Translating and interpreting with learning disorders
How my coping skills help me provide better language services


Have you ever heard of learning disorders?

Thanks to an increased awareness regarding these issues over the past few years, you probably have. But how often do you hear about learning disorders in the context of adulthood and professional life?

Probably not very much.

That’s because we tend to think of learning disorders mostly in the context of, well, learning, as the name implies. We often picture school-aged children or teens when talking about such disorders, but it would be madness to assume that once an individual with a learning disorder completes their education, all their difficulties vanish into thin air. There are stumbling blocks and prejudices related to such disorders, which follow individuals throughout their entire life, and it’s important to be aware of them.

After a brief presentation of each disorder, this article will present a strictly practical section dealing with the major difficulties encountered in the study of language mediation. Also considered are the jobs of translators and interpreters, including every “tactic” that I put in place to face of all the difficulties that neurotypical people often ignore, without overlooking the social and psychological implications related directly or indirectly to these disorders.


What is a Specific Learning Disorder?

Neurodevelopmental illnesses known as specific learning disorders are often diagnosed in young school-age children, though they may not be identified until maturity. They exhibit a consistent deficit in at least one of the following three skills: reading, writing, and math.

Specific learning disorders affect anywhere from 5-15% of school-aged children, depending on who you ask. An estimated 80% of people with learning disabilities have difficulties with reading: This is commonly referred to as dyslexia. Although dyslexia is the most well-known learning disorder, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the complex framework of learning disabilities.

Learning difficulties frequently co-occur with anxiety and other neurodevelopmental disorders (like ADHD and autism). The seven learning disorders below are debated by many mental health experts and affect a wide range of skills:

  • Dyslexia: This is characterized by difficulties with spelling and decoding and trouble with accurate and/or fluent word recognition. The development of vocabulary and background information may be hindered by reading comprehension issues and a decreased reading experience.
  • Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is characterized by a person’s inability to translate spoken language sounds into written form (phonemes into graphemes) or to recognize the correct alternative spelling for each sound. Someone with dysgraphia might write their letters backward, have trouble remembering how to form letters, or be confused about choosing whether to use lowercase or uppercase letters.
  • Dyscalculia: This condition impairs a person’s capacity to learn mathematical concepts. In addition to having trouble learning numbers and procedures, dyscalculic students may also have trouble comprehending basic numerical ideas. Even if they deliver the right response or employ the right technique, they may do so mindlessly and without understanding the real process.
  • Auditory processing disorder: This disorder, also known as central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), hinders the ability of individuals to comprehend what they hear and is caused by a lack of full coordination between their ears and brains. Something prevents the brain from correctly identifying and interpreting sounds, particularly when it comes to speech.
  • Language processing disorder: A condition that makes it difficult to communicate verbally. People with expressive language disorders have trouble communicating their ideas clearly, whereas those with receptive language disorders have trouble comprehending what others are saying.
  • Nonverbal learning disabilities: A learning condition known as nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) affects social, motor, and visual-spatial abilities. Individuals with NVLD frequently have great speech and writing skills. But they often have difficulties comprehending abstract ideas and abstract social cues.
  • Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: This disorder impairs an individual’s ability to comprehend visually presented information. This affects the ability to read, draw, and copy, and often reduces their attention span.

Even taking into account all we know about these disorders, our actual understanding is still limited. What’s worse, however, is that they are subject to some serious prejudices.

Issues often arise during the practical phase of dealing with learning disorders, throughout childhood, adolescence, and extending into adulthood and then in professional life. Progress in medical science, imaging technology, and diagnostic procedures for neurological illnesses has clearly made it simpler to identify learning disabilities. But it has not helped provide any practical options to help individuals affected by such disabilities in coping with them in their daily life.

All too often, people don’t even know the proper terminology to describe learning disabilities. This too comes with prejudices that very often lead individuals to hide their difficulties. Individuals with these disorders may strain themselves to overcompensate for their disorders, to avoid explaining them in the workplace. The outcome is, unsurprisingly, quite counterproductive. Resultant feelings of inadequacy can significantly lower one’s sense of self-worth and negatively impair social integration.

As with many other students with learning disorders, my personal experience has not always been easy. Sadly, there is a dramatic lack of information about these disorders in every layer of the education system. It wasn’t until my 20s that I realized some of the difficulties I encountered throughout my academic career and daily life were related to one of the three disorders from which I suffer — for example, not being able to read the time on an analog clock or not being able to distinguish left and right because of dyscalculia. These things may be understandable for a child but in adult life, they lead to heavy pressure and psychological distress.

The most unsettling thing I’ve discovered along the way is that, while parents of children with learning disabilities can find truly dedicated counselors and support systems to assist them on their educational journey, it is, on the contrary, challenging to deal with such disorders as adults and to manage them in the workplace depending on the adult’s position of authority.

Hence, in my line of work as a translator and interpreter, I have tried to plumb the major discomforts related to my disorders (dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia) to develop creative solutions that enhance my performance. Many of these I first developed as a student and later adapted for my professional life, focusing on the pitfalls and the compensatory strategies born out of my empirical approach to tackling the problems I’ve encountered.

Reading challenges in translation

The reading challenges from my dyslexia have been the most severe difficulties in my career.
Understanding the troubles of dyslexic individuals can be very difficult for those without the disorder. It’s important to note that different individuals experience dyslexia differently. Even on an individual level, somebody’s perception may be constantly changing as they read, even within the same paragraph.

Dyslexic readers find letters and words constantly moving and overlapping, which inevitably leads them to skip words and lines and repeatedly miss reading points. In this case, one of the major tips I can give is to avoid using serif fonts like Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, Palatino, and Cambria. In typography, a serif is a small line or dash regularly placed at the end of a large stroke of a letter or symbol within a particular typeface or font family. For dyslexic readers, this can be tricky, because it weighs down the letters and makes them much less comprehensible, especially if they are close together.

Another major obstacle is text justification, which is present by default in every word processing device. What I can recommend is to space the text in every possible way, preferably with double line spacing, to increase the font size (at least 14) to divide concepts or long periods into paragraphs, and not forget to turn off the above-mentioned justification and to carefully choose the font. There are several fonts in default font packages that, in contrast to those mentioned above, facilitate the reading process and are called sans serif fonts. Those include Calibri, Comic Sans MS, Verdana, Tahoma, and Andika. Additionally, you can also find fonts specifically created for dyslexic readers, which take into account other factors such as the space between letters and accentuate the differences between similar letters like b and d. These include OpenDyslexic and Lexia, which can be downloaded free of charge online via a simple request form.

Another solid ace in the hole for a dyslexic reader is the use of eye-pleasing colors. For example, in my case, when it comes to translation, it is extremely useful to create a darker paragraph (black or green) for the original text, followed by a burgundy paragraph for the translation (not red because it is too aggressive and tiring for the eyes). This simple operation will help to orient the text and give a basic mental structure to the work.

In terms of visual impact, dual monitors are a foolproof weapon. With these, you can view the original on one screen and write on another. However, they’re admittedly a bit expensive, so using colors is a nice, cheaper alternative.

When it comes to reading for translations or post-editing, it’s high time to inform the companies in the field that it is almost impossible for a translator with learning disorders to deal with the majority of CAT tools, since they tend to feature very close segments and columns, with nearly no line spacing, predominantly violent colors, and non-inclusive fonts: almost all the negative elements mentioned above. Instead of facilitating and assisting the work of the translator, CAT tools, perhaps paradoxically, slow down our work.


Tips for interpreters

  • Sight translation: Let’s talk about every interpreter with a learning disorder’s worst nightmare: sight translation. Even if the interpreter is perfectly capable of completing the exercise from a linguistic point of view, they may still encounter problems in reading aloud, complicating the performance and risking a bad first impression. I recommend using a second sheet to manually isolate the desired line — though this isn’t super practical, it’s the only way I’ve found to solve this, especially if the script doesn’t match the aforementioned standards.
  • Consecutive interpreting: For someone with dysgraphia, for example, it sometimes becomes difficult to do consecutive interpreting, due to the fact that an individual’s handwriting may be so messy that they struggle to re-read their notes. In my case, for example, I heavily rely on my short-term memory. My notepad, on the other hand, is mainly for noting when concepts and topics are changing. When writing, I use markers since they’re smoother than pens. I change the color when the speaker or subject of the sentence changes. I’d also encourage clients to provide interpreters with a learning disorder an extra moment or so to collect their thoughts. This can allow them to perform just as well as their neurotypical colleagues.
  • Simultaneous interpreting: It may sound silly, but I argue that keeping your hands busy is essential for interpreters with learning disorders doing simultaneous interpreting work. When I leave the booth, I often find myself throwing away sheets of paper covered with squares or circles I drew to maintain focus.

This may appear to be a distraction, but in fact, simple hand movements can aid in channeling concentration and energy. They can also keep performance anxiety at bay. Silent fidgets like balls, mats, or stress cubes can relax your mind by repeating an automatic movement without thinking about it.

The last disorder that affects my translation work is dyscalculia. Although my specialization does not require any mathematical skills, when I am confronted with simple numbers, dates, values, or timetables to translate, it can be quite tricky. My brain struggles to understand the meaning of the information in the source language. Throughout my student years, I adopted various compensatory strategies. I devised my own symbols to represent the units of measurement for consecutive or ready-printed tables, which I kept in the booth next to me to mark the numbers in the columns. These strategies allow me to read them without necessarily understanding their meaning inmediatly.

The fact that learning disorders have such little visibility in the workplace is a shame, because individuals with learning disorders can be excellent resources. After all, we’ve developed all sorts of creative ways to circumvent the difficulties we face. These alternative methods would likely never occur to neurotypical individuals who have always had the easiest way to achieve a goal.

For example, according to Madebydyslexia, 84% of dyslexics make more use of reasoning than neurotypicals, where reasoning refers to understanding, evaluation, and decision-making. They can reason in pictures rather than words, making them highly intuitive and able to make connections between concepts quickly, thanks to the use of their five senses during the process. Contrary to common clichés, they can learn and implement many new concepts effectively, and show excellent soft skills such as creativity, resourcefulness, and empathy.

Some of the most famous politicians — Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, for example — struggled with learning disorders. Likewise, successful writers, artists, and scientists like Agatha Christie, Daniel Radcliffe, and Albert Einstein did as well. The list of highly accomplished people in fields from acting to zoology includes countless individuals who deal or dealt with learning disorders.

And this makes me wonder if this list could be even longer, considering all those who have never been properly diagnosed. Hidden in our offices or behind our school desks, there are potential great talents who hide out of shame, convinced they are not smart enough. Perhaps, if correctly enhanced and encouraged to meet their full potential, these folks could unravel some extraordinary ideas.

If you read this article and are suffering from learning disabilities yourself, I ask you not to hide in the shadows. Come out of the woodwork, because you have nothing to be ashamed of. I encourage you to teach the people around you that there are different ways of working and thinking, and that there is an endless range of reasoning methods that are all to be discovered. Even if they are different it doesn’t mean that they are wrong. On the contrary, this can be enriching for everyone and make your workplace less burdensome.

Pauline Surgo holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistic mediation and a master’s degree in legal translation.




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