Hold Your Tongue (the Role of an Interpreter)

Hold your tongue and stay within your role, fellow interpreters!Sometimes you think you know better. You hear and understand what’s going on, but when messages are transmitted between the source and target languages, the receiver doesn’t always understand the message. When questions are asked, you may want to answer them since you already know the answers, but guess what, you can’t. Whether the misunderstanding came from your rendition of the message, the speaker’s ambiguity, or the receiver’s own misunderstanding, an interpreter shall not respond on behalf of a speaker nor get involved in side conversations. We must stay within our role as conduits, and only interpret.

As an interpreter, you know that your role is simply to interpret. This means rendering what is said and not what isn’t said. Any omission, addition, or distortion of the original intention of the message should be avoided at all cost. But besides interpreting, an interpreter also has a challenging job, and that is to manage the flow of the conversation. The flow should look like this:




Any time  when dialogue occurs outside of this format, means the flow of communication is not well-managed. If clarification  of the source message must be made, the interpreter must first inform the receiver before asking for clarification: “I’m sorry, but the interpreter needs to clarify what was said.” Or if something was rendered correctly but the receiver still needs a repetition, the interpreter still must inform the  source-language speaker first before going ahead with the repetition. This is to avoid the flow of communication below, where the flow is broken and stuck between two parties.




For example, if the interpreter did not catch the complete message from the source language, he should first inform the target-language receiver, in third person, that the interpreter is going to ask for a repetition, before actually doing so. If a series of numbers was given to the target-language speaker, and the target-language speaker repeats it to make sure he jotted it down correctly, instead of saying yes or no to the target-language speaker (which can result in INTERPRETER <-> TARGET LANG), the interpreter should render the question back to the source-language speaker.  This will keep the flow of communication going.

In sum, as an interpreter, you do not have your own voice, and may not speak on behalf of any speaker. Your role is to act as a conduit and pass on whatever is said, while at the same time, ensuring that messages are flowing from one language to another. If something needs to be repeated or if clarification is needed, make sure to keep each party in the loop. It’s not easy, but we’ve gotta hold our tongue and keep ourselves from expressing our own opinions.  It takes practice, sometimes patience as well, but your clients and LEPs will benefit from your proper management of the flow.

Happy interpreting!


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