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:



Tips and Tricks: Simultaneous Interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting, most commonly seen in the UN, at conferences, in the courts, and in emergency medical situations, is the mode of interpreting that I find quite challenging to master. As its name suggests, simultaneous interpreting is when the interpretation is rendered almost at the same time the speaker is speaking. The slight delay is to allow for information gathering so there is context to interpret into.

Unlike consecutive interpreting where note taking is necessary, there is no time for that during a simultaneous interpreting session. Instead of using notes and your short-term memory, you would use your immediate short-term memory in this instance. In addition to the inability to take notes, another challenge in simultaneous interpreting is the necessary ability to multitask. Can you chew gum and walk at the same time? If so, you can multitask. But try to listen, comprehend, and analyze an ongoing speech, and then interpret it into a different language while still listening to the speech. How long can you last before you  mess up or lose track of the speech?

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Multitasking: drinking bubble tea while flying a balloon. (Credit:


As you can probably tell, it isn’t so easy. The speed and immediacy of simultaneous interpreting create a few challenges. Here are some ways to overcome the challenges.

Learn to anticipate. Because the message is still in progress as you’re relaying the interpretation, it helps to be able  to anticipate what is upcoming. Familiarity with the topic at hand is a must; familiarity with the speaker’s speech pattern is also beneficial, but that comes with time. To practice, pay attention to how people around you speak. You’ll find that often times, you can logically predict the next idea from the key words that are already given.

Increase your decalage. A decalage is the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of your interpretation. A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because you get more context before interpreting. In your training, challenge yourself to increase your decalage.

Watch yourself.  One of the downsides to simultaneous interpreting is that sometimes, due to the speed in which the message needs to be conveyed, the interpreter isn’t able to catch everything, leading to some omission of the message or nuances. It is important for an interpreter to self-monitor all the time to make sure he is on top of his game.


Shadowing. A good way to start is by shadowing a 20-min-long, structured speech, such as TEDTalks. Try to avoid newscasts or radio shows as they tend to lack continuity between segments. Shadowing means to repeat whatever was said in the same language it was said, i.e., English>English. This will train your brain to listen and speak while continuing to listen at the same time. As you practice, you can slowly lengthen your decalage to help with your memory skills. Once you feel comfortable, you can start interpreting the speeches.

Brain exercise. Listen to a 30-second speech while writing out a series of numbers (doing another structured task). Try to repeat what you heard, using a recorder to monitor yourself, and see how much you retained and lost. This is will train your brain to somehow concentrate on both tasks without sacrificing quality.

Okay, enough with all the words. Here’s a nice demonstration of the three main modes of interpreting:


What other challenges do you find in simultaneous interpreting? How do you overcome them? I’d love to hear from you.

Good luck and happy interpreting!

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!


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!

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!

Quick Interpreting Tip: Screening Conversations

We’ve all run across a situation where we’re tempted to screen a dialogue during an interpreting assignment, whether it’s by omitting information that appears irrelevant and superfluous, or by adding information for further clarity. Before you do so though, remember your role as an interpreter and that it is not your place to decide what is to be rendered and what isn’t. We are merely a conduit and not a filter, so next tine you feel the urge, try to hold your tongue.

Remember: your role as an interpreter is to stay true to the intention of the original message by relaying only everything that is said and nothing that wasn’t said.

Happy interpreting!

Feeling Too Comfortable? (Tips for Interpreters.)

It’s human nature to feel complacent after becoming comfortable in a situation. When this happens, the initial drive may fade along with the motivation to improve and exceed expectations. Potentially, this is because you’ve become familiar with the terminology and protocols and no longer feel inadequate or nervous when taking assignments. But in some cases, it may be because you’ve stopped caring as much, which is dangerous.


At the beginning of each new job or new role we’re in, the unfamiliarity and future outlook acts as a reminder that we need to keep pushing ourselves.  We’re often proactive to work on our skills and to expand our knowledge, but slowly, as we become more comfortable, that sense of urgency of picking up new words or perfecting our skills may slow down. Without that initial force, you may realize one day that you’re not trying as hard. This is perfectly normal, but we want to make sure we’re not becoming negligent and letting go. Here are three ways we can remind ourselves to continue to be better.

1. Read. Whether you’re reading blogs, industry publications, or the news, reading will keep you informed about what’s going on and will help you expand your knowledge and vocabulary.  Remember that the more you know, the better you’ll be at your job and the better you’ll serve your clients.

3. Be aware. Continue to be aware of the challenges of the job and make an effort to improve upon them.  Don’t become complacent of your skill level, because there is always room for improvement.

4. Get inspired. Sometimes time can fog up what initially inspired us in a job. Remind yourself every day what makes you  happy in this industry, and approach each assignment with a new set of eyes.

Be better, and 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!

Crossing the Line: Is It Okay to Become Friends with My Clients? (Interpreting)

As interpreters, we run in a small circle of limited-English speakers. It’s possible that you would work with the same client over and over again; it’s also possible that you’ll work with a client once and never see him again. Regardless, it’s important to keep a professional relationship, not only through keeping up your skill set, arriving to appointments on time, and interpreting as faithfully as you can, but also through treating your clients as equals and not taking advantage of their vulnerability as limited-English speakers.

One question that interpreters run into revolves around whether it is okay to become friends with a client. Different interpreters have different opinions about this, but most would agree that it’s better to keep business separate from friendship. This is really hard though, especially when clients are always excited to find people who speak their language and want to know more about the person who’s helping them get the services they need.

From my point of view, the main risk of breaking the professional relationship is that the client may have different expectations of the interpreter during appointments. Also, once you become friends, the client may want to show his appreciation in different ways besides just saying “thank you,” such as with gifts. Accepting gifts, is a tricky one.

What can we do to make sure we maintain professionalism with our patients?

1. Keep Your distance. One way to avoid developing a close relationship with your client is through keeping your distance with the client. I know an interpreter who never allows herself to be alone with a client. After she introduces herself as the interpreter and explains how the process will work, she always finds an excuse to sit on the other side of the waiting room (“I need to prepare for a test” or “I need to work on some personal things while we wait”), and in medical interpreting cases, she stands outside the doctor’s office until the doctor walks in, simply to avoid conversation with the client. Without conversation outside of appointments, the interpreter and client won’t ever have a chance to build a personal relationship. And by explaining why she needs to be alone from the client, the client won’t feel like he is being ignored.

2. Clarify Your Role. It’s not always easy to create distance between you and your client. Some clients may feel offended if you’re not willing to socialize with them. If removing yourself from the client’s presence is not possible for you, it’s important to clarify your role as an interpreter early on when you introduce yourself and make reminders during your conversations as well. Make it clear to them that you are there to interpret everything that is said, and nothing that is not said, so if the client discloses information that he wishes to convey to the provider (doctor or lawyer, or whomever), you should remind him to bring it up at the appointment: “make sure to bring this up when you see the doctor (or lawyer), so I can interpret for you.” Personal dialogue between an interpreter and client can lead to expectations that the interpreter will convey everything that’s been said outside of an appointment. By clarifying and reminding the client of your role, you’ll help him remember that you are there to help him communicate, not there to communicate for him.“

3. Use a Higher Power. Clients are often very grateful to have someone who speaks their language to help them get the services they need. Sometimes, they’ll thank you repeatedly, other times, they might want to give you a gift or offer you services, such as a ride, to show their appreciation. Outright refusal of a gift you find inappropriate may hurt a client’s feelings, so it’s important to explain your position in such situations and let the client know that you appreciate the thought, but your agency or company does now allow you to accept gifts from clients. You can use this as an excuse for other uncomfortable situations that come up as well. Explaining your position while using a “higher authority” will make your refusal less personal.

Where should we draw the line?
It’s always difficult to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to building a friendship with a client, but the important thing to keep in mind is that all your actions have implications. In deciding whether to further a relationship or accept a gift from a client, interpreters should make sure that we are not in any way exploiting the patient. By doing so, an interpreter is doing her job to protect herself and also a client, and that’s a part of an interpreter’s professionalism as well.

For a summary of the code of ethics for a medical interpreter, click here.

Good luck!