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?

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

  1. becomingatranslator says:

    I work as an in-house interpreter. Since my “clients” are also coworkers, living and working in the US, it is best for them to use English when they feel comfortable. I always watch the listener though. If it looks like he doesn’t understand what the speaker is saying, because of accent or grammar mistakes, I will start “interpreting” the speakers English, just like you did. But if they are understanding eachother well enough, I usually step back and let them talk until the speaker switches back into their native language. But I am always alert, like you said. And even when the speaker is talking in English, if the listener replies, I will interpret their English back into Japanese just to be sure that the speaker understands what was said.

  2. GL says:

    Dear Shenyun,
    As a fellow Interpreter (English/Spanish) I find the situation you have described on a daily basis. The interesting thing, is that you can see from both sides; patient trying to speak English, and provider trying to speak Spanish. None of those situations leads to good communication, especially (and usually) the latter. Although, I must say, there are some physicians that have a more than decent command of a second language, and as long as they have properly passed a Language Proficiency Test, I’m all good to be the “back up” for those words in the medicalese language.
    Having said that, if the patient feels strong about his/her skills in English I usually allow such communication, but be sure that I jump in at the very first significant error, which usually happens by the second or third sentence. The reason behind this, is that, after all, patients with a long history of medical care in the US can actually “graduate” from using Medical Interpreters, leaving room for their use in situations of real need.
    Always remember: “add nothing, change nothing, omit nothing”.
    Language is our resource, meaning is our target.

  3. James Christie says:

    Interesting question raised here. I mostly work in the private sector, and it’s often problematic when my French clients insist mid-flow in resorting to their poor broken schoolboy English, especially if I’m on simultaneous. I usuallly deal with this on a case by case basis, especially if it’s in a one-to-one format. However, if I feel that this is not helping my client (because his English is so bad) I often gently encourage him to stay in French as this will ensure his true message gets across. That’s better than criticising his English…

    It’s trickier when we’re in conference format. I feel that we should underestimate neither our skills nor our importance to the proceedings (and that’s in all arenas), and that if there is a risk of a breakdown in communications, we should stick our necks out and point out the problem. This year I was working at a UNWTO conference, and there was a speaker from xxxx who was flitting from French to English and back again. The problem was exacerbated by the fact he had clearly drunk too much wine at lunch, and was talking utter bollocks. What to do?

    You can’t invent coherent speech, and I got looks from the English-speakers in the audience, who were listening to my translation of his rubbish, eyebrows raised. I eventually took the risk of sending someone up to the speaker to remind him to speak just in French. Thanks to this, the guy changed his tack, realised his error and carried on in French, albeit rather drunk.

    My message: be bold and speak out if there’s a problem. There’s nothing worse than a client saying to you at the end ‘well, why didn’t you say something?’

  4. Ivona Bendova says:

    HI all,

    I work as a Czech & Slovak to English (and vice versa) community interpreter in Ireland. This particular situation happens to me quite often…once this happens I just simply tell both parties that I will sit in the back (or next to them, depends on situation), listen to both of them and make sure that they both understand each other, while stressing that I am watching them (which is funny expression to be used in Police – Gardai – stations :-)) to find out if they understand what was being said ….usually it works and usually the client (which is most of the time person accused of committing a crime or an offence, or a victim of the same) gets more comfortable in my company (I keep comparing myself to a machine when explaining to them what my role is) …because then when they dont understand, they turn their head towards me or look at me (with a question in their eyes usually and the unspoken “help me please” …) …some clients are not comfortable admitting that their English is limited and we are working with people …we have to look at who they are and where they come from to interpret most accurately to their language, so the message goes through 🙂

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