Report From the Front Lines of Interpretation

Fresh from a delicate interpretation assignment involving some private family and legal matters, Judy has been thinking about the interpreter training she has received and how it works in the real world. We wanted to share some of our thoughts about this particular situation, which shows that while we certainly have to uphold our ethical principles and our code of conduct, sometimes minor adjustments need to be made in order to achieve the best possible communication result.

  1. Third person versus first person: It's widely known -- and taught -- that interpretation needs to be done in the first person, unless special circumstances dictate otherwise. In this difficult conversation between an adult and his elderly family member who suffers from dementia and has trouble following complex conversations, Judy decided to opt for the third-person summary style of interpreting. It felt awkward, at first, to move away from the classic interpreting mode in community settings, but it was a good decision: communication went relatively smoothly.
  2. Taking sides: As interpreters, it's essential to be impartial and to not take sides, as compelling as they may be. Both sides had very good points, felt very strongly about certain issues, and everyone's heart was in the right place. It was difficult at times, but Judy managed to stick to her interpreter role. An interpreter is not an advocate.
  3. Enforcing frequent pauses: Ideally, our clients and their parties would speak slowly and make frequent pauses to make the intepretation process easy, and they would speak one at a time. Unfortunately, when things get heated, both parties tend to talk at the same time. The traditional hand signals for pausing were not working for Judy in this conversation, so she had to use the "please stop so I may interpret" phrase. While hand signals are the preferred way to ask a party to slow down, sometimes you have to ask verbally. It worked in this case.
  4. Taking notes: It was very helpful that one party had prepared written notes that he was reading off to his family member to help him ensure he wouldn't forget anything. He read them slowly, which enabled Judy to take good notes and use those as a basis for the interpretation for the other party, who was speaking freely. While good memory is essential for being a good interpreter, good note-taking skills are vital, too.
It's been another highly interesting interpretation project. As challenging as it was, it taught us to adjust to complex situations and to do what we've been hired to do: to serve as a conduit.


Holly on December 30, 2009 at 10:47 PM said...

Great post. I think you really hit the nail on the head with some of the difficulties of strict adherence to best practices in a real-world situation, especially the third-person rule. I've been in a couple of situations where one party was not mentally capable of understanding that I, the interpreter, am saying "I" but it actually means someone else is saying "I." As professionals we need to know the standards and also know when it is actually more ethical to carefully adapt them.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

Translation Times