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!

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