Superpower or extreme sport? Interpreters’ brains need extra TLC

Interpreters’ brains are extraordinary. When we are hard at work, our brain is carrying out multiple processes simultaneously, in demanding bursts of mental gymnastics that would be impossible for most non-interpreters. We also use our short-term memory in more complex ways than other people do. We first have to listen and understand the speaker’s words and the context, then process and render the message in another language, under great pressure to be accurate and clear, in the right register. And we’re very proud of our cognitive prowess.

Some people say that interpreting is “like a drug”. I’d say sometimes it resembles an extreme sport. The way the stress hormone cocktails are secreted and circulate in the body during a demanding interpreting job is actually similar to what happens in extreme sports.

The cognitive effort and the many mental operations that our brains perform, combined with the effort to hear and process – and then render the message in another language – mean that all our available energy is focused way up in our head and neck, with just enough left for breathing. Our digestion does not work at its optimum capacity when we are under such pressure – because there are not enough resources left. (Have you noticed how, even if you eat your fruit and veg, you may still experience a slowed-down intestinal transit? It has to do with the lack of homeostasis, caused by the stress cocktails circulating in our bodies.)

Sometimes, the brain just wants to stop; it desperately needs a reset. You may experience sluggishness, brain fog, or your brain may feel like mashed potatoes: mushy and confused. You’re feeling sleepy and tired but can’t fall asleep. You may experience problems with digestion. Long term, there may be anxiety, pains and aches, or even “freezing”, when our brain is blocked and we cannot find any words.

In a nutshell, the “freeze” response in evolutionary terms is one step up from “fight or flight”. In nature, when an antelope chased by a cheetah feels that the predator is near and death is inevitable, its nervous system shuts down. This is nature’s way of avoiding an overwhelming amount of pain. Humans may “freeze” because of a situation that is too taxing, traumatic or cognitively overwhelming. When you’re interpreting and there are too many stressors that accumulate gradually, you are no longer capable of taking any more stimuli or triggers. Your resources, both cognitive and emotional, become depleted – and that’s when the freeze happens. Self-doubt kicks in then too. You forget your words and you cannot move on.
In the last two years, we have been experiencing even more stress because our cognitive load has gone through the roof. We have had to adapt and learn to work with multiple layers of technology. We are often not co-located, which creates a sense of isolation. We may have to cope with poor sound quality, which is a major source of strain and can further deplete our resources! Our brains need more and better kinds of rest these days to compensate and stay resilient.

We are naturally curious and avid learners, which often translates into a sedentary lifestyle and poor levels of self-awareness and self-regulation. Interpreters therefore tend to have high IQs, some EQ (emotional intelligence), and low EmQ, or embodied intelligence. Familiar with analysing, synthesising and solving linguistic problems, but not so much into sensing and feeling the body, understanding the stress it’s under, realising and admitting what it is that you feel.

It is important to recognise our reactions and their triggers for what they are and make sure we take good care of ourselves. We should step up our self-care and our brain relaxation practices. We would all benefit from learning mindfulness techniques and self-care exercises. We need more embodied awareness of what is going on with the brain and the body. 

An earlier version of this article appeared on Gabriela’s website.

Images: Jeremy Bozanger / Unsplash; geralt / Pixabay

All posts on InterpreterSoapbox reflect the views of their authors.


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Gabriela Bocanete

Gabriela is a conference interpreter (Romanian and Spanish A, English B), speaker and trainer. Qualified coach, yoga teacher, nutritional therapist and practitioner of Sound Therapy, she uses a holistic approach in her health and resilience coaching. She has spoken on stress management and brain health at international conferences for the last decade, starting with the first version of “Breathe and Change Your Life”. She created the “Resilience” series of webinars over three years ago, long before resilience became a mainstream topic. Her latest programmes include the 8-week “Calm, Vitality, Resilience” and “Caring for the Interpreter’s Brain”, including “Gong & Sound Therapy” enhanced by Yoga Nidra meditation.

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