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

The following was originally published in Proteus, the quarterly publication of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

During a pre-sentencing interview with a man who pled guilty to fatally stabbing a stranger “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 hapless human, except in this case, the drawing depicted a fight between myself as a professional interpreter and my sense of righteous indignation.

It was a difficult battle, but Interpreter Me managed to contain Sense of Outrage Me long enough to finish the interview. It wasn’t just the fact that the limited English proficient (LEP) individual for whom I was interpreting had murdered someone. It was his whole demeanor. He looked genuinely apologetic, the way I would feel humbled if I slammed a door on someone’s finger unwittingly. (Except in my scenario, no one died.) He alleged true regret, and I actually believe he felt sorry—which makes what he did 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 that he “didn’t remember” his son’s mother’s name. Like I said, with some difficulty I shut up my inner voices and 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 the 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 over who has to pay their kid’s medical bills is behaving like a pair of selfish five-year-olds whining to their mom. And yes, it’s 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’m to do my job effectively. Mindful focus and concentration become paramount, and with practice we can hone 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 is “with practice.” Empathy doesn’t 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 for whom I interpret in court, and this can distance me and make me more judgmental.

That’s 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.”

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.

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 jobs. And then, even in truly challenging interpreting situations, situations where we think maybe they don’t deserve any respect at all, we’ve 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! 


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, and works full-time for the New Jersey Superior Court. She is the editor-in-chief of Proteus, the quarterly publication of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Contact: athena.matilsky@judiciary.state.nj.us.

1 Responses to "Zen and the Art of Interpreting (When You Really Wish You Could Say What You’re Thinking!)"

  1. Linda Y Canetti says:

    I just loved this article and can totally relate to it, although I don’t do legal translating. My area of specialties is in business, education, leadership and the sciences. Interpreting for business meetings, negotiations, audits, coaching sessions, etc. are very challenging and thrill me. You do learn, like you said, self-control and how to professionally transmit the message without bias and in some cases even deep respect and sensitivity when translating sensitive matters. There is such a fine line there sometimes and I’d love to hear more stories about people’s experiences.

    Thanks for your contribution!
    Linda Y Canetti

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