How Failure Helped My Interpreting Career

By September 11, 2015 Interpreting

How Failure Helped My Interpreting Career.


as a career has its up and downs.Think back on your professional interpreting life to a moment when you learned a profound lesson.

So now, think back on your professional interpreting life to a moment when you learned a profound lesson.

Got it?

If the memory is one of a mistake or failure, congratulations! It means that you understand the function of mistakes. And you are in good company.

After 1,000 attempts to invent the first functional light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He learned what didn’t work and incorporated that new understanding into his continued efforts.

Lessons, though, often come hand-in-hand with embarrassment and pain.

Not long after earning my first certification as a sign language interpreter I was asked to work a conference on education for deaf children. I was among some of the best deaf educators and sign language interpreters in the state. Most of my assignments were relatively easy; however, I was asked to voice into English a presentation by a deaf math teacher about a program being used in the state school for the deaf.

I had never voiced a conference presentation before, let alone one on that topic. Another interpreter who worked at the school and knew the presenter and topic well was going to share the job with me. But in my gut, I knew that I was not qualified for the assignment.

Still, I reasoned, “I have my certification now. I don’t want others to think I shy away from difficult assignments. There will be another interpreter who can help me out if I need it. I just need to suck it up and concentrate.”

That particular presentation turned out to be the most popular on that day. The room was filled with almost 200 people, many of whom I had gone to college with and others I had worked with in the community. I was nervous but focused.

My partner began the interpretation and did a beautiful job. After 20 minutes it was my turn. She passed the microphone to me, and I locked my eyes on the presenter. I remember three or four words falling out of my mouth before I was completely lost. Thankfully, my teammate took the microphone back and continued interpreting.

After another 20 minutes, it happened again. The other interpreter had to do the hour-long presentation on her own. I sat there beside her, front row center. I couldn’t bear to turn back and see the reaction of the audience. To fail so publicly doing a job I had gone to college for and earned a rigorous certification for took me to a new low.

I apologized to my teammate and made a vow to never take an assignment I am not qualified to do again. I felt like throwing in the towel and looking for another line of work.

Now, almost 20 years later, I can say I’m very happy I didn’t. While that moment remains vivid for me, I’m sure none of the 200 people who witnessed it would remember today. It took some humility and months of good work to prove myself again, but what I took away from that experience made it all worth it.

What did I learn?

  • Make sure I’m familiar enough with the concepts, vocabulary, and speaker, especially in situations where interrupting to seek clarification is impractical.
  • Trust my gut. Don’t let fear of what others might think of me alter my decisions.
  • Remember that life goes on after a failure. In this case, my colleagues were very supportive because they could see I had learned a painful lesson and had come out the other end of the experience better for it.
  • Seek to be a better interpreter, always

Edison went on to develop over 1,093 patents throughout his lifetime and at least 15 of his inventions, including the light bulb, are considered inventions that changed the world (Sterbenz, 2014). We can be thankful he failed and learned so many times, not just because of his achievements but because we as successful professionals can relate.

Thomas Edison also said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”



Works Cited

Sterbenz, J. A. (2014, February 11). 15 Inventions From Thomas Edison that Changed The World. Business Insider . New York, New York: Business Insider Inc.