Interpreting Is a Performance Art

By Javier Castillo

Much like each character in a movie, every person we interpret for has a different voice. As interpreters, we have to honor their voice and be true to their style and how they wish to express themselves.

When we’re interpreting, we’re essentially “on stage” and performing for an audience. Sometimes it’s an audience of two: a doctor and a patient. Sometimes we’re in a courtroom with 30 people. Sometimes we’re at a conference speaking to 200 people. And sometimes we’re being broadcast live from a booth at presidential debates with millions of people listening to us.

In addition to all the linguistic aspects, our work involves performance. Thinking of yourself as an actor giving a stellar performance will help improve the quality of your work.

The Actor

A question I always ask during the presentations I give is what traits do good actors have? Without fail, these are some of the answers I get:

  • They are charismatic and convincing.
  • They pay attention to detail.
  • They have pleasant voices and understand the importance of conveying the right tone and proper amplification.
  • They control their body language.
  • They have excellent memories.
  • They learn their lines.
  • They prepare for their roles.
  • They are directable.
  • They are confident.
  • They have good stage presence.
  • They sometimes have to ad-lib and think on their feet.

Now, which of these traits doesn’t apply to interpreters? The answer is that all the traits good actors have are also shared by good interpreters.

Be Daniel Day Lewis, Not Tom Cruise

There are certain actors whose personalities, characteristics, and mannerisms always outshine those of the characters they’re playing. It doesn’t matter if the movie is about a military lawyer, a bartender, or a spy; it’s always Tom Cruise you see. Likewise, when you hear that voice of wisdom, you know it’s Morgan Freeman. There are dozens of actors like this.

Now, compare them to an actor such as Daniel Day Lewis, who is famous for going beyond method acting and taking his preparation for roles to the extreme. For example, learning to speak Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, remaining wheelchair-bound while filming My Left Foot, and learning to survive in the forest for Last of the Mohicans.

The result of his total immersion is a portrayal of characters who are completely different from one film to the next. You only see Hawkeye, or Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis, the actor, is gone. What you see and what you hear is the voice of the character.

That should be the result when you interpret. Your mannerisms, tics, idiosyncrasies, and “personal voice” should disappear completely. Your audience should only hear the voice of the person you’re interpreting for.

Much like each character in a movie, every person we interpret for has a different voice. As interpreters, we have to honor their voice and be true to their style and how they wish to express themselves. To achieve this, it helps to imagine that each person you’re going to interpret for is a character you’ll play. Every assignment means a new role or roles. You may be playing the part of a sales executive one day and a defense attorney, judge, or hostile witness the next. Each person will have their own style, their own “dialogue,” and you’ll have to prepare for each one differently.

Rehearsing Your Lines

Imagine you’re going to be interpreting in a courtroom. The non-English-speaking defendant is relying on you to hear and understand the judge, the prosecutor, the jurors, the expert witnesses, etc. You’ll essentially be playing those parts. Have you studied your lines?

Each of the parties involved has prepared remarks. The judge has her litany. The attorneys have their arguments. The witnesses are going to talk about what they saw. They have rehearsed their lines. Have you also prepared for these roles?

For example, when the fingerprint expert takes the stand, you know she’s going to talk about “loops and whorls.” Did you research the terminology specific to the case so it’s on the tip of your tongue? Imagine you’re going to be testifying as the expert. How would you respond when asked, “What does your job entail? Describe your methodology and the instruments you use.” If you’re able to speak intelligently using the same terminology as the experts testifying, then you’re prepared to interpret. If, on the other hand, your response is more akin to “I use this thing to look at other things using a special tool and make my findings,” then you might need to prepare just a little bit more.

Wardrobe Check

A few years ago, I sent an interpreter out to cover a deposition. She arrived early and was sitting in the waiting area. There was another woman there who claimed to be an interpreter hired by one of the parties.

The attorney came out, glanced at my colleague, who was dressed in professional attire, and then glanced at the other interpreter, who was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and said, “We obviously don’t need two interpreters.” And then motioning to my colleague, said, “Please come in,” and dismissed the other interpreter.

The other interpreter could have been the most brilliant interpreter in the country. She could have had all the certifications and training required and may have done an incredible job. However, the attorney made a quick judgment call based on her lack of professional attire and chose my colleague to interpret. There were no other questions asked, no request for a summary of qualifications. The choice was made based on the interpreter’s wardrobe.

I’m sure this is not news to anyone reading this, but part of being a professional is dressing as one. As an interpreter, I’m usually working in courtrooms or at conferences, and so my professional “costume” is a suit. However, different situations require different “costumes.” Even though a suit is my go-to professional gear, it would be odd to wear one at a pre-op medical appointment, just as wearing scrubs to a jail visit would be. Bottom line: make sure you look the part for each assignment.

Sound Check

When we arrive for our assignments, what’s the first thing we usually do? We probably check the equipment. We make sure the microphone is working. We check the audio quality to see if we can hear. We check the batteries in all the receivers. But how often do we check our own “equipment” to make sure everything is running smoothly? Do we do vocal exercises such as tongue twisters to warm up, or do we just jump on the microphone and begin.

If I had to put a number on it, I would venture to guess that 90% or more of an interpreter’s work happens before they start an assignment. We work developing our languages, learning and mastering industry/field-specific terminology. We take classes on how to improve our consecutive, sight, and simultaneous skills. We develop our note-taking techniques. We try to gather materials specific to the assignment so we can create glossaries and learn unique terms. All that preparation can take days, weeks, or even years.

And it can be all for naught if, when the microphone is turned on, the audience can’t understand a word you say. If you mumble, stammer, or speak too lowly or too fast, or your words run into each other and everything comes out garbled, you’re not doing your job.

If you don’t have proper diction, good intonation, and can’t be understood, then all your effort, all your degrees, and all your years of study and certifications don’t matter. You’re hired as an interpreter because the client already has at least one person they can’t understand. They don’t need two.

Most professionals who speak for a living—from voice actors to opera singers to newscasters—warm up their voices and their facial muscles before every performance. If you’re thinking about the performance aspect of your work, you should probably do so as well.

Stage Presence

One of the keys to being a successful actor is stage presence. The same holds true for interpreters. People are not just focused on your words when you’re interpreting but are watching you and your movements.

Actors know that every movement communicates something. As the camera zooms in, a narrowing of the eyes can tell an entire story. A glance off camera can signal that something is happening in the distance.

When you’re interpreting, what’s your body language communicating? Are you slouching? Do you fidget and rock back and forth? Are you leaning on the edge of the witness stand? Do your hands and legs tremble when you’re speaking in front of a large group? Or do you have command of the “stage”? Do you look confident in the work you’re doing? Are you able to mask your facial expressions as you search to find a word? Or do you have a pained look on your face as you struggle to extract meaning from a speaker’s utterance?

A professional interpreter should be able to control their facial expressions and have a poker face when interpreting. Likewise, an interpreter who can’t stay still draws focus away from the person that the audience should be paying attention to.

When you’re on an assignment, from the moment you step into the room until the moment you leave, the audience will be noticing you and your body language. You must look and sound professional at every moment, not just when you’re actually interpreting.


Although interpreting is a performance art, we, the interpreters, are not the stars of the show. We’re the supporting cast—the secondary support to make the real stars shine, allow their voices to be heard, and their messages be understood. We may never be awarded a Tony or an Oscar, but if we perform our roles well, we’ll help communication happen. We can allow the parties to do what they need to do, and hopefully we’ll get a callback to be in the sequel.

Javier Castillo is president of Castillo Language Services, Inc. He is an interpreter, translator, consultant, and speaker. He is a federally certified court interpreter, certified court interpreter (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts), certified medical interpreter (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters), and contract interpreter for the U.S. Department of State. He is a frequent speaker and trainer at national and international conferences. He is the president of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters, an ATA chapter, the chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and head of the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters.

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