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: