Thoughts on Interpreting: Perception

It hit me recently how true it is that our perceptions and understanding of the world is limited to what we know and have experienced.

At a concert I attended with friends, a 17-year-old who is a senior in high school struck up a conversation with us. When she found out we’re in our mid-to-late twenties, two questions immediately came out of her mouth:
“You don’t look your age!”
“Do you have a real job?”

She could not fathom what it means to be our age, or what people our age do. It boggled her mind.  It was amusing to say the least, but isn’t it true that if I’m a teenager who has not been exposed to young professionals, I wouldn’t understand much what it is like?

Thinking about this brought me back to interpreting. We can’t interpret what we don’t know. We can’t explain cultural differences if we don’t see both sides of the coin. That’s why it is important to be open minded, to take in as much as we can so we are prepared at all times. This will make you a better interpreter. The more you know, the more value you can bring to Limited English Proficient (LEPs) and your clients. Your job as a linguist is not only to bridge communication gaps, but also cultural gaps when the situation arises. Your job is to open people’s eyes to another world with which people are not yet familiar.

Isn’t it wonderful how we can apply little things in our daily lives to our role as interpreters?

Happy interpreting!

Thoughts on Interpreting: Working, but not a Professional

A friend of mine shared his experience of working with an interpreter on his business travels to China. He found this interpreter on his own and he is very happy with the interpreter’s work. Working with the interpreter has been great. The interpreter is now familiar with the business and dealings, and he relays to my friend in English what’s been said in Chinese, and re-explains things or jumps in if something wasn’t conveyed accurately or understood completely. While this sounds fine and dandy, I couldn’t help but question the interpreter’s professionalism. Why? Because it doesn’t sound like this interpreter follows the code of ethics. Right off the bat, there are the following red flags.

ACCURACY. The code of ethics states that interpreters need to be faithful to the original message. No additions, omissions, or deviations from what was said. This means that the interpreter speaks only when he is rendering a message from one language to another. By jumping in or clarifying information on his own, the interpreter is not being faithful to the original message.

ROLE BOUNDARIES. A trained interpreter stays in his default role of a conduit and should limit personal involvement with all parties during an interpreting assignment. He is not the business expert and not a mediator, so he shouldn’t jump in and take over the meeting. While this seems to be working in my friend’s situation, in most cases, interpreters are there to help bridge communication gaps, not to run meetings.

IMPARTIALITY. By deviating from the default role and offering his own opinion in the conversation, the interpreter also provides his biased input and beliefs of what he thinks is important. Because of that, the information my friend receives is filtered and incomplete.

Despite all of these caveats, my friend is satisfied with the interpreter’s work. I still believe, however, that professional interpreters should stay in their role and be faithful in their renditions. Not everyone knows what is expected and required in the role of an interpreter, so as professionals, we need to educate the public and let them know how it should be done.


Happy Interpreting!


For more information on the code of ethics:



Tips on Learning a New Language

For years, I’ve thought about picking up Spanish as my third language. And for years, it’s been merely a thought. I finally took action this year and committed 30 minutes a night practicing with online apps. Although I acquired new skills after two weeks, I felt I needed more structure than what the apps offer, so I signed up for a basic course at a local college.

So far I’ve only completed the first week of class, but I already notice that for me to learn as much and as fast as I want to, it’s going to take the class plus independent study outside of class. I’m lucky that the instructor incorporates different modes of learning (visual, rhythmic, group learning, individual learning, etc.), because it helped me realize the importance of learning through my strength. Because this is a non-credit course, there are no tests nor homework. It’s up to me to decide how I want to progress.

For “homework,” I’m given a few tips on how to practice at home, all of it comes down to one theme: to expose myself to Spanish as much as I can, whether it’s listening to the radio, checking out Spanish children’s books, or reading a newspaper clip. I’m reminded that language learning is an ongoing endeavor. Just like how I learned English and Chinese, I have to live it to excel. This bring me back to my tips on things you can do to keep up with your language skills. They are applicable in the case of learning a new language as well. The goal is basically to get as much exposure to it as possible.

Here are some more tips for learning a new language.

Figure out what type of learner you are. Are you a visual, mathematics, spacial, outdoorsy,  rhythmic, solo or group learner? Knowing this will help you best approach the language in a way that helps you absorb it better. I’m an interactive learner, that’s why online gamification and interactive language learning apps work for me. I’m also a visual and audio learner, so watching Spanish language movies with English subtitles helps me connect the two languages. Think about your hobbies and ways you can incorporate your new language. This should be fun, not work.

Expose yourself. Find anyway to expose yourself to the target language and culture. The more you hear it, see it, and surround yourself with it, the more familiar you are with the way it sounds and feels.

Be persistent. Be patient. Learning a language does not happen overnight. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to download language apps into our brains like they do in the Matrix. You need to be persistent and keep at it. Even after you think you’ve mastered it, you still need to take steps to keep up with it. There is no end!

Practice, practice, practice. You know the drill.

What are your tips for picking up a new language?

Good luck and happy learning!


Growing up Bilingual

Bilingualism is the new black. More and more families are seeking immersion programs so their children can acquire a second, or even a third, language early on. Along with the need for language immersion, comes the question of timing as well, whether there will be confusion when multiple languages are at play in children’s upbringing.

In a home video from around 1991, my three-year-old sister asked my dad,
“把鼻,dinosaur的英文怎麼講?” (bǎbí, dinosaur de yīngwén zěnme jiǎng)
“Daddy, how do you say dinosaur in English?”

To which my dad responded, “dinosaur is already in English.”

Even though my sister didn’t realize that “dinosaur” is already an English phrase, my sister’s awareness of  language differences at her age amazed all of us who watched that video.

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Image: courtesy of

Parents who are trying to raise bilingual children receive different feedback on how to approach bilingualism. Some are adamant about introducing a second language later in life,  others try to immerse the child in two languages as early as possible. Sociolinguistics studies present different results as well. But real-life experience and observations has taught me that perhaps children have the natural ability to distinguish between languages.

I don’t remember ever being confused about the difference between English and Chinese. But similar to the “dinosaur case,” there were times when I mistook certain words as Chinese when they were English. That’s mainly because of how it was used when I was introduced to the word. My parents always referred to “penguin” in English, with an accent that made it “ping-guin,” so for a long time, I thought the Chinese and English for that word were similar–and was fascinated (although incorrectly) by the closeness of the two languages.

Recently, I spent some time with a 3-year-old, Benji, who is raised by biracial parents–the mom is Chinese and the dad is a Kiwi from New Zealand. When Benji received a gift from his uncle, he immediately said, “thank you,” and said, “謝謝!” (xiè xie), without hesitation, when his mom asked him to say it in Chinese. I was amazed.

I asked the mom how they taught him the difference between English and Chinese. She said he just picked it up naturally. He even recognizes the difference between Chinese characters and English alphabet. For story time, he brings Chinese books only to mom, and English books to dad, as he recognizes that dad doesn’t speak or read Chinese.

Nick Jaworski, a father and blogger who is raising a multilingual child, also shows examples of how mixing languages has not hindered his child’s language learning: “Mixing languages is a normal part of the learning process and is a perfect indicator of just how smart your child is.”

It seems to me that the challenge of raising bilingual children goes beyond the initial immersion, but to keeping that language skill and improving upon it over time. Benji’s mom tells me that their approach now, is to instill in Benji that Chinese is cool, so that when he starts school and becomes immersed in the English-speaking world, he will still feel pride in knowing and learning Chinese.

I feel fortunate to have spent eight of my formative years in Taiwan before returning to the States to complete high school and college. Without it, my Chinese skills may have stagnated at an elementary and conversational level. It is difficult to keep up with a language that isn’t used constantly.

What is your bilingual experience? How did you learn a second language? How are you raising a bilingual child?

Happy learning!

Life of an Interpreter: Connecting with Clients

As an interpreter, not only do you accept assignments, you’re also constantly selling yourself and your services to agencies, businesses, and other potential clients. As a customer in everyday life, I’m sure your runner instinct activates the moment you spot a sales pitch. This is completely natural. I don’t like being sold to either. Like everyone else, we like to believe that we make decisions because we want to, not because we are told to.

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courtesy of

But to grow your business and expand your clientele, selling is necessary. Instead of shoving information down a prospect’s throat, however, find ways to connect with them instead. Jeff Gitomer, author of the Little Red Book of Sales Answers, always says, “if the customer says they are not interested, you’re not interesting.” We need to make ourselves more interesting to give prospects a reason to spare their time of day.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jost Zetzche, co-author of Found in Translations, speak at this year’s ATA Annual Conference on the power of stories. We are all about stories, he says. Not only do stories define us, they also allow others a peak into our world, and allow others to connect with us through the shared anecdotes. When people become engaged with your stories, they will feel a connection growing.

People like to buy from people they like, so take the time to build rapport. Connect with your prospects by having a conversation. Ask them questions and find out what their needs and wants are. This will be a start for you and help open doors.

When there are an array of service providers offering similar options, what you do to set yourself apart by engaging the client is what’ll give you the business.

Good luck, and happy connecting!

Tips and Tricks: Simultaneous Interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting, most commonly seen in the UN, at conferences, in the courts, and in emergency medical situations, is the mode of interpreting that I find quite challenging to master. As its name suggests, simultaneous interpreting is when the interpretation is rendered almost at the same time the speaker is speaking. The slight delay is to allow for information gathering so there is context to interpret into.

Unlike consecutive interpreting where note taking is necessary, there is no time for that during a simultaneous interpreting session. Instead of using notes and your short-term memory, you would use your immediate short-term memory in this instance. In addition to the inability to take notes, another challenge in simultaneous interpreting is the necessary ability to multitask. Can you chew gum and walk at the same time? If so, you can multitask. But try to listen, comprehend, and analyze an ongoing speech, and then interpret it into a different language while still listening to the speech. How long can you last before you  mess up or lose track of the speech?

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Multitasking: drinking bubble tea while flying a balloon. (Credit:


As you can probably tell, it isn’t so easy. The speed and immediacy of simultaneous interpreting create a few challenges. Here are some ways to overcome the challenges.

Learn to anticipate. Because the message is still in progress as you’re relaying the interpretation, it helps to be able  to anticipate what is upcoming. Familiarity with the topic at hand is a must; familiarity with the speaker’s speech pattern is also beneficial, but that comes with time. To practice, pay attention to how people around you speak. You’ll find that often times, you can logically predict the next idea from the key words that are already given.

Increase your decalage. A decalage is the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of your interpretation. A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because you get more context before interpreting. In your training, challenge yourself to increase your decalage.

Watch yourself.  One of the downsides to simultaneous interpreting is that sometimes, due to the speed in which the message needs to be conveyed, the interpreter isn’t able to catch everything, leading to some omission of the message or nuances. It is important for an interpreter to self-monitor all the time to make sure he is on top of his game.


Shadowing. A good way to start is by shadowing a 20-min-long, structured speech, such as TEDTalks. Try to avoid newscasts or radio shows as they tend to lack continuity between segments. Shadowing means to repeat whatever was said in the same language it was said, i.e., English>English. This will train your brain to listen and speak while continuing to listen at the same time. As you practice, you can slowly lengthen your decalage to help with your memory skills. Once you feel comfortable, you can start interpreting the speeches.

Brain exercise. Listen to a 30-second speech while writing out a series of numbers (doing another structured task). Try to repeat what you heard, using a recorder to monitor yourself, and see how much you retained and lost. This is will train your brain to somehow concentrate on both tasks without sacrificing quality.

Okay, enough with all the words. Here’s a nice demonstration of the three main modes of interpreting:


What other challenges do you find in simultaneous interpreting? How do you overcome them? I’d love to hear from you.

Good luck and happy interpreting!

Thoughts on Interpreting: Deliberate Practice

I’ve been thinking more about the topic of “practicing” since my last post. Some of my readers responded that for interpreters, only practice with headsets is considered actual practice, and keeping up with literature, celebrity blogs, or newspapers in the target language cannot be categorized as such.

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I disagreed with this statement a few months ago, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. For Elisabet Tiselius, practice is deliberate and intentional, it is an act with a specific goal in mind. Reading and radio listening can  help us stay familiar with the language and its usage and thus can be considered as part of our effort to keep up with our language skills, but it cannot replace practice for gaining interpreting skills.

On top of acquiring and retaining terminology, interpreting requires attentive listening and comprehension skills. Although this doesn’t sound too difficult, consecutive interpreting also requires good note-taking skills and simultaneous interpreting requires analytical and multitasking skills. Actual practice is the only way we can train our brains to listen, analyze, and extract the information into its target language all at the same time. You cannot acquire these skills by studying theory at your desk. You need practice.

Knowing the technique of interpreting isn’t enough to be a good interpreter. Practice is what will take you to where you want to be. With practice, you’ll become used to the modes of interpreting, and it will become natural and more fluid.

Good luck, and happy interpreting!


On the Job: Rushing to an Appointment

Let’s admit it.  It happens. Even when we plan ahead, not everything goes as planned. To roll the way a professional interpreter should though, we still need to make every effort to be on time.

One important trick to ensure timeliness is to have everything you need ready the evening before so you don’t waste time fumbling around the day of. Here’s a quick checklist: 

  • OFFICE SUPPLIES. If you’re a lady interpreter like me, you probably have a purse. Get your notebook, pens, badge, water ready the night before so you can just grab and go.
  • PRINT OUT YOUR FORMS. Different agencies and facilities have different requirements. Makes sure that you have the interpreter log. You don’t want to complete an assignment only to find out you’re missing the necessary form to log the work. It’s happened to me once and I won’t let it happen again.
  • PICK OUT YOUR OUTFIT. Plan out your outfit the night before. You don’t necessarily have to lay them all out, but envision what you’re gonna wear so you don’t waste time staring at the closet trying to decide. Interpreters should wear business clothes.
  • GPS. Input the address for your GPS ahead of time so you don’t have to waste time typing it in the day of.
  • OFFICE ON-THE-GO. To save time, you can even keep some dress shoes and your blazer in the car.
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There are times, however, when even that extra 30 minutes cuts close to my appointment time. Just the other day, my morning phone interpreting appointment lasted longer than expected and I had only 10 minutes to get dressed and rush out of my house, which was a 1.5-hour drive away. I ran around the house like a maniac and drove off, all the while freaking out about being late and how I’m going to explain my tardiness. Thankfully, because I allotted extra time for travel, I still arrived 15 minutes before the appointment. One thing to note is that when we’re traveling there isn’t much we can do about the travel time. At that point, the key thing is to be safe and be as calm as you can. Your cruise control can help with that. 

USE YOUR CRUISE CONTROL.  When you’re in a rush, the temptation to speed way over the speed limit is high, but this can be a very dangerous and expensive decision.  You could get into an accident, or you could get pulled over by a cop. Either of these would not be worth the extra time and money it will cost. When you activate your cruise control, it’ll force you to drive at a safe speed.

Other things to note when you’re running late:
CALL AHEAD. If you know for sure you’re going to be late, call your agency to give them a heads up and they can make the necessary arrangements. If you work directly with a client, then inform them that you will be late. There is nothing worse than a no-show. Being late is bad enough but without any prior notice, the clients may be waiting around for you, wondering if you’ll ever show up. This will decrease your credibility and lessen the chance of them calling you up again.

KEEP CALM. These things happen and we can’t make our travel time go faster than it is. Once you’ve made sure you’re still traveling safely and that you’ve given notice, follow your client’s instructions and try your best to plan better next time.

How do you make sure you get to your appointments on time? I’d love to hear from you.

As always, be safe, have fun, and happy interpreting!

Thoughts on Interpreting: Is It My Place to Speak Up?

Recently, I interpreted  on a call between a bank and an LEP (limited English proficient).  I noticed during the caller verification process that the information provided may not be the caller’s—-while the caller was a male, the Chinese name he gave sounded like a female’s name.  I knew the representative would have no way of knowing that, unless he is familiar with Chinese, but I continued to interpret nevertheless.  Fortunately, the bank representative detected that the caller is not the person they are verifying for and requested to speak with the actual cardholder.  The cardholder explained that her limited English was the reason she had her friend pretend to be her.  Interestingly, her friend was also an LEP, which is why I was on the phone interpreting.  The representative explained that his company offers free language services so her limited English should not have to be a concern.  Although we were able to get the correct cardholder on the phone, we weren’t able to continue with the call due to privacy and security polices.  The representative requested that the cardholder call back as herself before hanging up.  I thanked the bank for using my services and disengaged as well.

Based on our training, an interpreter’s default role is that of a conduit that enables the flow of information.  Although at times the interpreter may need to step in to act as the clarifier, cultural broker, or advocate to ensure that things are completely understood,  this does not mean that the interpreter can step in at any time to voice her opinion.  Breaking from the default role of the conduit should only occur when it is necessary to facilitate conversation.  Accordingly, the representative and LEP understood each other perfectly well through the interpreter in this case, so it wasn’t necessary for the interpreter to jump in.

However, even though it wasn’t technically my place to step in, I’m still left wondering what I could have done otherwise in the situation.  Should I have taken my conduit hat off and interfered by saying that I think this caller is lying  (I wouldn’t put it that way, of course.), or did I do what I should have done within my role?   After all, detecting potential fraudulent behavior really is the banking representatives job, right?   

If I had to take any action though, it may have been to inform the representative of my potential concern by saying, “Sorry, this is the interpreter, I’m not sure if my observation is accurate, but the name this male LEP is providing sounds like a female’s name,” and let the representative decide what to do next.  We cannot assume that our observations are accurate, but in certain situations, we can bring up our concerns and let the client take the appropriate action, if necessary.  This really is a difficult position to be in, and it’s not always easy to determine what the appropriate action is.  If you have concerns, you should discuss it with your client and your company to determine the best plan of action as the approaches are not always clear-cut.

Fellow interpreters, how you would have approached this situation?  I’d love to hear from you!

Happy interpreting!

The Challenges of Phone Interpreting

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Besides not being able to see the people on the other line, there are other challenges to managing a phone interpreting session. I’ve listed some challenges I could think of below. These challenges can make the session stressful, tiring, and even frustrating, but at any given moment, the trick to handling these is to remind yourself to stay calm. Yes, stay calm. Stay calm! Calming down will help you reorient yourself so you don’t rush or freeze. Don’t forget why you are there: the client and LEP need your help to communicate so you need to be on top of your game.

TOO MANY VOICES. Experience tells us that when multiple people are speaking at once and over each other, no one can be heard or understood. This applies to a phone conference as well. In some cases, both the client and LEP are speaking at the same time, in other cases, they may be speaking as you are interpreting. So how do we handle this? We can try to interrupt and request that only one speaker speaks at once. If that doesn’t work, we should wait till all speakers have paused before talking to avoid more confusion and noise, because sometimes we may have mistaken a short pause as a completion of a thought. It helps to pause for a second and interpret when we are certain the speaker is done. 

SEGMENTS THAT GO ON AND ON. The ideal interpreting scenario is when the speaker speaks in short segments, allows the interpreter to render that segment, and continues his thought process. However, because most people are used to finishing their thoughts before pausing, that does not always happen. It might seems daunting to have to render a long message all at once, but keep taking notes, and if the segment becomes too long and unmanageable, the interpreter can gently interrupt and request to render what has already been said first before the speaker continues on. If this isn’t possible, wait for the speaker to complete his thought process and ask for a repetition in shorter segments. The interpreter must pay heed to cues that may affect the integrity of the rendition or flow of communication so she can take the necessary steps to ensure the quality of the interpretation.

THE INTERRUPTER. While interpreting, the listener may interrupt you mid-sentence to respond to what has been said. Since everything must be interpreted, so should this interruption. One thing I noticed about long responses and the interpreting thereof is that there is so much information provided that the listener will have questions before the interpretation is completely rendered. Take a note of where you left off, and interpret the message back to the client.  We do so to avoid breaking the flow of communication so the other party remains informed about what’s going on. Once the interruption has been taken care of, the interpreter should ask the client if it’s okay for her to complete the rendition of the previous message, which she was unable to complete earlier. They are usually happy for you to do so.

THE UNPLEASANT CALL. Phone interpreting sessions can be unpleasant for many reasons. In such situations, your stress level may go up, leading to difficulty in focusing. The key is to stay calm and to not rush. Remember not to speak too fast even when the speaker is speaking very fast. Your goal is always to render the message back as accurately as possible and as clearly as possible so the message is understood. 

STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP. While it is important to be clear and not rush, when you’re taking an emergency call, such as a 911 call, speed, accuracy, and your ability to think on your toes are especially important. Make sure that you are keeping up, but try not to stress or feel rushed because that may lead to mistakes and frustration. Still breathe as you normally would and make sure you are maintaining your focus. The LEP and clients need your full attention and language skills. Being fast doesn’t mean you need to rush.

All in all, whatever the challenges are, remember to take a deep breath and remember that non of the responses or topics are personal to you and you need not take it personally. Be calm and do your best to render the messages back as best you can to enable communication between the client and LEP.

Happy interpreting!