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Three Secret Weapons to Improve Interpreting

Dalai Lama III am sure we will all agree that some of the basic requirements for a professional to deliver a successful interpretation, be it in the booth or in a court or other environment, is to firstly have a disciplined mind to render the task at hand without distractions and in order to have a disciplined mind, your physical body must be healthy, relaxed and rested.

During my 30+ years in the business, I have tried a lot of methods to achieve this goal in the most expedient and effortless manner, ranging from diet, to personal trainers, to mind control methods, etc., all of which I found lacking in some aspect.  Either they conferred better health without the necessary relaxation and mental concentration or they met some other incomplete set of criteria.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, and I have been able to verify through my personal practice, that the combination of the three basic legs of yoga: the postures, breathing exercises and meditation, achieve this end exceptionally well.


The postures differ from traditional Western exercises that focus on developing large muscles and disciplining the body. They positively affect both the mind and the body.  They are unique in that they also tone up the chief endocrine glands of the body, such as the adrenal or suprarenal capsules, the pineal and pituitary glands, the thyroid, carotid, the gonads, etc., which produce hormones that regulate your body’s growth, metabolism, and sexual development as well as function.[i] We need a well-tuned body to carry out the oftentimes stress-inducing work of interpreting, which will in time adversely affect us if left unchecked. It should be noted, in our youth-oriented society, that the gonads are responsible not only for an individual’s  sexuality but also for his remaining in an optimum state of health.  They  maintain youthful vigor, prevent the onset of senility and exercise a deep psychological and physiological influence on the organism.[ii]


By learning to control our breathing, we can control our life energy, which we draw in through the breath, therefore life itself and its activities.  The aim is not to build a bigger chest as in the West, but to increase oxygenation of the blood. All metabolic processes in the body are regulated by oxygen. Our brains process billions of bits of information each second. Our metabolic processes work to rid our bodies of waste and toxins. Even our abilities to think, feel and act require oxygen-related energy production. Scientists now also agree that oxygen plays a powerful and primary role in our overall health and well-being. A growing number of researchers have shown that the best way to improve health may be related to the optimum oxygenation of every cell. [iii]

When energy is distributed evenly through this technique, we achieve psycho-physical coordination, get rid of our emotional complexes and the unbalances that give rise to fear, anger, envy or a sense of inferiority.[iv] The breathing is an indispensable resource for interpreters that may succumb to any of the above during an assignment because of external circumstances or because of his own sense of inferiority due to a very demanding job. It swiftly counteracts anxiety and allows us to perform optimally.


Lastly and most importantly, there is meditation.  The fatigue of the senses demands rest.  Hence we sleep at night.  However, the mind is subtly working even during sleep so we do not achieve full rest.  Real rest is only secured through meditation.[v]

The whole mind and nervous system are re-modeled thereby. New grooves, cells and channels are formed.[vi] These will allow you to experience  serenity, a sense of focus, one-pointedness of mind, patience and contentment at all times. Even under stress. They will allow you to control the wanderings of the typical mind that often jumps unrestrained from one thought to the next without respite.  This is an invaluable asset in our field where we have to continuously render the thoughts and words of others, playing down the normal interference created by our minds as a reaction to said input.  It creates a space where our mind is stilled and we can be creative in how we manage the output of what we are hearing.

Not convinced?  Check it out.  The philosophy of yoga starts with the tenet that any idea not confirmed by experience must remain mere speculation.

[ii] Yogi Gupta (1958). Yoga and Long Life, pp.36, Yogi Gupta New York Center.

[iv] Yogi Gupta (1958). Yoga and Long Life, pp.121, Yogi Gupta New York Center.

[v] Swami Sivananda (Fourteenth Edition 2011), Concentration and Meditation, pp. 120.

[vi] Swami Sivananda (Fourteenth Edition 2011), Concentration and Meditation, pp. 124.

Interpreting Spurs the Monkey Mind

I am not a monkey…am I?
The monkey mind is a concept that was coined in the east.  It refers to a mind that does not focus on the present moment but is always flitting endlessly from one thought to another, in the same way that a monkey furiously jumps from branch to branch. Although it is done unconsciously, it automatically drains quite a lot of brain power that we could be using for productive purposes. Scientists have determined that human beings think an average of 65,000 thoughts a day and 95% are the same thoughts from the day before. (e.g. when is that client going to call me again, I need to create a glossary and study for that conference, I loved seeing the views of the city at night in “Midnight in Paris”, my clothes are ready to pick up at the dry cleaners, etc.)

These statistics forced me to ruminate on how many more thoughts an interpreter produces. In addition to our individual thoughts, when we interpret we hear the thoughts/words of others and however fleetingly, we have to figure out what they mean and turn it into another language, sometimes wondering along the way if we captured a specific thought accurately.

A few years ago when I was studying for my MBA, one of my teachers suggested we read Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath, who leads Gallup’s workplace research and leadership consulting worldwide.  Based on more than 40 years of research, this book and test are a distillation of the insights gleaned in this research that has helped millions discover and develop their natural talents.

One would think that after having raised a family which entailed decades of wearing multifarious hats, e.g. being a mom, a short order cook, a makeshift vet, striving to be a femme fatale (definitely not my forte) and then being in business for many years, which brings its own line of bonnets: interpreter, boss, strong-armed collections clerk and miracle worker at-large, that I would know what my natural talents were. Neverthless, I was only aware that  I was good at communicating, I am an interpreter.  I knew I was hardworking because although I was born on a Caribbean island, my life has never been the relaxed tropical affair it should have been sans Fidel. I was raised in Connecticut and the Puritan work ethic is hardwired into my brain. I also knew I was responsible because everyone in my family is militarily responsible and there simply is no other way to be.  You don’t do just what is expected of you but more, and you do it the best way you know how, without cutting any corners. But all in all, I had never taken the time to  officially ponder what my strengths were, these were just things I knew intuitively.

I guess I always had a soft spot for Cheetah…

Rath’s book and accompanying test, which I enthusiastically recommend, taught me that among my  top 5 “themes” are  Input, which means that I have a craving to know more and that I love to collect and archive all kinds of information.  Another is Learner, which is reflective of the fact that I have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve, and that the process of learning, rather than the outcome, is exciting for me. Once it was pointed out to me by my scores, I knew without a doubt that this was all true and that I did indeed present symptoms of the “Monkey Mind”.  Whenever I have to study for a complex case or a conference that I am interpreting, it becomes a mission and the more I learn, the more I am prompted to research and regardless of how much I enjoy it, the downside is that I tend to go overboard and devote much more time to these pursuits than I should, and I have an unending number of files with materials that I may not ever need again.  These files are all taking up real-estate not only in my office and my apartment but in my brain. The more overarching problem is that this discipline is very ingrained in me and creates an avalanche of additional thoughts on a regular basis because I do it constantly. Now I hazard to think that I am not exceptional in this regard as this type of endeavor is something that comes with the territory.  If you are an interpreter and you want to do your job well, you have to prepare, there is no way around that and we often interpret for different industries that are constantly evolving so there is always something new to learn. If my hypothesis is correct then many interpreters must be suffering from MMS, the Monkey Mind Syndrome.  If we extrapolate from the figures above, the average interpreter’s thought load, in conservative terms, could be anywhere between 81,250 and 97,500 a day. This is all made worse by the fallacy of multi-tasking that our society promotes. Our brains can only handle one thing at a time but our thoughts take place so fast that they fool us into thinking that we are doing several things simultaneously.  In the end we are only delaying matters by engaging in multi-tasking because it takes us longer to divide our attention among several issues than if we handled each focusing exclusively on one at a time.

Being a “Learner” as per the above, I pondered on what the most efficient way was to quiet the Monkey Mind as its incessant chatter can sometimes exhaust you and you are not immune to it while working. I also know that the “chatter” is linked to my stress level.  The more stressed we are, the louder we hear our thoughts and the more negative they become.

Once again, I knew from experience that physical exercise had its place in this puzzle.  I had been a gym rat for years and I knew that when exercising or running, if you drive yourself hard enough, you release stress and feel a certain degree of relaxation and euphoria from the endorphins generated.  Sleep and rest are also good alternatives but none of these options do the full job.

The swing back through the trees to a relaxed and productive mind

According to yoga, which I practice regularly, stress is accumulated in the physical body, in our subconscious mind and in our emotional body.  We build up stress when the sum total of our positive thoughts is overwhelmed by a greater number of negative thoughts., which may even be imperceptible to us. Exercising only affects a portion of the stress in the physical body, whereas the culprits lie for the most part in the other two areas to which we do not have ready access by traditional means. Our negative thoughts come in part from our own subconscious mind which is operating 24X7. It does not switch off when we go to sleep. If we are negative thinkers or our immunity/energy level is depressed and generating negative thoughts, then the universal law of “like attracts like” will be working while we are asleep and unable to override it and will reinforce existing negative patterns.  We also pick up negative vibes from others.  We have all experienced this at one time or another.  Our minds are like radio tuners that pick up frequencies from the ether.  We do not even have to know the people whose frequencies we’re picking up. It doesn’t matter where they are located. If you are on the same wave/energy level you will get their “broadcasts”. Take a quick test, and peek at your wellbeing score, at the Twitter Tracker. See how you compare to the rest of the population. Nonetheless, there are tools to “clean out the closet”, digging deeper, helping us to live saner, more relaxed and therefore more productive lives.

These techniques, among others, are breathing methods. Our breath is directly connected to our thoughts.  The slower we breathe, the more calm our thoughts. Picture an interpreter who is agitated under stressful circumstances, unconsciously leaning forward, breathing shallowly and rapidly from the upper chest area. What kind of thoughts is she likely to be having? Are they conducive to doing our job properly? We can however, quickly and efficiently reverse those circumstances, while working, with proper breathing. Another technique to do this is meditation.  Meditation purges our “cache” memory which we humans don’t have a button to push to clear.  As those of us who work with computers know, clearing your cache can significantly improve the speed and performance of your browser/brain. An additional benefit to this simple technique is, that unlike the deal with psychotherapy, you do not have to relive anything you are consciously aware of that created stress in order to process it and remove it. Therapy, in any case, requires a very long, arduous effort. Meditation does the job automatically and also eliminates stresses you may not even be aware of.  Contrary to the myths that abound, it is an effortless and natural technique that our minds inherently enjoy and are drawn to, once we experience it properly.

If you are interested in these topics, there is an ancient maxim that says “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”.  You can start by looking into yoga studios in your area and inquiring if they offer breathing and meditation techniques.  If you are not familiar with local offerings, click here and do a search for programs in your area.  You can easily do research on these methods but they should be taught in person by a teacher that can guide you as needed.  Both are part of an oral tradition that has been handed down through many thousands of years, in addition to hatha yoga’s, poses or “asanas”, that we are most familiar with in the west.  Asanas also have their place in the stress “trifecta” of poses, breathings and meditation. Nonetheless, breathing and meditation are the more advanced techniques and unfortunately, many never forge ahead far enough beyond the exercises to experience their benefits. Don’t get left behind and please share any experiences you have had with either MMS or relief of same.

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