Fear and Interpreting: Honoring the Every-Day Courage of Interpreters

"You are only as good as your last interpretation."

I don't know who was the first to say this. I only know that an interpreting classmate said this phrase to me more than a decade ago, and I have heard it, or a version of it, repeated many times since.

And it has stuck with me.

If you are an interpreter, you will relate. Interpreting is, in essence, a performance profession. Every single time we step in to negotiate meaning across two languages, we step onto a stage where, if we do our job right, people will forget we are there. But if we stumble, trip or fall, we will be remembered for our bad performance.

With performance comes fear.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about interpreters and fear. The role it plays. The toll it takes. How the pandemic has greatly magnified fear. And whether, as a profession, we really have a handle on the amount of fear interpreters face and overcome on a daily basis.

I'm not a performer, I'm an interpreter...

I didn't become an interpreter because I wanted to be a performer. Far from it. In fact, as with most people, any kind of "real time" performance, such as making a presentation or teaching a class in front of others, terrified me. Everyone would be looking at me! How would I know what to say? What if I made a fool of myself?

I became an interpreter because speaking two languages meant I could help people understand each other. Indeed, when I worked in social services before becoming an interpreter, it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that requests to "help out" other agencies with a non-English-speaking client was something I could do professionally.

I eventually made my way to a graduate program in interpreting and translation. By then, one of my primary motivations was to overcome insecurities. Was my language proficiency good enough? Could I really interpret? I assumed that by the end of a Masters program, those doubts would be put to rest. (Are you laughing yet?)

I still didn't understand that I was, in fact, signing up for the kind of training that an actor, singer or on-air journalist requires. I also didn't fully understand that no matter how skilled a performer is, nerves and fear are an inherent part of what they do.

You might not have become an interpreter because you want to perform—but performing is a key part of what we do. When we interpret, we put aside our essential selves and channel other people's thoughts, feelings and intentions. Just as actors must, we have to get inside the minds and feelings of the "characters" we play.

To achieve this, we balance many competing tasks, some mental, some emotional. Increasingly, some are logistical, too. With the rise of remote interpreting, we have to juggle technology as well as words and ideas. Don’t take your eye off the screen!

We feel, often, that a bad interpretation means we are not good at what we do. We forget, even if for just a while, the many successful turns on the stage we've had.

The interpreting profession does acknowledge, to some extent, the role fear and anxiety can play in our daily work. We teach self care, the importance of breathing, how to steady nerves, the need for repeated practice to lock in our skills, the impact of vicarious trauma and so on.

But I don't think we really honor the courage it takes to continually put ourselves into conversations that can be so fraught with consequence for the people involved. Their health, legal status, financial situation or yes, even international diplomatic negotiation is partially in our hands when we pledge to be their language bridge.

More and more, I find myself in awe of that courage, especially, or maybe because of, the pandemic.

Fear fatigue - interpreting during a global pandemic

Every week, I am fortunate to interact with interpreters working in many different contexts, from conference settings, to colleagues in education, healthcare and legal environments. Week after week throughout the pandemic, I have watched them step into intimidating situations and figure new things out.

They have tackled the incomprehensibly hard challenge of learning how to interpret online. The complexity of remote simultaneous interpreting is just as daunting on the conference interpreting side as it is for educational and legal interpreters, though the details and contexts may differ. Many of my healthcare interpreting colleagues have continued to interpret onsite in hospitals and clinics, fighting at first to be included in basic PPP and safety procedures, and more recently, to be considered frontline healthcare workers deserving of vaccines. These are just two examples in a sea of change.

And through it all, I see, over and over again, the fear.

The fear of managing technology while interpreting. The fear of new ways we have to "intrude" to get our most basic needs met. The fear of inserting ourselves into meetings where organizers often don't understand the technology or how to make it work for the interpreting to succeed. The fear and frustration of seeing the degradation of language access when it is needed most. The fear of negotiating a fair wage when any wage at all has become a precious opportunity. I see the fatigue and burnout of being asked to do too much, learn too fast, get paid too little and accept changes in working conditions not sought after.

I, too, face these fears and fatigue.

I don't have any magic solutions for what I am describing, except perhaps, to honor you, my fellow interpreters. I see your courage, your stubborn persistence, your willingness to swim in completely uncharted waters to keep your commitment to help people communicate, especially now, with the world still turned upside down.

Your work inspires me and humbles me. It motivates me to keep moving forward, to find the beauty in our work, and to remember, always, that interpreters do something essential no one else can.

I end this post sharing some words from Mike Corey of Fearless and Far, whose career is dedicated to "helping people conquer their fears so they can travel the world."

….You are put in these situations where you have to be resourceful, you have to be brave. You have to be all these things, work on all these skills you never had to foster when you were back in your hometown. You do that enough, you start to realize that you are capable of all kinds of things. You see yourself grow and you do these things you never thought you’d do. You find yourself in these crazy situations where you look at yourself and you’re like, how did I get here? But this is amazing! Right? And a lot of that revolves around finding yourself in fearful and uncomfortable situation. But you persevere and you push through and you grow. . --From an episode of the podcast Armchair Explorer.

So, here's to you my amazing, cherished colleagues. I celebrate the courage you bring into the essential work we do. And I thank you for all the ways you make my life, and those of countless others, better.

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