fact that the Limited English Proficient (LEP) person for whom I was interpreting had murdered someone, either. It was his whole demeanor. He looked genuinely apologetic, the way I would feel humbled if I unwittingly slammed a door on someone’s finger. Except in the scenario with the door, no one died. He alleged true regret, and I actually believe he felt sorry…which makes what he did even that much more unbelievable.

There is more to the story, including my Sense of Outrage kicking and screaming at the admission to the fact that he “had not acknowledged” his only son born back in his home country or the fact that he “didn’t remember” his son’s mother’s name. Like I said though, with some difficulty I shut up my inner voices and I finished interpreting the interview.

While I must say I feel pretty secure in my right to judge murderers, rapists, and other Really Bad People, there is a linguistic dilemma posed when one’s angry thoughts start overtaking one’s brain. What’s more, there are other areas of criticism and judgment that are more difficult to justify. Yes, the bilingual attorney is extremely irritating when he objects to a client’s utterance before you have interpreted it, interrupts you and then corrects your interpretation. Yes, the couple arguing to the judge about who has to pay their kid’s medical bills is behaving like a pair of selfish five-year-old kids whining to their mom.  And yes, it is frustrating when your clients whisper, mumble, don’t wait for you to finish, and in other ways put your interpreting skills to the test. On the other hand, who among us hasn’t interrupted someone, talked fast or said unfortunate things to a spouse?

Here’s the thing. Our clients are human and so are we. All of us hear, think and react. But the art of our profession as interpreters manifests itself in how we process our reactions. I truly think becoming an interpreter has made me calmer. I simply must put everything out of my mind except for meaning and language if I am to do my job effectively. Mindful focus and concentration become paramount, and with practice we can home in more precisely on what people are saying. Background noises don’t bother us as much, and we become skillful in letting things go.

I will dare to say that with practice, we can also cultivate a more empathetic and open mind. The key phrase here, let it be known, is “with practice.” Empathy does not necessarily come naturally, and it helps to purposefully inject some perspective. As fate would have it, I simply don’t often associate with the demographic that I interpret for in court, and this can distance me and make me more judgmental.

That is why, while interacting with friends and acquaintances on a recent trip to Honduras, I took the time to think, “these are people who, if they were going through a rough time right now and found themselves in my New Jersey courtroom, would need me to interpret. They might not understand how to speak in a way that would make interpreting easy. They might behave childishly to their ex-husbands and wives. On the other hand, they are normal people with everyday struggles and diverse personalities. Also, some of them tell hilarious jokes or make baleadas that are to die for.” In other words, I took the opportunity to see my LEP clients in context. Then, when I returned home with a fresh dose of perspective to accompany my Honduran mosquito bites, I practiced kindness.

As it turns out, being nice takes practice. But when we go into an interpreting situation with the understanding that everyone deserves respect, it becomes that much easier to concentrate on doing our job. And then, even in truly challenging interpreting situations, situations where we think maybe they don’t deserve any respect at all, we have still learned to set aside those angry, sad or outraged voices in our heads.

As luck would have it, we are interpreters. It turns out that passing judgment is the judge’s job, not ours. And thank goodness for that!

4 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Interpreting (When You Really Wish You Could Say What You Were Thinking!)”

  1. Arnaldo says:

    You forgot to mention the borderline, substance-abusing LEP defendant whose 8 kids by 3 different fathers—including the little one with special needs— you’re helping support, while you’re also subsidizing all the services she’s receiving (free of charge!), and even the removal trial you’re stuck interpreting —with the five lawyers who may not be necessarily the best at articulating their thoughts, and so forth… I don’t think a lifetime of intensive zazen would be enough to wash away all the cynicism and pessimism I have managed to accumulate in my soul since I became a full time staff interpreter for our great Superior Court… but anyway, bills tend to have the pesky habit of not paying themselves, right?

  2. Martin Anderson says:

    At first I thought you were outraged at the judicial system for accepting a plea from some one who felt he wasn’t guilty. Then I realized you were outraged at the defendant for trying to deny responsibility, right?
    In any case, in my experience we have to be careful with “kindness.” It is different from “respect,” which is more useful and honest.
    Any suggestion that a LEP litigant has a special ally involved in their case can disempower and defocus them, seeming to provide an umbrella of safety that doesn’t exist. I’ve seen the slippery slope of “kindness” leading to “help” of no value too many times.

  3. I find the subject you address very important, especially as interpreters start to develop their own professional sense, and as they start buildingtheir skills. There is so much to learn at first as a court interpreter that people may be overwhelmed just from terminology, impediments to practice, etc. Getting to the point when one can start reflecting on subtle issues, like self-monitoring at the level you discuss, certainly requires a professional maturity and constant work with ourselves. At our Introductory Orientation/Training here I often equate learning to be a court interpreter with learning ballet: you are trying to “convince” your feet, legs, arms, neck, to act in ways that are not “normal;” to teach them a new mind-body vocabulary. Likewise, as interpreters we must work towards “convincing” our mind to control its normal reactions so as to prevent them from showing, or from interfering from accurately processing someone’s words. I will add the zen connection next time around. Thank you for sharing this. Leonor Figueroa-Feher (Off. Court Interpreter Services, MA)

  4. Catalina Natalini says:

    I really like the ballerina metaphor! In my practice as court interpreter I have learnt to value discretion and the word impartiality has taken a profound meaning to me that was unknown before I became an interpreter. However as any other skills practice makes perfect. That sigh or roll of the eyes that occasionally betrays our mind is going to happen, and you will have to forgive yourself because interpreters are also humans, but what is unforgivable is the unawareness of such behavior that some interpreters display. That is reason to worry.
    Let’s continue like good ballerinas going through our routine till it is perfect.

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