Author Archives: Jennifer De La Cruz

A Linguist Particle?

This week, physicists revealed to the world that they’ve all but confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, called the “God Particle” in layman’s terms. The discovery is said to answer the riddle of how subatomic particles were formed, and what gives them their mass. As an interpreter and translator who’s dabbled in more than one specialty within the scope of being a linguist, and in the shadow of such an exciting moment for mankind, I started exploring what makes us tick, a “Linguist Particle,” if you will.

This week, physicists revealed to the world that they’ve all but confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, called the “God Particle” in layman’s terms. The discovery is said to answer the riddle of how subatomic particles were formed, and what gives them their mass. As an interpreter and translator who’s dabbled in more than one specialty within the scope of being a linguist, and in the shadow of such an exciting moment for mankind, I started exploring what makes us tick, a “Linguist Particle,” if you will.


Beyond the necessary trait of bilingualism and the basic role of bridging communication gaps, I pondered what traits seem to appear in the interpreters and translators I’ve encountered in my career. Commonly, I’ve noticed they have a creative streak that manifests itself in former or second careers as musicians, painters, singers, poets, lyricists, writers and graphic artists, among other right-brained qualities. As a subdivision of these, many are the entrepreneurial, business-minded people, who are very good at marketing their professional services. The academic subgroup’s passion lies in sharing knowledge and developing others. Life experience seems to be a big factor for professional success, providing not only broad knowledge but the maturity needed to excel. Hmm… maybe another line of thinking was in order. By this point it started looking like there was just too much variety to name just one common thread.

Rather than traits, I thought perhaps what was common were principles we have all agreed to abide by. Codes of ethics, standards of practice and good practice recommendations abound, and most generally have the same sort of list ranging from the fundamentals of faithful renditions to the broad-reaching implications of client relations and professional behavior. Still, with the great variety of environments, purposes and subject matters, the ways that professionals apply such guidelines can vary, albeit only slightly in some cases.


My next leg in the journey was to check whether the professions themselves have identified specific traits. Resources abound from a variety of sources that seek to name the ideals, what makes a good interpreter or translator. The more I looked, the more I found, but the “ah-ha” moment came when I found a study by Nancy Schweda Nicholson called Personality Characteristics of Interpreter Trainees: The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)[1]. I encourage you to read it because it’s much more detailed and complex than what I seek to explore here, and it cites many other very interesting sources.

Schweda Nicholson described that the study sought to identify traits of interpreter and translator trainees. She found that the traits that could be elicited from interpreters themselves would be highly subjective, explaining that “…interpreters have often examined their own personalities and attempted to generalize based on their own personal assessments… if one asks an interpreter what he or she believes to be the perfect temperament and personality for a new trainee, the interpreter will, almost without exception, describe his or her own personality.” Because interpreter and translator training programs are often led and taught by practicing industry professionals, it makes sense that some objective data would be an excellent supplement to the anecdotal descriptions that a seasoned trainer might offer.


Work by Henderson (1980) cited in the study says that the “typical” interpreter is “A self-reliant, articulate extrovert, quick and intelligent, a jack of all trades and something of an actor, superficial, arrogant, liking variety and at times anxious and frustrated…” going on to say that these are only major features of a picture that is much more complex. Interesting! Schweda Nicholson concludes that “personality may definitely have an effect on that person’s comfort level in different situations as well as on processing and organizational behavior.” Fascinating, I think, because the only entrance exams I have ever heard of for training programs focus almost exclusively on skills and abilities that tend to be limited to the performance, rather than any predictors for how a trainee might fare in the professional setting. Recognizing work such as that of Schweda Nicholson might assist programs to develop the other characteristics in trainees in conjunction with the specifics of the industry.

Perhaps intuitively, I’ve always been frustrated to hear professionals kindly encourage bilinguals to become linguists without knowing much about them. Research tells us there is so much more to interpreting and translating than language skills and the right vocabulary, and although many of the ideal traits can be developed, I’m not convinced that all of them are necessarily attainable to their fullest. The information contained in the Schweda Nicholson study seems to explain why some perfectly talented bilinguals have difficulty getting into or succeeding in the interpreting and translation industries. As a profession, when linguists seek to prepare for “the next generation” of interpreters and translators, it makes sense that people considering these careers are made aware that research and experience strongly suggests that certain personality traits may be better suited for success.

In the end, perhaps there is no such thing as a “Linguist Particle,” but instead a personality profile that is much more complex and intricate, with features that are both subjective and objective. As Schweda Nicholson puts it, “…the personality profiles of interpreters can be as varied as the topics with which they work.”


For additional background on the Myers-Brigg topic visit: and look for the first session of the Interpreters Journal Club twitter meeting.  Myers-Brigg was discussed and several interpreters from around the world chimed in.

Adoption Day

Jennifer de la Cruz

Jennifer De La Cruz holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and is a certified court interpreter for Spanish at both the California and federal levels, as well as an ATA-certified translator for Spanish into English. She has developed and taught interpreting and translation courses for over 10 years and has served on various advisory boards for college certificate programs in the field of interpreting and translation. She has been a professional interpreter and translator for about 15 years, spending a decade in the acute-care setting and now working as a staff interpreter at Riverside Superior Court in Southern California.

Of the many impactful experiences I encountered in my former career as an interpreter for an acute-care hospital, the one that stands out as the most emotional is “Adoption Day”.

            The day started off as any other morning, awaiting my first calls to the inpatient wards and the early-shift surgery center. Soon came the call to the maternity ward, where nursing staff was concerned that a Spanish speaking mom was showing no interest in bonding with her new baby daughter. The nurse asking for my help to interpret their conversation led me to the room.  I didn’t quite know whether to expect a case of the baby blues or perhaps an inexperienced new mother. To my surprise, during the conversation I interpreted, it was neither.

Mom already had several young children at home, and was probably in her thirties or later. She appeared to be struggling emotionally, but her message was clear: she had a busy life already, and this newborn was to be put up for adoption. Of course, this announcement came as a surprise to the nursing staff, who soon involved the ward social worker. It turned out that mom had not spoken to anyone about this decision, much less selected an adoption agency or adoptive parents. In fact, as quick as she recovered from the birth, she was anxious to be discharged home and was ready to leave the baby behind. Needless to say, the social worker’s task was to resolve the adoption, from A to Z, in one work shift.

The first task I was asked to perform was a series of sight translations. The agency that the hospital suggested to mom was accepted, and the representative showed up with some five letters from couples. Each letter had a photograph of the couples and, in some cases, other children. In preparing to sit with mom and do my task, I was touched deeply by the sentiment expressed in each letter and knew that I would have but one chance to transmit its message as heartfelt as it was written so mom could make a selection. No longer was I concerned with the perfect word as much as I was with the emotion behind each. I had to interpret with all the sentiment that each letter expressed, as these anonymous couples tried to put their best foot forward in hopes that a mom, this mom, would literally “pick” them.

Both the social worker and I were deeply moved by everything up to this point, and after the letters had been sight translated into Spanish for her, mom spread the letters out over her meal tray and contemplated the particulars of each couple. It didn’t take long for her to make her selection, and she expressed great relief when she considered her task complete. All that was left was some paperwork regarding known medical history and other things the new parents would want to know.  The representative meanwhile left to try to contact the couple, to see if they could visit the hospital before mom was discharged. An appointment was set for the middle of the afternoon.

As expected, the call to return to the maternity ward finally came. The couple selected didn’t speak Spanish, and they desperately wanted to meet mom before they met their new daughter. I was thrilled to have the privilege of being the conduit for communication between people who would likely remember this conversation for the rest of their lives. It was a young and handsome couple, who were unable to have children of their own. Their voices trembled and their bodies quietly shook as they walked into mom’s room, holding each other tighter than I’ve ever seen.

The conversation was a thing of beauty. A little small talk, a few tears, many things understood without words. Mom was relieved. The couple was immensely grateful, and couldn’t stop thanking mom for giving them a daughter that day. They wanted so badly to get to know mom, just a little, and hung on to every word I interpreted as if they were receiving some divine gift.

The last thing I recall about this couple was after the goodbyes. I was being called to attend to other interpreting encounters, and mom was being discharged. The couple left mom’s room moments after I did. I couldn’t help but turn and look back at them, and I their image is engraved in my mind. New mom collapsed into new dad’s arms just outside the room. They wept silently, almost uncontrollably, just a few feet from the woman who made their dream come true.

As I write these words, tears come to my eyes and I feel warm inside, as it was a moment for me, too, that will last forever. Interpreters in the medical field are likely to encounter everything across the spectrum of  life, but few are the truly beautiful moments that as humans we can hold precious in our hearts. Adoption Day will always be one such moment for me.

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