Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Spirit of Malinalli: Finding strength in high-stakes interpreting

I want to open this post with a short passage from Laura Esquivel's masterpiece novel Malinche, which is an evocative, beautiful work of historical fiction about the life of Hernan Cortes' interpreter Malinalli, a polyglot slave who was thrust into the role of interpreter for Cortes during his conquest of the Mexica people. It imagines her as a thoughtful and spiritual character, who struggled with the responsibility of her role as an interpreter, just as many modern interpreters do as they grapple with the implications of their own roles as conduits for the communication of others in high-stakes environments.

"Being "the Tongue" involved an enormous spiritual commitment. It meant placing her entire being at the service of the gods so that her tongue could become part of a divine sound system, so that her voice might spread the very sense of existence throughout the cosmos. But Malinalli did not feel prepared for this. Often, when she spoke, she let herself be led by her desires, and when that happened, the voice that came out of her mouth was none other than that of fear. Fear of being unfaithful to her gods, fear of failure, fear of not being able to handle the responsibility and - why not? - fear of power. Of the taking of power."*

It was eery for me to read that passage as I followed Malinalli's journey, because that is exactly how I feel about interpreting. And one of the most important insights I've gathered in recent weeks is that indeed, when I let myself be controlled by my own anxieties, emotions, and reactions surrounding what I interpret, my interpretation is colored and affected by this. However, when I am calm, confident, and focused outward, on the people I am supporting, my interpretation is more likely to truly reflect the spirit and the voice of the people speaking through me.

To put this in context, over the last several months, I've been working heavily with asylum cases, both in and out of court, and the impact of this work on me has been startling. It can be emotionally taxing not only to give voice to painful stories, repeating the communication in the first person as interpreters must do, but also to be responsible for the accurate conveyance of those stories when the accuracy of the interpretation can, effectively, change the course of someone's life.

The interpreter bears an enormous responsibility, especially in adjudicative settings. In immigration court and in asylum interviews, the interpreter's rendition of the respondent's testimony can affect credibility findings. Furthermore, the formality of those settings makes it difficult to employ tactics to fix broken communication: for example, if someone's answer is ambiguous and hard to understand, it's not always appropriate to ask for more information so that the interpretation can be clear.

As an interpreter, I second guess myself constantly. Did I choose the right word to reflect the tenor and tone of the what she is communicating? Did I interpret the question/answer in the exact way it was asked/given, or did I make it more confusing? Or less confusing (also, perhaps surprisingly to some, problematic)?

I'm in the process of finding peace with this running internal dialogue and my own "interpreter anxiety," because I can't actually get rid of it. There was a great post on the NAJIT observer this week by Athena Matilsky, an experienced court interpreter who now trains and coaches interpreters, that speaks to precisely this issue. It was a breath of fresh air, because often I think interpreters don't want to admit to anxiety or feelings of inadequacy, because our ability to get work depends on our ability to market ourselves as excellent. But Athena normalizes these very common feelings, and shares these fantastic takeaways:

  • Interpreting is stressful. Anxiety is common. You can’t expect it to go away.
  • Therefore…you must practice dealing with anxiety productively.
  • You must recognize the feeling of confidence and calm, and learn to re-create it in more stressful situations.
  • You will often fail before you succeed. Failure only counts as failure if you let it stop you from achieving what you want.
  • There is no such thing as perfection. I repeat: No. Such. Thing!
  • You must believe you are the best interpreter there ever was. Then, practice until you are.
  • Most importantly: Don’t forget to breathe!

These are some fundamental truths about interpreting that I might not have been able to recognize even eight months ago. To interpret is to be anxious; to interpret well is to deal with that anxiety productively, by remembering how it feels to be confident and calm and also by quieting the voice that tells you if you are not perfect, then you are not excellent. 
I also want to close with one more thought and one more resource. Sometimes, the interpreter's exposure to the trauma they interpret, combined or not with the pressure of an adjudicative setting, leaves the interpreter with what is called vicarious trauma. I've felt it, but didn't know how to recognize it until I talked to a therapist and realized I had a problem, but the problem wasn't my abilities, it was the context in which I was applying them and how that work affects me. There's a great curriculum (and the training is offered a couple times a year here in DC and elsewhere) called Breaking Silence: Interpreting for Victim's Services. Here is a discussion of the project on the ATA Chronicle by the curriculum's author and my personal hero Marjory Bancroft, and the curriculum is available to read here. Some lessons aren't applicable to court, but it does do the important work of acknowledging and normalizing the struggles of interpreters handling difficult subject matter.

As always, thanks for reading, and best of luck to all my colleagues who share with me this tremendous responsibility.

*In the original Spanish: "Ser <<la Lengua>> implicaba un gran compromiso espiritual, era poner todo su ser al servicio de los dioses para que su lengua fuera parte del aparato sonoro de la divinidad, para que su voz esparciera por el cosmos el sentido mismo de la existencia, pero Malinalli no se sentía preparada para ello. Muy a menudo, al hablar, se dejaba guiar por sus deseos y entonces la voz que salía por su boca no era otra que la del miedo. Miedo a no ser fiel a sus dioses, miedo a fallar, miedo a no poder con la responsibilidad y - ¿por qué no? - miedo al poder. A la toma del poder."