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!

Tips on Learning a New Language

For years, I’ve thought about picking up Spanish as my third language. And for years, it’s been merely a thought. I finally took action this year and committed 30 minutes a night practicing with online apps. Although I acquired new skills after two weeks, I felt I needed more structure than what the apps offer, so I signed up for a basic course at a local college.

So far I’ve only completed the first week of class, but I already notice that for me to learn as much and as fast as I want to, it’s going to take the class plus independent study outside of class. I’m lucky that the instructor incorporates different modes of learning (visual, rhythmic, group learning, individual learning, etc.), because it helped me realize the importance of learning through my strength. Because this is a non-credit course, there are no tests nor homework. It’s up to me to decide how I want to progress.

For “homework,” I’m given a few tips on how to practice at home, all of it comes down to one theme: to expose myself to Spanish as much as I can, whether it’s listening to the radio, checking out Spanish children’s books, or reading a newspaper clip. I’m reminded that language learning is an ongoing endeavor. Just like how I learned English and Chinese, I have to live it to excel. This bring me back to my tips on things you can do to keep up with your language skills. They are applicable in the case of learning a new language as well. The goal is basically to get as much exposure to it as possible.

Here are some more tips for learning a new language.

Figure out what type of learner you are. Are you a visual, mathematics, spacial, outdoorsy,  rhythmic, solo or group learner? Knowing this will help you best approach the language in a way that helps you absorb it better. I’m an interactive learner, that’s why online gamification and interactive language learning apps work for me. I’m also a visual and audio learner, so watching Spanish language movies with English subtitles helps me connect the two languages. Think about your hobbies and ways you can incorporate your new language. This should be fun, not work.

Expose yourself. Find anyway to expose yourself to the target language and culture. The more you hear it, see it, and surround yourself with it, the more familiar you are with the way it sounds and feels.

Be persistent. Be patient. Learning a language does not happen overnight. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to download language apps into our brains like they do in the Matrix. You need to be persistent and keep at it. Even after you think you’ve mastered it, you still need to take steps to keep up with it. There is no end!

Practice, practice, practice. You know the drill.

What are your tips for picking up a new language?

Good luck and happy learning!


Growing up Bilingual

Bilingualism is the new black. More and more families are seeking immersion programs so their children can acquire a second, or even a third, language early on. Along with the need for language immersion, comes the question of timing as well, whether there will be confusion when multiple languages are at play in children’s upbringing.

In a home video from around 1991, my three-year-old sister asked my dad,
“把鼻,dinosaur的英文怎麼講?” (bǎbí, dinosaur de yīngwén zěnme jiǎng)
“Daddy, how do you say dinosaur in English?”

To which my dad responded, “dinosaur is already in English.”

Even though my sister didn’t realize that “dinosaur” is already an English phrase, my sister’s awareness of  language differences at her age amazed all of us who watched that video.

bilingual, language, learning,,

Image: courtesy of

Parents who are trying to raise bilingual children receive different feedback on how to approach bilingualism. Some are adamant about introducing a second language later in life,  others try to immerse the child in two languages as early as possible. Sociolinguistics studies present different results as well. But real-life experience and observations has taught me that perhaps children have the natural ability to distinguish between languages.

I don’t remember ever being confused about the difference between English and Chinese. But similar to the “dinosaur case,” there were times when I mistook certain words as Chinese when they were English. That’s mainly because of how it was used when I was introduced to the word. My parents always referred to “penguin” in English, with an accent that made it “ping-guin,” so for a long time, I thought the Chinese and English for that word were similar–and was fascinated (although incorrectly) by the closeness of the two languages.

Recently, I spent some time with a 3-year-old, Benji, who is raised by biracial parents–the mom is Chinese and the dad is a Kiwi from New Zealand. When Benji received a gift from his uncle, he immediately said, “thank you,” and said, “謝謝!” (xiè xie), without hesitation, when his mom asked him to say it in Chinese. I was amazed.

I asked the mom how they taught him the difference between English and Chinese. She said he just picked it up naturally. He even recognizes the difference between Chinese characters and English alphabet. For story time, he brings Chinese books only to mom, and English books to dad, as he recognizes that dad doesn’t speak or read Chinese.

Nick Jaworski, a father and blogger who is raising a multilingual child, also shows examples of how mixing languages has not hindered his child’s language learning: “Mixing languages is a normal part of the learning process and is a perfect indicator of just how smart your child is.”

It seems to me that the challenge of raising bilingual children goes beyond the initial immersion, but to keeping that language skill and improving upon it over time. Benji’s mom tells me that their approach now, is to instill in Benji that Chinese is cool, so that when he starts school and becomes immersed in the English-speaking world, he will still feel pride in knowing and learning Chinese.

I feel fortunate to have spent eight of my formative years in Taiwan before returning to the States to complete high school and college. Without it, my Chinese skills may have stagnated at an elementary and conversational level. It is difficult to keep up with a language that isn’t used constantly.

What is your bilingual experience? How did you learn a second language? How are you raising a bilingual child?

Happy learning!

Thoughts on Interpreting: Deliberate Practice

I’ve been thinking more about the topic of “practicing” since my last post. Some of my readers responded that for interpreters, only practice with headsets is considered actual practice, and keeping up with literature, celebrity blogs, or newspapers in the target language cannot be categorized as such.

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I disagreed with this statement a few months ago, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. For Elisabet Tiselius, practice is deliberate and intentional, it is an act with a specific goal in mind. Reading and radio listening can  help us stay familiar with the language and its usage and thus can be considered as part of our effort to keep up with our language skills, but it cannot replace practice for gaining interpreting skills.

On top of acquiring and retaining terminology, interpreting requires attentive listening and comprehension skills. Although this doesn’t sound too difficult, consecutive interpreting also requires good note-taking skills and simultaneous interpreting requires analytical and multitasking skills. Actual practice is the only way we can train our brains to listen, analyze, and extract the information into its target language all at the same time. You cannot acquire these skills by studying theory at your desk. You need practice.

Knowing the technique of interpreting isn’t enough to be a good interpreter. Practice is what will take you to where you want to be. With practice, you’ll become used to the modes of interpreting, and it will become natural and more fluid.

Good luck, and happy interpreting!


The Challenges of Phone Interpreting

phone interpreting, challenges, tips, their voice, your words, shenyun wu


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!

On the Job: What Is that Word?

Part of being a good interpreter is the continual expansion of your glossary and your knowledge in interpreting. Whether it’s through listening to industry talks, reading industry blogs, networking with other interpreters and learning from them,  as long as you’re learning and building on your skills, you’re doing your part on this front.

Here’s a quick tip for expanding your glossary:
When on an assignment, keep track of the words you stumbled upon or had to take a moment to remember, and add them to your glossary when you get home so you will remember them for the next time.

xdxs, micho, say what,

Say what? Photo courtesy:

You might ask, “What do you mean ‘if you don’t know a word’?” Despite our title as interpreters and translators, we still aren’t all-knowing and may still encounter unfamiliar terms. This is a fact, and it’s alright. So what should we do when we get stuck on a phrase? Well, I have three tips here:

1. Remain calm. Don’t freak out! It’s going to be okay.

2. Remember your role. The default role of an interpreter is a conduit, which means that you are to keep the flow of communication without adding to, omitting from, or distorting the message.  With this in mind, do not try to omit the word by avoiding what you don’t know.

3. Just ask. If you don’t know a word, ask. Your clients need you there because they need your help in getting their intended message across. Just because you don’t know something doesn’t make you a failure. Instead of guessing the equivalent to the target language, ask the speaker for clarification of what she meant by the specific word: “The interpreter is unfamiliar with the phrase ‘xx,’ could you please define it or clarify what you mean by it?” Sometimes, you’ll know the translation after you hear the definition, and would be able to go back to interpreting the complete utterance. If you still don’t know the equivalent to the target language, interpret the definition instead. This will allow you to keep the flow of communication without construing the message.

At the end of the appointment, if the parties were able to successfully communicate and get what they need from the conversation, you will have fulfilled your purpose. Congrats!

It’s okay that we don’t know everything. The important thing is to learn from our experiences and to maintain the mentality of lifelong learning.

Just keep learning and 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?

What Kind of Pain Do You Feel? (Chinese-English Medical Interpretation)

One of the big questions during medical appointments is the patient’s feeling of discomfort and pain. Below is a quick guide to the different types of pains that may come up during a medical interview, along with their Chinese translations. Hope you’ll find this helpful.

Type of Pain Symptoms Chinese Translation
Ache Continuous pain. 痛(tong) , 疼(téng), or疼痛 (téng tong)
Band-Like Pain A squeezing type of pain. 擠壓痛 (jǐ yā tòng)
Burning, searing Pain that feels like it was caused by heat or fire. 灼痛 (zhuó tòng) or燒灼感 (shāo zhuó gǎn, a burning sensation)
Cramps (menstrual) Menstrual pain. 經痛 (jīng tòng)
Cramping, grabbing pain Spasmodic muscular contraction. Quick pain that feels like spasms or a sudden snatch 绞痛 (jiǎo tong) or 痙攣 (jìng luán)
Cold Pain Pain that comes with cold sensations. Often seen around the lower back, abdomen, and joints. 冷痛 (lěng tong)
Dull pain Pain that exists persistently but without much intensity. Pain that’s bearable. 鈍痛 (dùn tòng), 悶痛 (mēn tòng), or 隱痛 (yǐn tòng)
Heavy Pain Pain with a feeling of being weighted down. Often seen in the head and limbs. 重痛 (zhòng tòng)
Moving pain A pain that moves continually to different body parts. 走窜痛 (zǒu chuàn tòng)
Needle-like A pain as if from being punctured with a needle. 刺痛 (cì tòng)
Pressing pain Feeling as if there’s a weight pushing against part of the body. 壓痛 (yā tòng)
Sharp pain Cutting or penetrating pain by a sharp or pointing instrument. 尖痛 (jiān tòng), 劇痛 (jù tòng)
Shooting, stabbing pain Intermittent flash of pain. 閃痛 (shǎn tong)
Splitting pain Sensation of being ripped apart. 撕裂痛 (sī liè tòng) or 撕裂般疼痛 (sī liè bān de  tòng)
Tingling pain Feelings of numbness as if being pricked by multiple needles. 麻刺痛 (má cì tòng)

What other types of pain have you encountered, or do you think I missed? Please share.

Happy interpreting!