interpreter as actor: an epiphany

Three years ago I retired from 30 years as a Spanish<>English court interpreter.  Before that I was a classical guitarist — a good one, but not so phenomenally good as to make a reasonable living out of it. At around age 30 I quit music and stumbled into court interpreting, thinking it might be an interesting and viable way to pay the bills.

All my life I have had a taste for adrenalin rushes and dopamine rewards of the kind you get from things like performing music on a stage, or skydiving, to which I was addicted for 10 years. I discovered that interpreting in open court, especially in scenarios like witness interpreting, is a performance before an audience, and that it provided enough challenge, pressure and excitement to satisfy the adrenalin junkie in me.

A lot of proceedings are largely scripted. I once worked with a defense attorney who, when prepping his client for a plea, spoke of when we go on stage — an expression I adopted and used forever thereafter.

Properly trained interpreters use the same grammatical person as the person whose words they’re interpreting, and in so doing, they are in a sense assuming the identity of that person. Most of us, at least to some degree, reproduce tone and expression, the better to convey the meaning as we understand it.

Often the outcomes in criminal proceedings are all but foregone conclusions, as if preordained, written in a script. Spoiler alert! The verdict is:  guilty.

I have rarely encountered any discussion in the professional literature, online forums or anywhere, about how we interpreters and translators, like actors, spend our days and make our livings expressing other people’s ideas and opinions rather than our own.  One exception I know of is the novel The Translator by the undeservedly little-known Ward Just, where this issue is mentioned in passing. No wonder so many of us spout off as we do when given the chance!  

Formulaic repetition; predictable outcomes; the ritualistic formality with which the players, if you will, play their parts in a courtroom; the way interpreters are constrained to reproduce other people’s thoughts, not their own; their use of expressivity to help get the meaning across:  in all these ways, the court interpreter’s job is like acting out a script. But this rather obvious notion of interpreter as actor was recently driven home to me with shocking clarity.

Last spring I succumbed to an urge to audition for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night, and was cast as The Fool. Did I have any real theatrical experience? No. But the director liked my audition, and my musical abilities were useful to the production. Staged in the summer in an outdoor amphitheater, the show was extremely successful and well received. The other cast members were superb. I never had more fun in my life. One thing I found remarkable about this marvelous experience was how completely natural it felt to be on the stage, acting in a play. I have always had my attention-seeking, narcissistic, histrionic tendencies. Even so, this felt unexpectedly, almost absurdly normal. Why?

A few weeks after the play closed, I served as interpreter for an unusual event. You may recall news reports from September 2022 about the Venezuelan migrants whom Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis used as pawns in his criminal political stunt, conning them with false promises into boarding a plane bound for Martha’s Vineyard. With no warning whatsoever, members of the local community immediately mobilized to provide services and support. Not only were our unexpected guests well cared for; the same people who handled last year’s surprise invited our Venezuelan friends back to the island for a reunion to mark the one-year anniversary. I was asked to interpret for a ceremonial event — my first time interpreting before an audience in more than three years. When there came a pause in my part of the action long enough for my mind to wander, it dawned on me: I had worked as an actor for 30 years! Of course it felt normal, natural, indeed familiar to perform in a play.

No, doing court interpreting and doing Shakespeare are not the same. It may not be just one easy step for all interpreters to move from the former to the latter. But are not interpreters located on a continuum that includes almost everyone? At one end, the only people who are their pure, authentic selves all the time are infants (and maybe, people with certain mental disorders); at the other extreme, actual actors. Virtually all of us, to some degree, go through life acting out our various roles. In their professional lives, interpreters are located especially close to the actor end of the spectrum.

As Shakespeare’s character Jaques says in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts[…]

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