The jazz of interpreting

Interpreting is a creative act. Is improvisation part of the process?

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Music has a notable place among my memories. As the son of Italian immigrants I grew up with Catholicism, of which my strongest good memory is of high mass on Easter Sunday – incense, music, pageantry. Teachers loved my voice through 7th grade, which was about the time we stopped singing in school AND my voice changed. Later at university I was fortunate to be able to attend a workshop for non-musicians with jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who led an orchestra of two score 20-somethings on rhythm sticks, thumb pianos and basically anything that could make noise. Within an hour we were making music.

I started listening to jazz. I also became an interpreter. I became fascinated with improvisation.

Much has been written about the cognitive processes of interpreting, but what goes on in a musician's brain when improvising? Scientists at John Hopkins have been trying to answer that question using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to shed light on the improvisation that people use in everyday life.

One conclusion: “When jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.”

Chief researcher Charles J. Limb "notes that this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example, he notes, people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot.”

Now this is interesting. It could indicate that when we try to memorize, we may interfere with more creative activities like improvising. This makes sense to me. Have you ever performed poorly on an exam because you were trying to bring in everything you know? And left feeling that you had been so tight that you had gotten in your own way?

Limb introduced his research at a TED event under the title Your brain on improv. With the help of a pianist and a rapper, he illustrates how he used an fMRI scan to examine “what happens in the brain during something that is memorized and over-learned and what happens in the brain during something that is spontaneously generated or improvised.” And he mentions that the area of the brain that becomes more active during improvisation is also the seat of working memory, something we interpreters use all the time.

People often talk about the soft skills an interpreter should have: empathy, intellectual curiosity, flexibility, a quick mind, etc. I’m not sure improvisation can be classified as a soft skill; perhaps it is an approach or mind-set that on the right day and in the right context brings them and all our harder skills together, producing that state of grace known as being in the zone. At the very least I find it a useful paradigm.

When saxophonist Steve Lacy was asked to explain the difference between composition and improvisation in 15 seconds, he replied: “In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.”

Sounds familiar to me. And to you?

Recommended citation format:
Luigi LUCCARELLI. "The jazz of interpreting". August 16, 2012. Accessed July 8, 2020. <>.

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Andries Diane M.


Dear Mr Luccarelli, 

Thank you ever so much for this great comment on comparison between cognitive activities of the language interpreter and the jazz improvising musician!  I have been looking for a long time to find research on this comparison. I notice that the language interpreting science is still reluctant (plus the gap in understanding between musicians and non-musicians, also among researchers) but intuïtively, and noticing too many language interpreters playing a music instrument, I am convinced that improvisation (not 'allowed' in classical music) in jazz/pop has the same cognitive functions. The reason language interpreters play a music instrument, supports their cognitive  activities. The liberty, flow, creativity, the zone as you call it, is a great feeling and competence when used in these contexts. Would this be the reason why jazz was forbidden in Europe and only became an object of 'official' studying in the sixties (Belgium)?  I am writing a paper on 'Influence of musicality in simultaneous interpretation. Is there a connection between interpretation skills and talent for music? An exploration'. The only researcher on this subject I found was Silvia Velardy. 

Kind regards, Best wishes, Diane M. Andries, translator FR/EN/NL. Belgium.

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irene caulfield


As an undergraduate of a translators/interpreters department and also a  jazz-lover, maybe not so passionate as you, I find your article inspiring, since I`m inclined to believe that improvisation is what really matters in whatever the area one is working in. At university they teach us never to keep silent while interpreting, meaning the pauses, and to avoid them sometimes one needs to improvise, to say something within the context as if it were the speaker`s exact words. It is hard, though, not to overact, not to distort the sense. The sad thing is that noone can teach you to improvise, it comes from the inside and you are either good at it or not really.

Anyway, thanks for a piece of inspiration.

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irene caulfield


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Thanks Manuel. Stayed tune - more to come on this subject.

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...very much so, Luigi :-) and that explains in a nutshell why I've always refrained from writing too much (and of course from translating altogether) when preparing a text... I usually underline, draw circles and arrows, number words in complex sentences in the order I'll be using in the other language, very seldom write the odd equivalence, but never more than that: I've always felt that one should leave "room" for everything which is not textual but situational and inspirational, ie improvisation :-).

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