Interpreting and the Power of Now

Philosophers and spiritual leaders around the world have been talking about the importance of living in the NOW. Dredging up the past can be depressing. Excessive anticipation of the future causes anxiety. According to these sages, living in the moment is the key to happiness.

Interpreting, especially simultaneously, brings us into the NOW more effectively than many other activities. You can’t be in the booth interpreting while thinking about past events, future assignments, or current problems elsewhere. Unless you’re willing to be a mediocre interpreter, you must summon every cell of your body to engage in the task at hand. You’re listening to a speech, processing it, interpreting the words, making cultural adaptations, and modulating your voice accordingly—all at the same time. You must also be able to look up unknown terms online while doing all that! An easy task? Not at all! Addictive? Absolutely!

High performance athletes also experience this adrenaline rush. Psychologists call it “being in the zone” or “in the flow.” That moment when a 120-mph tennis ball is served and the opponent is so hyper-focused that the ball seems to be in slow motion. When interpreting in the Zone, even a 200-words-per-minute speaker feels like a stroll in the park. Your entire nervous system is engaged in the task. There’s nothing except that moment. It doesn’t matter if there are 10,000 people listening to you, if the room is too hot or too cold, or there are people walking in front of the booth. When you’re in the flow, you become one with the speaker and you can almost predict the next words. There’s no space for depression, anxiety, frustration, or disappointment. Bliss is all there is. Magic is in the air!

When we reach the Zone, our brain activity shifts from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex. When our brain’s activity is in the limbic system, we’re in fight-or-flight mode. In other words, we’re stressed out because we’re in survival mode and intelligence can’t perform to full potential. On the other hand, when our brain’s activity is in the prefrontal cortex, we’re at our most intelligent, creative, and have the most expanded consciousness. This phenomenon clearly explains why interpreters, like artists, musicians, and athletes, are so passionate about their crafts. The pay is much needed, of course, but it’s definitely not the main driver for what we do. We interpreters are all positively addicted to being in a booth because it’s our time machine: one that leads us only into the present, activating the feel-good area of the brain.

There’s a caveat to it, though. This blissful state is only achieved when there’s a balance between skills and challenge. If you don’t have the necessary skills, you won’t reach it because you’ll be struggling. If you do have the skills, but aren’t faced with a worthy challenge, you won’t reach it either because you’ll be bored out of your mind. You’ll also need the proper tools, such as water, wifi, and a crystal-clear audio feed (if you can’t hear well, you’ll only be flowing into frustration). But assuming you have the proper skills and tools and you still can’t get into this super-productivity state, then ask yourself: “What am I missing here: interest, skills, or a worthy challenge?”

Do you often feel you’re in the Zone when interpreting? Share your thoughts with me via email.


Roberta Barroca has a BA in journalism, but interpreting is her true passion. She has been a Brazilian Portuguese<>English interpreter since 2007 and certified by the International Association of Conference Interpreters since 2014. Contact: rbbinterpreter@gmail.com.

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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