On the Job: What if My Client Insists on Speaking English? (Interpretation)

As interpreters, we are called on when there is a perceived need for our language skills. Our job is to ensure effective communication by transferring the most accurate and clearest intent from one language speaker to another. With our help, we can help deliver services and satisfy needs. In my world (America), the target language more often than not is English. While many of our clients are people with limited English proficiency (LEP), they may still have some understanding of it, and in some cases, they may even opt to communicate directly to the provider–physicians in medical cases or attorneys in legal cases. What is an interpreter to do when this happens?

The “first line of defense” is your introduction. When you introduce yourself as an interpreter, you’re letting the client know that you are his voice and that he should trust that you are there to help him get what he needs. You will speak for him by interpreting everything that he says; you will also interpret everything the provider says, so your client will have full understanding of what is going on. Once this is put aside, the client may feel more at ease that his concerns will be met with your help, and may feel more comfortable using his native tongue. If not, the client may just feel he doesn’t need an interpreter.

If this happens in a medical case, I’d recommend being there to listen and to make sure the information is clearly delivered on both ends. If a client insists on using English, gently interrupt when needed–such as if you see that the messages aren’t getting through to either party.

In legal cases, however, this may be different. In depositions, for example, the attorneys may have communicated and agreed that the witness should speak only in his native tongue. And to make sure the accounts are accurately documented, the court reporter would record what the interpreter says, so it is crucial that the witness stays in his native tongue. This keeps things clear and less confusing for record keeping, it is also to the benefit of the witness as less will be lost in translation.

In a deposition I interpreted at last week, the witness had a tendency to jump between Mandarin Chinese and English, even though his attorney asked him to speak in Mandarin only. When the witness started to speak in English, I began to interpret from English to English by repeating what he said, or rephrased it in the way it was intended, such as by correcting the grammar. This prompted the attorneys to remind the witness to stick to his native tongue. Although I wanted to remind the witness on multiple occasions to speak in Mandarin only, I wasn’t sure it was my place to since I was there to interpret only. Under the code of ethics, I was there to say what was said and not what wasn’t.

However, even with that in mind, I asked the attorney a few times if the interpreter could remind the witness to speak in Mandarin, using third-person, of course. Once he approved, I turned around to remind the witness to speak in Mandarin, which is what everyone in the room wanted.

To answer the question in the subject line: when a client insists on speaking in his native tongue, an interpreter should remain alert and use her best judgement so that the client can get the service he needs and that all parties’ expectations are satisfactorily met.

Fellow interpreters, I’d love to hear from you! What would you have done in my situation? What do you do when a client doesn’t use his native tongue during an appointment?