Fear of Interpreting

Natalia Sebastián, Senior Translator and Editor

This time I decided to write about a topic which may raise more or less worries to translators, who are more used to perform their job hidden and silently behind a computer rather than to practice public speaking: the fear of interpreting. Among my colleagues, I have often heard about their fear, as translators, to face an interpreting, they are less familiar with since they left university; “What if I do it badly?”, “what if I get nervous?”, “what if I do not understand the speaker’s accent?”

The interpreter’s goal is to make communication easier trying to be unnoticed, so the communication flows between the interlocutors. This goal is not always easy to achieve, because there are a variety of external/internal elements which affect his/her task. An interpretation is always a situation in which improvisation is present every day, and this may lead to insecurity or dreads in interpreters.

As every interpreter knows, preparation of the matter, attention, and concentration are vital to perform his/her work correctly, unless, of course, he/she is interpreting in a conflict zone/circumstance, such as, war interpreters. By these three elements, interpreter’s creativity and fluency are not usually compromised in normal and desirable situations. However, some fears usually arise among most inexperienced interpreters or under new circumstances.

Fear is an anticipatory emotion which activates to protect us from any pain or damage.

Some interpreter’s fears are more related to his/her shy and introverted character:

There are people who feel unsafe when speaking before many people, such as conference interpreting. That insecurity may be due to multiple causes: fear of speaking in public, due to shyness or to make a fool of himself/herself (stage fright); fear of not understanding the speaker’s message correctly, due to unknown phrases or not being familiar with the speaker’s accent (fair of failure); fear of criticism… I think all these can be summarised as the fear of “doing badly” anyhow. Nerves can always play a dirty trick on him/her and this may lead to what is called “auditory stress”, in other words, the stress oneself generates, or the autosuggestion oneself creates when thinking he/she CANNOT do it. This attitude is a very negative one, as it only contributes to increase confusion and mental block. Doing so, what one really gets is to stop listening, as he/she focuses on his/her concern for not being able to do it.

Other interpreter’s fears are more related to the interpreting task itself when putting in the speaker’s place and expressing his/her ideas as the ones of the interpreter himself/herself, because, to do this, interpreters should analyse and express correctly and as accurately as possible what is said, gestures, looks, etc. At this point, improvisation comes into play, since even though the interpreter had prepared the matter about which he/she is interpreting, it is likely that something happens that he/she had not forecast, such as situations, gestures, looks or phrases.

Fears are an excellent tool if one can identify their causes. Facing our fears, one by one, will let us grow personally and professionally.

On the one hand, a good way to try to overcome the stage fright is to isolate oneself from the own environment, surrounded by people, and focus one’s attention on the speaker and the data he/she is providing or the conversation itself (ad hoc interpreting). If the interpreter is relaxed, this promotes creativity, and the information flows, what is essential, since interpreting, as well as the translation, are creative tasks essentially.

On the other hand, practice can help us overcome most of our fears and raise self esteem, because if we are self-confident, we will be able to success in many other situations which do not depend on us much more easily. I mean, in particular, practising before friends or well-known people, and in familiar places, interpreting speeches that have not been prepared previously and that let us improvise, such as a radio or TV shows. An environment like this is ideal to overcome our fear of improvisation. In addition, recording our interpreting to listen to it afterwards and to identify certain mistakes or bad habits will help us to improve our technique.

Remember: Facing our fears makes us stronger. And practice is the basis to master any discipline.

I hope you consider this entry interesting and, above all, I hope this has served to contribute with solutions to overcome the fear of this amazing profession.