The importance of breathing for interpreters

When thinking about interpreters, people usually envision strange and invisibile individuals who make it possible for their audience to understand foreign speakers. Sometimes, people don’t even contemplate the real person behind the voice they hear.

However, there are instances when interpreters are actually visible. For example, consecutive interpretation requires these professionals to interact with their audience: sometimes, they stand on a stage right next to the speaker they’re translating and in front of their public, which can generate performance anxiety. Most interpreters long for the privacy of their booth, where they can translate relatively undisturbed and supported by their boothmate: they know they are being listened to, but they take comfort in the fact that their voice is not associated with a physical person. On the contrary, some other interpreters start feeling anxious as soon as they step inside the booth: simultaneous interpretation requires constant focus and the ability of performing different tasks at the same time in order to keep up with the speaker.

All this to say that interpreters need to manage their anxiety and this is where proper breathing comes into play. When judging the quality of an interpreter’s performance, people take several elements into account, such as the pitch, tone and volume of his or her voice and his or her intonation. These parameters can be influenced through breathing techniques, which resemble those taught to singers.

Diaphragmatic or deep breathing involves the contraction of the diaphragm, a muscle located between the thoracical and abdominal cavity. This kind of breathing is extremely useful to relax, but it also provides an individual’s bloodstream with a greater amount of oxygen: an interpreter can employ this technique to modulate his or her voice and to avoid getting out of breath while speaking. This way, both the interpreter and the audience can enjoy a great experience: the interpreter can carry out his or her job with reduced stress levels, whereas the audience can fully profit from the expertise of the professional delivering the translation.

I’ve been singing in a choir since I was six years old, so I was taught deep breathing when I was just a child and it now comes as a second nature to me. I have first-hand experience with this breathing technique while working as an interpreter and I can vouch for its effectiveness as far as voice modulation is concerned. Luckily, I’ve never felt particularly anxious before starting an assignment: my nature is not that of an anxious person and my enthusiasm probably ovverrides everything else. However, some of my colleagues, following teachers’ and experts’ suggestions, have tried employing this technique and this resulted in a clear improvement of their performance and in a great reduction of their stress levels.

For this reason, I strongly suggest interpreters and other professionals who work with their voice to gather some information about deep breathing and to try some exercises. It may be that I’m in love with my job, but I’m firmly convinced that working should be a pleasant experience, at least if one likes one’s job: reducing anxiety also means improving one’s working and personal life, which is why I think diaphragmatic breathing is worth a try. Should it work for interpreting assignments, nothing prevents you from trying it in other circumstances too!



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