Apple Award Winning Podcast
Christina Rostworowski da Costa is a professional interpreter and translator from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Christina translates Portuguese, English, French, and Italian. She has worked in boardrooms, meeting rooms, and a variety of venues as she helps translate meetings, deals, high-stakes negotiations, and even arbitration.
Today, Christina shares tips, tricks, and hacks on how to listen deeply and be empathetic without letting that cloud her interpretation of the words. She talks about breathing technique and being completely available to the conversation. The goal is to stay focused on the content and the person speaking. She also shares a story of poise and heroism about her grandmother who was a secret agent and translator in Poland during World War II.
- The difference between an interpreter and a translator.
- How Christina was raised in a bilingual environment and switching languages was common.
- Christina shares how her grandmother was a key interpreter helping the Allies in World War II Poland.
- How Christina prepares and handles the pressure of interpreting for high-stakes corporate meetings.
- Christina meditates every morning where she sits down and focuses and pictures the day ahead of her.
- Examples of vocal exercises that Christina uses to warm up her voice.
- Deep listening and synchronizing your breath with the speaker.
- The silence of the interpretation booth and connecting to the speaker.
- The challenge of dealing with jokes and curse words.
- How it is key to establish initial contact with the speaker.
- Taking on different tones and intonations for each speaker.
- The differences between listening, understanding, and remembering.
- Interpreters can’t be distracted and can’t waste their focus.
- The four listening types: the lost listener, the shrewd listener, the interrupting listener, and the dramatic listener.
Episode 08: Deep Listening with Christina Rostworowski
Deep listening, Impact beyond words.
As I listen to the person, it’s easier for me to understand the tone that is going to be used, the register. If the person breathes or not, and I actually try to get to know the person in one way or another, because, for some reason, I believe that that’s how I transfer a little bit of the person into me, and I get to be that person, and use the person’s voice.
In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond words, I had the opportunity to spend some time with an interpreter from Sao Paulo in Brazil, Christina. She took us on a magical journey through her family history. Polish grandmother and her poise as she translated as a secret agent during World War II, and the importance of listening deeply and what that meant to the war efforts for the polish people and the allied forces.
It was a fascinating insight and something I really wasn’t expecting.
Christina spends her time as a professional interpreter and translator, which means she’s in board room situations, she’s in meeting rooms, she’s in auditoriums and conference centres, where she’s simultaneously translating from Portuguese to English, to Italian and French.
She’s not doing all four of those languages at the same time, she’s good, but she’s not that good. And Christina talks us through some scenarios, where she has to dance with the dichotomy between being empathetic to who she’s listening to, but also translating and interpreting with no bias and no agenda, which she struggles with. She talks about the fact that fear comes into dialogue, then joy comes into dialogue, and yet, as an interpreter, they are only there to interpret the words, and how does she do that.
She talks us through some really interesting hacks, tips and tricks about how to get about being a great listener. She talks about the role the breathing plays, she talks about the role of being completely available to the conversation and being focused on the content and the person, not yourself.
In this episode, I think, you’ll learn to have right empathy for translators, and admire the skill, that Christina brings to the conversation.
Let’s listen in.
Christina, joining us from Sao Paulo in Brazil. Thanks for sharing some time with us on the Deep Listening podcast.
I’m curious, and so the audience, to talk about the difference, as you are, between an interpreter and a translator.
Hi, Oscar, this is such a pleasure, and thank you for having me for this podcast. Translators have to work with written documents, whereas interpreters work with oral communications in general, right?
So that’s the main difference between both areas.
Tell us where you were born, and the origins of your family history, and bring us up to date through that.
Well, I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and I come from a very mixed background. My mother’s family is originally from Poland, and they arrived in Brazil in the early ’50s, after World War II.
And my father’s family is from Portugal and Spain, but already in like the fourth or fifth generation in Brazil, and, basically, I’ve lived my whole life in Brazil, in Sao Paulo, I did live a few months abroad, in Rome. But, because my family comes from Europe, and specifically from Poland, I was raised in a very multilingual environment, and actually, in my home we used to speak English and Portuguese all the time, so, interestingly enough, I was bought up in a bilingual environment, really.
And then I went to an American school my whole life, because, when my grandmother arrived from Poland, she already spoke six or seven languages, if I’m not mistaken. And she started working for my school as a secretary, librarian, receptionist, PR… I mean, she took up all sorts of roles available at the time. And so, my mother actually went to the same American school as I did, and then I went to that school too, after which I studied history and… Here in Sao Paulo, in Brazil, at the university of Sao Paulo. I also have a master’s degree in history from the same university.
My grandmother played a huge role in my life, and especially in my raising process, and I have one sister, but my parents got divorced when I was quite young. They both remarried, and so I grew up with all sorts of step-brothers and sisters, and… So, family dinners were quite packed full, to say the least.
But, specifically, with my mother’s family, which has a more of a European background, that’s when the multilingual scenario, or intercultural scenario came about with more frequency. In the sense that from a very young age I had people speaking Polish around me.
And then studying in an American school, English was also constantly spoken at home, and we were always switching back from one language to the other, and my mom, and my grandmother also speak French, and speak Italian and other languages, so switching back and forth from one language to the next was very common for me and for my family, or even at least just choosing one word or another in one language or another, and just resorting to whatever word sounded best for that specific feeling we were trying to express at the time, you know.
So, I mean, to this day often times I catch myself talking to people, and then just randomly throwing in words in Portuguese or English, or French, or Italian, and it’s like people are, “What are you doing?”, you know?
“Whoa, stop!”, because not everyone is picking up on which I’m saying, so …
We always loved when my grandmother decided to share her stories, especially the war time stories, because…
So, my grandmother… She passed away when she was 96, until like literally the last second of her life she was completely lucid, even though she had already broken her hips, and was…
Her physical body was… Gone downhill very quickly, unfortunately, but her mind was perfect, and she was always sort of one of those very in control grandmothers, sort of very proper, very, sort of, keeping up with everything and everyone, despite her 95 years, and…
So, growing up with her was amazing, because she decided to tell people these amazing stories from her times in Poland, and the war and whatnot.
And… I mean, having her as a role model was just a lot to deal with, but in a very positive way, right?
Which part of your grandmother, do you think, you bring to life every day? What qualities do you bring to your work?
Well, definitely resourcefulness, and definitely… Thinking about deep listening, I mean… For me it’s… As far as you’re connected to an… Empathy, right?
And my grandmother was very empathetic person. For me one of her greatest stories was… She decided to stay in Poland throughout the War, the rest of her family sort of just fled the country, and she decided to stay and join the resistance movement.
And, because she knew so many languages, she was key in helping the allies in this process, especially of getting information across different areas in Warsaw at the time.
So, for me, I always had this image of this very strong lady, and… Who, despite all hardships, and despite this scenario, risking her own life, she tried to do the best that she could, you know, for others around her.
So, empathy and listening to others, and trying to get around with her language skills, always played a key role in her life, so, I guess, that’s what I try to live up to as well.
And bringing yourself into your current profession as an interpreter, can you think of the recent scenario, where you caught yourself saying, “What would my grandmother have done in this situation?”
That’s interesting. Let me see.
As I was thinking of the meaning of deep listening and empathy, and what the roles interpreters should play, I was caught thinking about the fact that, in theory, an interpreter should always be very unbiased, and sort of be very proper.
For the past few days I’ve been talking to people, completely random people, exactly the opposite about the opposite… You know, about… Even though I try to preserve the speaker’s tone, it’s really hard to be unbiased, and my grandmother would definitely have tried to be as poised, and as proper as possible, but for me that’s one of the difficulties I truly face. This is a real challenge for me, you know. Because, part of what I do has… As far as I’m concerned, is highly connected to actually managing to engage with the speaker, and understanding where the person comes from, and connecting in one way or another, so…
Once I tap into the person’s feelings, it’s a hard task for me not to really sort of be biased, or sort of try to remain neutral, so… And definitely I would get scolded by my grandmother.
What’s a typical day in the life of Christina as the interpreter?
Firstly, I do work in small meetings, in like meeting context, you know, in which, perhaps, I don’t know… There are six or eight people discussing deals, or sort of trying to come to a common point on different matters.
I think you are being a bit modest here, because you work with investment bankers, you work with lawyers, you work with big technology companies, and big brands in Brazil and all around the world, so…
So, these are very important meetings, lots of pressure for the people in the room, let alone for you, so how do you do that physically?
Physically you sit in the corner, because you have to be as far as you can from everyone else, so that people don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed because of the fact that you’re there.
So, you have to be as quite as possible, definitely. I have a small booth, carry on kind of soundproof booth, that I put in front of me to isolate the sound.
The people who are actually in the meeting, they are sort of disconnected from me as much as they can, of course, because I’m still gonna be there, and of course I’ll be talking, so there will be some sort of volume, or some sort of noise in the background, but I try to speak as low as possible, so that they don’t understand or hear me…
And, because they will be… Technically, they will be wearing headsets, so, because they have these headsets on, they will be listening to me, but… Sort of directly into their ears, and not as a background noise.
So, there’s a lot of pressure. In general, in the corporate scenario, people don’t really want to engage with you, as the interpreter, so that’s kind of the vibe that I have to send out as well, make myself as scarce as possible.
And for that process, how do you actually prepare yourself mentally?
Well, basically, what do I do before is… Of course, before the meeting or whatever job it may be, I study whatever material is available, which generally means presentations, pitches, or, just if that kind of material is not available, I try to look into Google any information I can about the person who’s speaking, or about the context of the meeting, about the companies involved and whatnot, right?
And before I arrive, I always try to meditate and do a few vocal exercises, actually.
Okay, that’s important. So, explain, how long you would meditate for, because breathing’s critical in the role of deep thinking.
Absolutely. I try to meditate on a daily basis, every morning, for at least 15 minutes or so. Like 15 minutes or half an hour, depending on how much time I have. And for me it’s just one moment that I just sit down in my room, and just focus, try to relax and understand the day that is ahead of me, and try to picture the day that is ahead of me, and the kind of environment I’m going to be in, and, in a way, to connect with the environment, but not to tap into this energy so much, as in… Not to be distracted by this energy, you know?
And then I do some vocal exercises, basically to warm up my voice.
Let’s do one.
Okay, just in general ma-ma-ma-ma, and then like brrrrrrrrrrr, practise the R’s and S’s, and T’s, because they are the hard ones to get, when you’re speaking very quickly, so it’s just like rrrrrrrrrrr, m-m-m-m-m. S-rrrrrrrrrrrr, s-rrrrrrrrr, s-rrrrrrrrrrrr. I’ve got all sorts of them that I do.
Yeah, have you ever not practised, how does that affect your performance, if you…
No, that’s just…I can’t…
Absolutely. It’s key. Not only because I want to set my mood, also because it’s that one moment that I get to sort of really connect to myself, and understand what I’m doing there. Also, for physical reasons, it’s… My profession is very hard on my throat, on my vocal cords, and so definitely that has to be a part of it. It’s just like… I mean, it’s just like you don’t start running a half marathon without practising beforehand, it’s the same kind of thing.
You have to stretch before you start running on a day of any race, right? So, it’s just … On a physical level that’s super important, but for me it’s actually more important on the concentration, and I’m really sort of making myself fully available to the scenario that is about to happen.
Beautiful. Breathing to some people is considered physical, for others it’s not. What role does breathing play for you to centre you, to prepare you for listening and keep you listening? How conscious are you of your breathing?
Breathing is absolutely essential. Part of my meditation routine… When I’m in the room, actually, when I’m about to start my interpreting, is to take at least 3 or 4 very deep, deep breaths, and I do sort of like the classic meditation routine, where it’s like you inhale for about 8 seconds, you hold your breath for another 8, exhale for another 8, and then wait another 8 seconds to breathe again.
And I do that at least 3 or 4 times, because it’s super quick, and also sort of helps relax my muscles, relax my body, especially because if your shoulders are tense, or if your neck is tense, that also prevents you from allowing your voice to come out and to channel out more properly too.
So, definitely breathing is key for me.
Also, what usually happens, and this is where I really believe I’m not really unbiased when I’m interpreting, I really tune into what’s going on, I realise how, whenever I’m interpreting someone, I pick up on that person’s intonation and breathing, and end up breathing like the person. And I get really tired, and when I realise I’m getting tired, as the person takes the break, I manage to also take a break and take a deep, deep breath, and then sort of relax again, and actually sort of establish a more rhythmic breathing, and throw that into the process.
So, you’ve role modelled beautifully, my research has proven, in 1992, that the deeper you listen the deeper you breathe, but also the deeper you breathe and synchronise with the speaker, the deeper you’re listening, so… And there’s lots of research to prove why you’re one of the better deeper listeners in the world.
Help the audience understand what it sounds like to be in that soundproof booth in Sao Paulo for the meeting.
Uh-huh. So, basically, in your… If you’re in a soundproof booth, what happens is there’s absolute silence. The only thing you hear in that room and that booth, in that space, are the sounds of your own breath, the switches, because you switch your microphone on and off, and, eventually, for me, I usually take my notes with me into the booth, so I can hear myself sort of shuffling the papers around, and that’s about it.
And what you get is, of course, I’m wearing a headset too, and so I listen to the speaker directly into my ears. But the first image you get when enter the booth is you shut the door, so that’s the first sound, sort of the door shutting against you.
And all you have are your own sounds, your own breath, and the speaker, whose voice is coming directly into your ears, and it’s just about connecting to that person, and understanding who that person is.
And now for the audience, just say what you might have heard recently without divulging anything confidential, but in another language, so the audience can understand what happens for you.
So, basically, one of the greatest challenges interpreters have is dealing with jokes and bad words per se. Because, of course you have to be…
True to whatever … Exactly, you have to be unbiased, and you have to be true to what you just listened, right?
And… So, I was recently at this conference, and one of the girls who… It was sort of like… There were three or four speakers, and one of these, this very young girl speaking, said she was super scared about the challenges ahead of her, and she was giving up on all sort of career related opportunities to focus on a project on social innovation… And again, this is… I was translating as part of a youth programme for social innovation-
So, if you don’t mind, was that in Portuguese?
Yes, that was in Portuguese.
Could you just say that… What you just said in Portuguese, so the audience can put themselves in your shoes?
I think it’s important to pause, because what I’d love the audience to connect with is what was happening for you, while Christina was speaking in a different language. If you speak Portuguese, it would have been simple. So, for me, I was trying to listen for the motion in the voice, I was listening to pacing in the words, and how the language was being connected together, because I was trying to get that sense of fear that you were talking about earlier.
So, when that happens… Your strongest language would be Portuguese, is that fair?
I guess so, I guess Portuguese and English, both of them, because, as a child, for me, when my parents were talking to me, when I first started talking, I used to say words in Portuguese and in English at the same time in the same sentences, so, for instance, it was very common for me to say something like “[Portuguese 00:23:08], the yellow one, [Portuguese 00:23:11].”
So, didn’t really matter. For me it was just all words, and I was trying them out randomly.
I guess, put us then in your mind, when you’re going from Portuguese to English, or Portuguese to French, or Portuguese to Italian. How do you stay present in what’s being said, and how long is the pause between the time that you hear, and then you translate? Take our audience through that.
Well, for me, establishing initial contact with a speaker before the person effectively speaks, is key.
And what I do is I always introduce myself in the beginning, and I ask the person to introduce him or herself as well, and to tell me a little … To walk me through whatever the person is intend … Plans to say, and how long is the presentation going to take, if there will be room for questions and answers afterwards, and how…
In short, to sort of like … Tell me what do they have planned, because I believe that when the speaker does that, it’s easier for me to understand and pick up on the vibe of how the person’s feeling, if the person has prepared in advance or not, whether the person is planning on using a presentation and just sticking to it, or actually just going with the flow.
And also, what kind of issues the person is going to approach or not, and also, as I listen to the person, it’s easier for me to understand the tone that is going be used, the register, if the person breathes or not. And I actually try to get to know the person in one way or another, because, for some reason, I believe that that’s how I transfer a little bit of the person into me, and I get to be that person, and use the person’s voice and whatnot, right?
And, interestingly enough, during this conference I was telling you about, which took place in the past 10 days, they are full time, with 15 different social entrepreneurs from Brazil, each of which had very different… Each of whom had very different projects, and very different social issues they were trying to tackle, what I heard from all the people there, who were listening to my translations, and my interpreting, was that I actually spoke and took up different intonations and accents, and words for each person who was speaking.
And that was super interesting for me to hear, you know, because that’s… Again, coming back to the whole bias issue, and being neutral or not. Because this is such a huge issue for us interpreters. Jokes and words people choose also is something we have to pay attention to. And one of the guys actually came up to me, and as he was talking to this girl, and saying… Sharing their fears and talking about the hardships they have, and whatnot.
She was mentioning how she was super young, and she was changing careers, and this is what she wanted to do with her life, and whatnot.
And he comes up to them and said, “Listen, Brenda …” That’s her name, Brenda is her name, right? “[Portuguese 00:26:36].” Which is translated to English “You know what, Brenda, life is much like a bra, eventually you just have to throw your boobs onto it, or throw your boobs out of it and just get things done.”
And having to translate that really quickly was also super funny for me, because she was… She had these super anxious… Or concerns and so on. She was sort of like “Oh my God, what am I going to do with my life.”
And this guy just said “Listen, put yourself out there, doesn’t really matter, eventually you’ve got to face the challenges that come your way, and period,” you know.
So, it was super funny to listen to this story, and to actually have to interpret it in real time, and I actually laughed in the middle of the sentence, I couldn’t not laugh at that, as it was going.
For people out there, they are looking to improve their listening, that’s why they’re listening to this podcast. What can they learn from interpreters about listening? You’ve role modelled beautifully the role of breathing, and how important that is. You’ve role modelled how important it is not to be biased, not to make judgement, to actually listen fully and completely.
What other tips and tricks do you think people can learn from interpreters to improve their listening?
When you’re interpreting, there’s a difference between listening, understanding and remembering, right? So, for listening … The technical part of listening, which is when you use your short-term memory, I’ve read that if you’re exercising for real, as in physical exercises, if you run, or if you train, do any kind of sports, they will definitely help improve your short-term memory, and, of course, your listening abilities.
You can also do crosswords puzzles, all sorts of things that will help this technical aspect of listening. Because, as an interpreter, it is key to not … Please, quote and unquote when I say this, if you were here … If you could see me, you would see me doing air quotes, you know. Definitely, because you can’t waste time technically listening to things, when you are interpreting.
In other words, you can’t be distracted by any noise, you can’t waste your focus or your attention on listening specifically, which sounds really weird as I say it, but it’s actually true.
I’ve learnt in practise, actually as I was doing my job, that my good ear for listening purposes is my right ear. So, I always have to…If I’m not in a… If I’m not inside the soundproof booth, in a conference room, in an auditorium, whatever, if I’m doing a more… Like a group translation with 30 people, or 8 people in a room, or wherever it may be, I have to sit with my right ear turned to the speaker, because that … For some reason, that’s the one that listens best, and when I realised that, I’m like “Okay, that’s what I have to do here.”
Because then I can use all the energy I have to actually focus on the person, focus on the speaker’s intonation, focus on the breathing, focus on the person’s body language and everything else, right?
Which means I can actually use my time, attention and energy into understanding what the person is saying, what the person is not saying, the pauses that the person is choosing to make.
And remembering all that, in order to express whatever, the person wants to say in this target language.
And a lot of doing that has to do with not being myself, with engaging with this person to such extent that I can actually leave Christina’s outside, and focus on that.
So, that’s why I believe meditating for me beforehand is key, because that’s how I get into my flow, and then I can easily detach from my daily concerns, my mind, my own thoughts and feelings, and can actually listen to that person in a place of empathy, really putting myself into the person’s shoes, and…
So, when I connect to the person on a technical level of listening, that doesn’t take much of my time, attention and energy, you see. So that I can actually sort of preserve the person’s tone, preserve the person’s energy, preserve the person’s breathing process.
Fantastic. I’m curious which hand do you write with?
My right hand.
Your right hand and your right ear, there you go.
I wonder how many in the audiences are conscious of which one is their hearing ear? I actually do the same, it’s the same for me, right ear – right hand, but I have a fellow coach, who’s left-handed, and their hearing ear is their left ear. So, I think, when you’re conscious enough about your listening to understand, which ear listens the best, you’re really deeply listening.
One of my favourite questions that I do work with, with my clients, Christina, is “What question should I’ve asked today, that I haven’t?”
Actually… Let me see. I was very interested in hearing more about… Or listening more about the four of listening types. That was super interesting for me to read.
So, let’s talk about the four listening types. So, there’s the lost listener, the shrewd listener, the interrupting listener, and the dramatic listener. Which one do you struggle with the most?
For me, actually, it’s generally either the shrewd or the dramatic listener, because one is focused on the future, whereas the other seems to me to be focused on the past, right?
So, one is anxious to see where you’re going, and the other one is trying to understand where are you coming from, and not even listening to you, right? Before you even get things through.
But actually, what caught my attention the most, and what made me really start laughing, was interrupting listener, and I’ll tell you why.
Because a lot of people come up to me at the end of conferences, meetings or whatnot, whenever I finish my job, and they often say that they were so impressed by how fast I speak, and that it’s practically real time, but like really real time, with the speakers.
And so, they come up to me and say “It is unbelievable, it’s so hard for me to understand, how do you manage to sort of speak at the same time. It’s almost as if you’re guessing what the person is about to say,” because, with English and Portuguese specifically, adjectives and nouns go in different places, it’s the other way around. So, for instance, in Portuguese you generally say the adjectives after the nouns, or the adverbs after the verbs, and in English it’s obviously the other way around. In a sense that adverbs and adjectives come before verbs and nouns.
So, a lot of what I do has, in fact… Related with trying to foresee what the person is about to say, for the context to come out, and the contents to really be true to what the person’s saying. And that’s all about the… Where the whole technical aspects of interpreting come about. In other words, studying beforehand, getting to know the person, the brief before the interpreting session, and whatnot.
But I always tell people that, “Well, I’m glad that you think this is good, because in real life it’s necessarily so, because my brain works really fast, and I tend to be the interpreter all the time, to the extent that when I’m talking to people completely outside my professional career, and outside of my job and work environment, I’m always sort of thinking ahead, and I’m always sort of like foreseeing what people are about to say.
So, in personal relationships that doesn’t really work.
So, what happens is your profession defines you as a shrewd listener? So, you have to be good as a shrewd listener, and, I’d say, personally, in personal interactions, you are an interrupting listener, and that’s probably an overflow from your professional life.
Definitely. And that’s what I try to work on, on a daily basis, trying to … Taking deep breaths all the time, you know. Just like breath, breath. It was awesome to read about them, the four types, and it was very interesting and clarifying in a lot of ways, so thank you for that as well.
So, Christina, thank you so much for your time today. I wish you well, you’re being very generous with your time, your insights are extraordinary. Your skill is amazing, and I’m so delighted I’ve had an opportunity to listen to you.
Thank you for everything, Oscar, it’s been a real pleasure, thank you for taking an interest in what I do, because it has given me the opportunity to reflect upon all these aspects of listening, you know. And especially one that has become just so keen to me, which is this whole idea of empathetic listening, of actually forgetting yourself and thinking about others more, when you’re listening to them.
I’m so jealous of people who can speak more than one language, and I’m particularly envious of Christina.
But today we saw amazing examples of the five levels of listening. The first level, listening to yourself, Christina has a disciplined practise around breathing, around meditation, and making sure she’s totally available to the conversation.
Listening level two, listening to the content, and notice how Christina was saying she was using two parts of her mind to process short-term memory, and how words move through, and the words weren’t necessarily the most important thing in the dialogue.
Listening level three is listening for context. And Christina talked about how she prepared to understand the context, and introduced herself to the speakers and the content, before she even showed up for her work as an interpreter.
Listening level number four is listening to what’s unsaid, and making sure that you allow the speaker the opportunity to fully explore what they haven’t said. 125-400 rule says, “We speak at a 120 words a minute, but we can think it up to 400 words a minute”, so how do you help the speaker with what’s unsaid, while asking them what you should have asked.
As I did today with Christina. I asked her what question I should have asked, and she had amazing light-bulb moment. I think you could visualise that light-bulb going on in her head as she spoke through it.
And then, finally, is listening for meaning. And as we listened for meaning, you could hear the meaning that Christina’s grandmother had in her life, and then how important poise was for her, and the meaning she brought from that as well.
Deep listening. Impact Beyond Words.