Keeping Calm under Pressure: Insights from a Former Simultaneous Interpreter

Julia Gätjens
9 min readMay 1, 2023
Getting Ready for an Interpreting Assignment in the German Bundestag

As a simultaneous interpreter who has translated for high-level political figures and worked in a variety of high-pressure environments like live TV broadcasts, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to stay focused and calm under pressure. However, over time, I learned how to manage my nerves and deliver my best results consistently. I discovered that the key to success was not just in having knowledge or experience, but also in mastering the art of being present in the moment and managing stress effectively.

In this article, I will share some of the insights and techniques that I have gained over the years and offer practical advice on how to develop these skills for any profession. Whether you’re preparing for an important presentation, negotiating a complex deal, taking a crucial exam or facing any other high-pressure situation, the resilience lessons from simultaneous interpretation can be powerful tools for success.

What is Simultaneous Interpreting?

Simultaneous interpreting is a highly specialized skill that demands rigorous training and extensive practice. It is a complex cognitive process that requires a deep understanding of language, culture, and context. Simultaneous interpreters must be able to listen to a speaker in one language, process the information in their mind, and deliver the translation in another language — all in real-time.

Interpreters are often called upon to translate speeches, presentations, and conversations between high-profile individuals, such as heads of state, government officials, and business leaders. The goal is to convey the same meaning and level of expression as the original speaker while ensuring that the message resonates with the target audience despite cultural differences. This requires interpreters to be fluent in both languages, have a deep understanding of the subject matter, and possess excellent communication skills. In addition, interpreters must be able to manage the stress and pressure that comes with the job, as even the smallest mistake could have significant implications. As a result, interpreters must have a high degree of mental resilience and be capable of remaining focused and calm in challenging circumstances.

Lesson 1. Stay Focused

The first lesson in keeping calm under pressure is to stay focused on the task at hand. The process of simultaneous interpreting requires intense concentration and quick decision-making skills. Interpreters must listen carefully, analyze the information quickly, and convey the message accurately and fluently.

To stay present in the moment, you need to be fully engaged in your current task and not get distracted by external factors. Here are some practical tips to help you develop this skill:

  1. Create a Distraction-Free Environment: When you need to focus on a task that requires your full attention, it’s essential to minimize external distractions. Turn off your phone and other potential disruptions that can steal your focus. This will help you stay in the zone and be more productive. Furthermore, creating a comfortable working environment can also improve your ability to concentrate. Simultaneous interpreters work in soundproof booths with only essential tools available to complete their task. Emulating this approach by decluttering your workspace can help you maintain your focus and optimize your performance.
  2. Take Regular Breaks: To maintain a high level of focus and productivity, it’s important to take breaks and allow your mind to rest. Research shows that taking short breaks during work hours can help improve concentration and reduce stress levels. Use your break time to stretch, take a walk, or practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing. Simultaneous interpreters work in pairs and take turns interpreting for 30-minute intervals, as it is essential for maintaining focus and minimizing errors. Similarly, taking regular breaks during your workday can help you recharge and stay alert, leading to improved performance.
  3. Practice Mindfulness: Cultivating mindfulness through techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and relaxation can help you manage physical responses to stress, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and rapid breathing. Mindfulness helps interpreters to stay centered and focused on their purpose, which is to break down language barriers, instead of being consumed by fears of being in the spotlight.

Staying focused is a crucial aspect of achieving success in any profession. Like any skill, it takes time and practice, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

Lesson 2. Set Yourself Up for Success

One of the most critical lessons that we can learn from simultaneous interpreters is the importance of being well-prepared. Preparation is key to managing stress and staying focused, as it enables us to be familiar with the content, anticipate challenging situations, and have a plan in place to overcome them. Here are some practical tips that you can use to be better prepared in any situation:

  1. Stay Organized: Being organized is crucial to performing effectively. Create checklists to reduce the mental burden of remembering everything you need to prepare, and check off each task as you complete them. This will give you a sense of accomplishment and reduce anxiety, ultimately helping you to stay focused and resilient. Interpreters rely heavily on detailed routines to prepare for their assignments, covering everything from requesting preparation materials to creating glossaries and booking travel.
  2. Do Your Homework: Before tackling any task or event, it’s essential to research and gather information on the subject matter. This can help you to become more familiar with the content, identify potential obstacles, and develop a solid plan of action. Whether it’s reading up on a new topic, investigating an industry trend, or researching a company before a job interview, doing your research can give you a significant advantage and help you to stay calm and focused under pressure. For interpreters, who often translate a wide variety of topics, preparation is critical and can take twice as long as the actual interpreting event.
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice: Consistent practice is essential for developing resilience and maintaining a high level of performance. Whether it’s rehearsing a difficult conversation or practicing a presentation, regular practice can significantly boost your confidence and reduce stress levels. Interpreters understand the importance of practice and often spend their free time between assignments translating various materials, recording themselves, and reviewing to identify potential areas for improvement. This is because interpreting is like a marathon — you need to be in good shape before the race. By regularly practicing, you can build endurance, hone your skills, and stay focused even under challenging circumstances.

By being well-prepared, you can reduce stress levels and feel more confident in your ability to do your best. Incorporating these tips into your routine can help you to develop the skills and resilience needed to tackle any stressful situation with ease. Remember, practice makes perfect, so keep practicing to practice.

Lesson 3. Welcome Failure

No matter how experienced, skilled and prepared an interpreter is, they will inevitably make mistakes at some point. However, interpreters are trained to quickly recognize their mistakes and adjust their approach to avoid making the same mistake again.

Allowing mistakes is an important lesson in developing resilience. When working under pressure, it’s essential to recognize that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. The ability to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them, and move on is crucial to developing resilience and improving performance. Here are some practical tips to help you embrace imperfection and learn from setbacks.

  1. Embrace the Growth Mindset: Adopt a positive attitude towards challenges and setbacks and focus on the opportunities they present for growth and improvement. An interpreter has only a few seconds to listen, analyze, and accurately convey the speaker’s message in another language, all while continuing to listen and repeat the process. While perfection is hardly ever attainable, cultivating a growth mindset and consistently practicing are crucial to enhancing performance
  2. Analyze Your Mistakes: Take the time to analyze your mistakes and understand what led to them. Identify any patterns or common factors that may be contributing to the errors, and work to address them systematically. Interpreters take several hours after each assignment to receive feedback, analyze their performance, and identify lessons learned, all in the pursuit of continuous improvement.
  3. Practice Self-Compassion: Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and they are an essential part of the learning process. Unlike a speaker who is the pilot in control, an interpreter is more like a co-pilot, working alongside the speaker to support conveying their message. Therefore, it is important for interpreters to recognize the shared responsibility of effective communication and to approach mistakes with a mindset of collaboration and problem-solving rather than blame or self-criticism. Keep in mind that even when you are in control, many factors are outside of your control, so give yourself the benefit of the doubt and treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer to a friend.

By allowing mistakes and learning from them, you can develop resilience and improve your performance under pressure.

Lesson 4. Embrace Uncertainty

One of the key strengths of interpreters is their ability to embrace uncertainty and adapt to the changing circumstances. Interpreters must be prepared for anything, whether it’s a sudden change in schedule, a technical glitch with the equipment, or a difficult speaker. They must be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and still deliver accurate and fluent interpretation. Here are some practical tips to help you stay calm and adapt to any situation:

  1. Stay Flexible: Be open to new ideas and be willing to change your approach if necessary. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and you need to be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, an interpreter may have prepared extensively for a high-level diplomatic meeting, only to find out upon arrival that the speaker’s topic has changed at the last minute due to an international crisis. In such cases, quick thinking and flexibility are crucial for success.
  2. Stay Positive: Keep a positive attitude, even when things get tough. Remember that setbacks are a natural part of the process and can provide valuable learning experiences. As an interpreter, staying positive can mean approaching a challenging assignment with curiosity and an open mind, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty. For example, if an interpreter is assigned to a conference on a subject they are unfamiliar with, they can view it as an opportunity to expand their knowledge and learn something new rather than a daunting task. Maintaining a positive attitude can help interpreters stay focused and engaged, leading to better performance and job satisfaction.
  3. Prepare for the Unexpected: While you can’t predict every possible scenario, it’s essential to prepare for the unexpected. Think about potential challenges and come up with contingency plans to deal with them. For example, when preparing for a remote interpreting session, it’s crucial for interpreters to ensure they have a backup internet connection and equipment in case of technical difficulties during the session.

By embracing uncertainty and staying adaptable, you can respond to any situation with confidence and ease.

Lesson 5. Prioritize Your Well-Being

Finally, interpreters must practice good self-care to maintain their mental and physical well-being. Interpreting can be a mentally and physically demanding task, and it’s essential to take care of oneself to ensure that you can perform at your best.

Here are some self-care practices that can help you manage stress and improve your resilience:

  1. Get enough rest: Make sure you get enough sleep every night. Lack of sleep can impair your ability to focus and increase stress levels.
  2. Exercise regularly: Exercise has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. It can help you to relieve stress, improve mood, and increase energy levels.
  3. Eat well: Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining good health and managing stress. Make sure to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Remember, taking care of yourself is essential to maintaining resilience and managing stress. Make self-care a priority in your daily routine and incorporate these practices into your lifestyle. By doing so, you will be better equipped to handle any stressful situation that comes your way.

Conclusion

The strategies described above are widely applicable, beneficial not only to interpreters but to anyone facing high-pressure situations. Whether it’s delivering a work presentation, competing in an athletic event, or performing in front of an audience, these techniques can help you remain calm, focused, and consistently deliver optimal results.

As someone who was once a professional simultaneous interpreter but has now transitioned into a career in IT, I have found that the skills and lessons I acquired in interpretation have been invaluable in my current work. The ability to stay calm under pressure, communicate effectively, and adapt to unexpected situations has been critical to my success in the technology industry. Therefore, no matter what career path you choose, these strategies can help you thrive in high-pressure environments and achieve your goals.

About the Author:

Julia is a software developer, former simultaneous interpreter and public speaker. She consults companies and the public sector on digital transformation and DevSecOps best practices. Julia has interpreted at high-level diplomatic meetings and on television for prominent leaders like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. With a unique perspective and skill set acquired through an unconventional path to a career in tech, Julia is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion. She believes that diverse teams with varied backgrounds and perspectives are essential to driving progress forward in the tech industry.

www.gaetjens.de

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Julia Gätjens

Julia is a developer, speaker & former simultaneous interpreter. She consults on digital transformation, translated Zelenskyy, and promotes diversity in tech.