Thoughts on Interpreting: Perception

It hit me recently how true it is that our perceptions and understanding of the world is limited to what we know and have experienced.

At a concert I attended with friends, a 17-year-old who is a senior in high school struck up a conversation with us. When she found out we’re in our mid-to-late twenties, two questions immediately came out of her mouth:
“You don’t look your age!”
“Do you have a real job?”

She could not fathom what it means to be our age, or what people our age do. It boggled her mind.  It was amusing to say the least, but isn’t it true that if I’m a teenager who has not been exposed to young professionals, I wouldn’t understand much what it is like?

Thinking about this brought me back to interpreting. We can’t interpret what we don’t know. We can’t explain cultural differences if we don’t see both sides of the coin. That’s why it is important to be open minded, to take in as much as we can so we are prepared at all times. This will make you a better interpreter. The more you know, the more value you can bring to Limited English Proficient (LEPs) and your clients. Your job as a linguist is not only to bridge communication gaps, but also cultural gaps when the situation arises. Your job is to open people’s eyes to another world with which people are not yet familiar.

Isn’t it wonderful how we can apply little things in our daily lives to our role as interpreters?

Happy interpreting!

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:



Life of an Interpreter: Connecting with Clients

As an interpreter, not only do you accept assignments, you’re also constantly selling yourself and your services to agencies, businesses, and other potential clients. As a customer in everyday life, I’m sure your runner instinct activates the moment you spot a sales pitch. This is completely natural. I don’t like being sold to either. Like everyone else, we like to believe that we make decisions because we want to, not because we are told to.

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courtesy of

But to grow your business and expand your clientele, selling is necessary. Instead of shoving information down a prospect’s throat, however, find ways to connect with them instead. Jeff Gitomer, author of the Little Red Book of Sales Answers, always says, “if the customer says they are not interested, you’re not interesting.” We need to make ourselves more interesting to give prospects a reason to spare their time of day.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jost Zetzche, co-author of Found in Translations, speak at this year’s ATA Annual Conference on the power of stories. We are all about stories, he says. Not only do stories define us, they also allow others a peak into our world, and allow others to connect with us through the shared anecdotes. When people become engaged with your stories, they will feel a connection growing.

People like to buy from people they like, so take the time to build rapport. Connect with your prospects by having a conversation. Ask them questions and find out what their needs and wants are. This will be a start for you and help open doors.

When there are an array of service providers offering similar options, what you do to set yourself apart by engaging the client is what’ll give you the business.

Good luck, and happy connecting!

On the Job: Rushing to an Appointment

Let’s admit it.  It happens. Even when we plan ahead, not everything goes as planned. To roll the way a professional interpreter should though, we still need to make every effort to be on time.

One important trick to ensure timeliness is to have everything you need ready the evening before so you don’t waste time fumbling around the day of. Here’s a quick checklist: 

  • OFFICE SUPPLIES. If you’re a lady interpreter like me, you probably have a purse. Get your notebook, pens, badge, water ready the night before so you can just grab and go.
  • PRINT OUT YOUR FORMS. Different agencies and facilities have different requirements. Makes sure that you have the interpreter log. You don’t want to complete an assignment only to find out you’re missing the necessary form to log the work. It’s happened to me once and I won’t let it happen again.
  • PICK OUT YOUR OUTFIT. Plan out your outfit the night before. You don’t necessarily have to lay them all out, but envision what you’re gonna wear so you don’t waste time staring at the closet trying to decide. Interpreters should wear business clothes.
  • GPS. Input the address for your GPS ahead of time so you don’t have to waste time typing it in the day of.
  • OFFICE ON-THE-GO. To save time, you can even keep some dress shoes and your blazer in the car.
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There are times, however, when even that extra 30 minutes cuts close to my appointment time. Just the other day, my morning phone interpreting appointment lasted longer than expected and I had only 10 minutes to get dressed and rush out of my house, which was a 1.5-hour drive away. I ran around the house like a maniac and drove off, all the while freaking out about being late and how I’m going to explain my tardiness. Thankfully, because I allotted extra time for travel, I still arrived 15 minutes before the appointment. One thing to note is that when we’re traveling there isn’t much we can do about the travel time. At that point, the key thing is to be safe and be as calm as you can. Your cruise control can help with that. 

USE YOUR CRUISE CONTROL.  When you’re in a rush, the temptation to speed way over the speed limit is high, but this can be a very dangerous and expensive decision.  You could get into an accident, or you could get pulled over by a cop. Either of these would not be worth the extra time and money it will cost. When you activate your cruise control, it’ll force you to drive at a safe speed.

Other things to note when you’re running late:
CALL AHEAD. If you know for sure you’re going to be late, call your agency to give them a heads up and they can make the necessary arrangements. If you work directly with a client, then inform them that you will be late. There is nothing worse than a no-show. Being late is bad enough but without any prior notice, the clients may be waiting around for you, wondering if you’ll ever show up. This will decrease your credibility and lessen the chance of them calling you up again.

KEEP CALM. These things happen and we can’t make our travel time go faster than it is. Once you’ve made sure you’re still traveling safely and that you’ve given notice, follow your client’s instructions and try your best to plan better next time.

How do you make sure you get to your appointments on time? I’d love to hear from you.

As always, be safe, have fun, and happy interpreting!

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!

The Challenges of Phone Interpreting

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Besides not being able to see the people on the other line, there are other challenges to managing a phone interpreting session. I’ve listed some challenges I could think of below. These challenges can make the session stressful, tiring, and even frustrating, but at any given moment, the trick to handling these is to remind yourself to stay calm. Yes, stay calm. Stay calm! Calming down will help you reorient yourself so you don’t rush or freeze. Don’t forget why you are there: the client and LEP need your help to communicate so you need to be on top of your game.

TOO MANY VOICES. Experience tells us that when multiple people are speaking at once and over each other, no one can be heard or understood. This applies to a phone conference as well. In some cases, both the client and LEP are speaking at the same time, in other cases, they may be speaking as you are interpreting. So how do we handle this? We can try to interrupt and request that only one speaker speaks at once. If that doesn’t work, we should wait till all speakers have paused before talking to avoid more confusion and noise, because sometimes we may have mistaken a short pause as a completion of a thought. It helps to pause for a second and interpret when we are certain the speaker is done. 

SEGMENTS THAT GO ON AND ON. The ideal interpreting scenario is when the speaker speaks in short segments, allows the interpreter to render that segment, and continues his thought process. However, because most people are used to finishing their thoughts before pausing, that does not always happen. It might seems daunting to have to render a long message all at once, but keep taking notes, and if the segment becomes too long and unmanageable, the interpreter can gently interrupt and request to render what has already been said first before the speaker continues on. If this isn’t possible, wait for the speaker to complete his thought process and ask for a repetition in shorter segments. The interpreter must pay heed to cues that may affect the integrity of the rendition or flow of communication so she can take the necessary steps to ensure the quality of the interpretation.

THE INTERRUPTER. While interpreting, the listener may interrupt you mid-sentence to respond to what has been said. Since everything must be interpreted, so should this interruption. One thing I noticed about long responses and the interpreting thereof is that there is so much information provided that the listener will have questions before the interpretation is completely rendered. Take a note of where you left off, and interpret the message back to the client.  We do so to avoid breaking the flow of communication so the other party remains informed about what’s going on. Once the interruption has been taken care of, the interpreter should ask the client if it’s okay for her to complete the rendition of the previous message, which she was unable to complete earlier. They are usually happy for you to do so.

THE UNPLEASANT CALL. Phone interpreting sessions can be unpleasant for many reasons. In such situations, your stress level may go up, leading to difficulty in focusing. The key is to stay calm and to not rush. Remember not to speak too fast even when the speaker is speaking very fast. Your goal is always to render the message back as accurately as possible and as clearly as possible so the message is understood. 

STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP. While it is important to be clear and not rush, when you’re taking an emergency call, such as a 911 call, speed, accuracy, and your ability to think on your toes are especially important. Make sure that you are keeping up, but try not to stress or feel rushed because that may lead to mistakes and frustration. Still breathe as you normally would and make sure you are maintaining your focus. The LEP and clients need your full attention and language skills. Being fast doesn’t mean you need to rush.

All in all, whatever the challenges are, remember to take a deep breath and remember that non of the responses or topics are personal to you and you need not take it personally. Be calm and do your best to render the messages back as best you can to enable communication between the client and LEP.

Happy interpreting!

When in Doubt, Think Broad! (Tips for Interpreters)

As an interpreter, you need to retain a lot of vocabulary and have knowledge of a wide range of topics. While the endeavor to understand all the tiny details to every medical procedure and disease, every legal ruling, or financial technicality is admirable, it’s better to first retain the equivalent of the words in your target language than to focus on the details that go along with the specific terminology.

For example,  all medical interpreters should know the term “Hepatitis B.” The other thing to know about this is that it’s relating to the liver.  Everything else you know about it is a bonus and will be helpful to your work as an interpreter, but it is not critical. While you can always do research and learn about the causes, the symptoms, the treatments, and prevention, all that knowledge isn’t necessarily required for you to be able to interpret the phrase “Hepatitis B.” If the patient does not know what Hepatitis B is, he will ask the doctor, and the doctor will answer any of the patient’s questions. At this point, all you’d have to do is interpret. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t spend time to learn more about the phrases or procedures we are interpreting about, just that we should try to maximize our time and to ensure that we are retaining what will be most applicable to our work, which is a wide-ranging vocabulary.

Expanding your vocabulary is the first step to being able to render good interpretations, and learning more about each component relating to the terms is something you can build up overtime. Our understanding about the technicalities and details will benefit our work, but they aren’t necessarily critical to our performance, so when in doubt, go for more vocabulary than more details.

Fellow interpreters, do you agree? What are your thoughts on this general approach?

As always, happy interpreting!

Thoughts on Interpreting: “Do Interpreters Practice?” (Video)

I’d like to share with you a worthwhile speech on interpreting and practice by Elisabet Tiselius, a conference and community interpreter and PhD student who also teaches interpreting. While the talk is mainly on whether interpreters practice, it reminds us of the importance of practice for interpreters and also the importance of incentives within the industry to encourage interpreters to strive for conscious and deliberate practice.

As we all know, interpreters learn from day one that practice is essential to becoming a better interpreter. Interpreters need to constantly work on their glossary and to  stay in touch with the target language and culture, with the intention to maintain and improve their skill set so they can better serve the community through enabling communication.

With this in mind, Tisleius conducted a research and asked interpreters if they practice. Interestingly, most of the interviewees are adamant about the fact that they do not practice, despite the fact that they deliberately read newspapers or listen to the radio in the target language in which they work. While the statement of not practicing is shocking, it could  be simply a difference in perception of what is considered “practice.”

The responses from the interviewees are interesting to me, as I consider all of those efforts to maintain and improve our language skills as practice. I do feel that I can be more deliberate in my practice, however, to make my efforts and preparation even more effective. If you need some ideas for how to improve or practice your language skills, here are some tricks I like to use. Let’s work together to improve our skills!

What do you think about Tisleius’s talk? Do you consider language building and glossary expansion as part of your practice in becoming a better interpreter, or do you only consider simulations or actual interpreting as practice? I’d love to hear from you.

As always, happy interpreting!

The Ups and Downs of Being an Interpreter

As with any vocation, being an interpreter has its ups and downs. When you begin to feel frustrated or begin to question the reason you’re on this path or in this position, it’s good to think about the pros and cons.

We all know the pros of being an interpreter. You get to help people using your hard-learned language skills, you get to see the relief on people’s faces when they are able to communicate in their native language in a foreign country. You feel like you are making a difference, that your skills and knowledge are depended upon. For most interpreters, you have the autonomy of setting your own schedule and taking on assignments on an as-needed basis. It is dynamic. No one job is the same and you get to live vicariously through the experiences and emotions of your clients and LEPs (limited English proficiency). You’re always in a learning environment, no matter what assignment you take on.

Of course, there are also cons. The job is highly technical; it isn’t creative. Every rendition you make that deviates from the original will construe the intention of the message. It is high-stress. You need to be able to think on your toes and react quickly in unanticipated situations. There is no point in which your skills will be “enough.” You need to keep on learning, to maintain, and to expand your glossary. You are a freelancer but you aren’t free. You are bound by the code of ethics and the different protocols set by different organizations and agencies you work with, and you must make every effort to stay within your role. It is lonely. Even  though you are interacting with people, you aren’t able to connect with them on a personal basis.

Sometimes it can feel rewarding after an assignment. But other times, it may feel frustrating, whether it’s because of the outcome of the assignment, your self-perceived performance, or because of the amount of effort it takes to get work. You’d start to wonder why you’re even doing this. Is this life of a freelancer, always hunting for the next job, worth it? Is it worth it to always be anticipating the unexpected?

Keep going and never give up.
Just keep going. Credit:

As with any job, we need to remember why we started in the field or in the role in the first place. We must have chosen it because we thought it was our calling, that it was something we could be good at, that it was something we could enjoy doing while also helping make a difference. We must have thought it would make us happy, or that it could bring job satisfaction. All jobs come with challenges, so we should instead focus on solutions. If you’re an interpreter, remember to take every experience as a learning opportunity, also to continually improve on your skills. You’ll see the outcome soon enough. Also, if you feel like you need someone to talk to, look around for interpreter communities to find others who will understand what you’re going through. You are not alone!

Happy interpreting!

On the Job: Relay Interpreting in a Medical Appointment

Relay interpretation is a type of consecutive interpretation used when multiple languages are at play at the same time, where the source language is  interpreted into different languages, and at least two interpreters are present. We see this most commonly used in conference interpreting where the source language is rendered into a common target language and then further rendered into specific language groups. This type of interpretation is similar to the game “telephone,” where one message is whispered down a line of people, and the last person in line announces to the group what the message was. If you’ve played this game before, you’d know how easily it is for the original message to become distorted at the end of the line.

With this in mind, we can see the challenges of relay interpretation. Because multiple players are involved, the risk of distorting the message is high, where omission from or addition to the original message can occur; thus, it is important that all interpreters involved are professionals and are  familiar with the code of ethics and the  necessary means they need to take to ensure accurate interpretation of the message.

At a recent  medical appointment, a Mandarin interpreter was requested. I learned early on that while the patient spoke Mandarin, he also spoke a Chinese dialect that I am unfamiliar with. This was not a problem because he understood Mandarin, but his son was present as well, and my work complicated when the two of them communicated in their dialect, leaving both the provider and myself out of the conversation.

During the appointment, the patient and his relative would have side conversations in their dialect. I had to inform the provider that the side conversations were in a different dialect that I didn’t understand, so she knew I wasn’t keeping information from her. After the side conversations ended, I tried to find out what they were talking about, and the son would kindly summarize it for me, allowing me to interpret the summary to the provider.

Much of the appointment went like this: the provider spoke, I interpreted the English into Mandarin Chinese, after hearing my interpretation, the patient and the son would converse in their dialect, and then the son would respond in English or in Chinese–if in Chinese, I would interpret it into English for the provider. What worried me was that while the side conversations lasted for at least 30 seconds at a time, the summaries were only a few words long, such as, “he said okay.”

In this case, relay interpretation took place, from English to Mandarin to the separate dialect back to Chinese then to English again. As I mentioned earlier, to ensure that messages get transmitted without distortion, we need to make sure that the interpreters are professionals; however, since the son was a family member, he felt that as long as he understood the message, it was okay. This is partly why family members are highly discouraged to act as interpreters. As well, when messages are summarized, the interpreter, not the speaker, decides what was most important and less important in the message. Because of this, important information can be lost during the transmission of information.

As an interpreter, I always want to make sure that messages are being understood, so I worried about what the patient was saying to his son and whether they full understood the provider’s instructions. However, it seems like the  in situations like this, it’s hard to repeatedly instruct the family members to interpret everything, or ask that the patient speak for himself rather than through the family member.

Fellow interpreters, what would you have done in this situation?