The Pros and Cons of Dummy-boothing, or does your Brain need tricking?

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, whom some only know for going crazy (some say) and cutting off his ear. Others know him for painting bright flowers, a large number of self-portraits, and landscapes of Provence, as he got to spend quite some time in the south of France, although a large share of it at the asylum of St Paul du Maussole.

Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889

John Peter Berger is in English art critic, painter, novelist, and a poet, whom I happen to like very much. Or, at least, I happen to like his essays very much. Here’s one example of why. In his essay Ways of Seeing John Berger asks his readers to look at van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows, which in the book is reproduced at the bottom of a right-hand page with the following caption above it:

“This is a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment.”


Then he asks his readers to turn the page over, and in attempt to repeat the experiment I will ask you to scroll a bit further down the page.

Now you see the painting with a different caption:

“This is the last picture that van Gogh painted before he killed himself.”


See the difference? Maybe the sky looks darker, or the crows seem more menacing, or the whole painting take on the role of a mystic dark omen.

Either way, there is something different.

Now in case you’ve started wondering what all that and van Gogh can possibly have to do with dummy-boothing, don’t worry. I haven’t gone crazy yet. Not that crazy, at any rate. The thing is that our brain is a wonderful and incredibly efficient computer/ machine/ muscle/ whatever you believe it to be, but like any computer/ machine/ etc. it can be tricked. And ideally the example of the van Gogh paintings should be able to prove it.

And that has everything in the world to do with dummy-boothing. Let me elaborate. Students, young interpreters, and even more experienced interpreters (either wishing to add another language, or after some extra practice) are often encouraged to dummy-booth. And believe me, in most cases that turns out to be an incredible and highly useful experience.

Here are just a few facts about dummy-boothing to prove that:

  1. You get to interpret real speeches from live speakers.
  2. You get to listen to other interpreters and, if they are in the mood, to bug them with questions about more difficult terminology and how to interpret this and that (as they’ve probably already had the time to figure that out).
  3. Usually you get to be listened to by those other interpreters, and personally I find this the most valuable part of the experience.
  4. You get to learn in real-life conditions (or in conditions as close to real-life conditions as it gets) about the work of a particular organization/ company/ conference/ etc.

I’m sure you can easily come up with a few extra pros yourself.

But here’s the biggest con:


As someone who’s done quite a bit of dummy-boothing over the course of the past year, and has spoken to quite a few other interpreters who have also done quite a bit of dummy-boothing lately, I think that’s the conclusion my brain and I have arrived at.

Now you might say, with that list of pros, what’s there to be not real? Real speeches, real interpreters, real-life conditions… All that still holds true. And yet at the same time, not entirely, for your mic remains switched off throughout.

And your brain knows that.

For me interpreting is like a drug. A difficult, and highly addictive one. The kind of drug that you try once, and you crave for more. And more. AND MORE. And yet when I find myself in the booth and my mic is switched off, the surge of adrenalinis nowhere near close to what it would be had the mic been switched on. The heart isn’t racing like it would have been. And somewhere very far at the back of my head there sits this evil acknowledgement of the fact that I am safe, and protected by the power of silence, and secure, and that even if I do something wrong, or let something slip, no one will know and no one will suffer.

No one, except for me, of course.

So how do you get around this false sense of security? How do you make sure your brains performs at practice as good as in real life? Because think of professional athletes for a moment – they can’t afford to be lazy and sleepy and crawl through practice, and then expect their muscles to outperform spectacularly at the ‘real-life’ competition, and bring them the Olympic gold.

Even if you don’t think of your brain as a muscle, and even if technically it isn’t, the comparison still works. And if we continue with comparing the world of interpeting to that of competitive sports, the answer lies in the word competition.

If you look on the Internet, you will find at least a hundred million motivational quotes/ pages/ websites explaining to you that you really are your biggest competition (if nor your only competition). I’ve decided to save you some time, and found a few examples for you.

You get the idea…

Following that logic, any practice session should be no different from a ‘real-life’ performance. You just have to think about it, and to see it clearly enough in your head to make sure your brains sees it as clearly as you do.

So here’s what has helped me take dummy-boothing seriously, for want of a better way of putting it, and make sure my brain and I get the most out of it:

  1. As conventional and not-unusual as it sounds, record yourself. Not only because you will hear all the mistakes and pick out all the little details, but also (and mainly) because you will hate it. No one likes to listen to themselves – we don’t like the way our voice sound, and in most cases we don’t like what we end up saying that much either. So you will hate your performance, and try to do better next time. Sounds like competition to me.
  2. If you are doing the dummy-booth and some other interpreters are doing it at the same time as you are, ask them to come and listen to you. Even if your A language is only a C for them. They might not be able to comment on the content or the quality of the language, but they will sure tell you how you sound, and that will help you work on your delivery. They will also create an audience, and give you that extra dose of adrenalin. They also happen to be the people who know exactly what you are going through, which makes them a unique and extremely valuable audience.
  3. Pretend. It once occurred to me (and I’m still trying to determine whether that’s true or not) that interpreting is a lot like acting. What they tell you at schools and universities, is that you better leave your personality, no matter how lovely, at the door of the booth, or better still, at the door of your house when you leave for the assignment in the morning. So pretend. Think that you have a role to play, and you better make sure you give the performance of a lifetime. If you play that role often enough you might get used to it, and it might become such a part of you, that underperforming in the booth will simply not be an option.

Because really, it should never be an option. You come into the booth, and you better make sure you give that performance every time you open your mouth (regardless of the mic). Though in ‘real-life’ you better make sure you don’t forget to switch it on.

The Starry Night, 1889


Do you have any comments or suggestions?

Or maybe you would simply like to share your experience? Please do.



2 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Dummy-boothing, or does your Brain need tricking?”

  1. Interesting piece, Tatiana. But I was hoping it would tie back into Van Gogh in the end. You raise a good point. I feel the same way about dummy boothing and, more so, about interpretation tests (when the objective is no longer to communicate, but to convince a board of jurors). So very fake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked the piece, but I am sorry to disappoint about van Gogh, Ewandro. I mainly thought of using it as an example of showing how our brain can be influenced or even tricked. I might think of a way to make a connection at the end though, I promise I will try. 🙂 and yes, you are right… Those artificial situations do make interpreting a bit fake, because it’s so easy to fall into doing it for all the wrong reasons.


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