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: xdxs.tumblr.com

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: What if My Client Insists on Speaking English? (Interpretation)

As interpreters, we are called on when there is a perceived need for our language skills. Our job is to ensure effective communication by transferring the most accurate and clearest intent from one language speaker to another. With our help, we can help deliver services and satisfy needs. In my world (America), the target language more often than not is English. While many of our clients are people with limited English proficiency (LEP), they may still have some understanding of it, and in some cases, they may even opt to communicate directly to the provider–physicians in medical cases or attorneys in legal cases. What is an interpreter to do when this happens?

The “first line of defense” is your introduction. When you introduce yourself as an interpreter, you’re letting the client know that you are his voice and that he should trust that you are there to help him get what he needs. You will speak for him by interpreting everything that he says; you will also interpret everything the provider says, so your client will have full understanding of what is going on. Once this is put aside, the client may feel more at ease that his concerns will be met with your help, and may feel more comfortable using his native tongue. If not, the client may just feel he doesn’t need an interpreter.

If this happens in a medical case, I’d recommend being there to listen and to make sure the information is clearly delivered on both ends. If a client insists on using English, gently interrupt when needed–such as if you see that the messages aren’t getting through to either party.

In legal cases, however, this may be different. In depositions, for example, the attorneys may have communicated and agreed that the witness should speak only in his native tongue. And to make sure the accounts are accurately documented, the court reporter would record what the interpreter says, so it is crucial that the witness stays in his native tongue. This keeps things clear and less confusing for record keeping, it is also to the benefit of the witness as less will be lost in translation.

In a deposition I interpreted at last week, the witness had a tendency to jump between Mandarin Chinese and English, even though his attorney asked him to speak in Mandarin only. When the witness started to speak in English, I began to interpret from English to English by repeating what he said, or rephrased it in the way it was intended, such as by correcting the grammar. This prompted the attorneys to remind the witness to stick to his native tongue. Although I wanted to remind the witness on multiple occasions to speak in Mandarin only, I wasn’t sure it was my place to since I was there to interpret only. Under the code of ethics, I was there to say what was said and not what wasn’t.

However, even with that in mind, I asked the attorney a few times if the interpreter could remind the witness to speak in Mandarin, using third-person, of course. Once he approved, I turned around to remind the witness to speak in Mandarin, which is what everyone in the room wanted.

To answer the question in the subject line: when a client insists on speaking in his native tongue, an interpreter should remain alert and use her best judgement so that the client can get the service he needs and that all parties’ expectations are satisfactorily met.

Fellow interpreters, I’d love to hear from you! What would you have done in my situation? What do you do when a client doesn’t use his native tongue during an appointment?

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!

On the Job: How to Introduce Yourself as an Interpreter

At any interpreting job, it’s safe to assume the possibility that your clients have not worked with interpreters. Even if they have, the interpreters they’ve worked with may not have explained to them how it works. This is why it’s helpful when you introduce yourself, to also ask if they’ve worked with an interpreter, and if they haven’t, slip in your 20-second spiel to explain your role and how the session will go.

The introduction should be short, brief, and to the point. Your goal is to convey your role and to let the clients know how to communicate through an interpreter. Sometimes you’ll find it hard to explain your role because the service provider (doctor, lawyer, etc.) may be impatient, but try your best to get through it.

Your self-introduction should include four elements.
1. Confidentiality- Everything said will be kept confidential. This applies especially to legal and medical interpreting cases.

2. First person- Everything will be interpreted in first person. If the patient says, “my head hurts,” the interpreter will relay, “my head hurts,” for the provider.

3. Flow of Communication- To ensure the flow of communication, interpreters should ask all parties to speak directly to each other and keep sentences short to ensure accuracy of the message. Interpreters should also assign a hand motion to signal pauses (in case the speaker goes on too long) to allow time to complete the interpretation.

4. Everything- Everything that is said will be interpreted, even if it was not directed to the other party. For example: If the doctor has side conversations with the nurse and you and the patient can both hear it, interpret it. The patient has the right to hear everything spoken in the room.

Here’s an example of what you can say.
My name is [Name], hired by [Agency], and I will be interpreting for you and the patient/client today. I will repeat everything that is said today, and everything will be interpreted in first person. To ensure accuracy, please keep your sentences short. If i raise my hand like this [stop signal], please pause so I can catch up. Finally, I will keep everything said here confidential.

Note: When speaking to the provider, you’ll use your source language, and when speaking to the client, you’ll repeat the same information in the target language.

What if the Provider Says He’s Worked with Interpreters?
If the provider has worked with interpreters, they may not want to or need to spend the extra 20 seconds with you to learn about something they already know how to do. Don’t force it. But during the session, if you notice that the provider is speaking to you and not to the client, you can make gentle nudges to help them speak directly to the client. This is not just about following the “rules” of interpreting, it’s also about showing respect to the client. Even though our clients have limited fluency in English, some of them still understand a little bit of English, and hearing the provider say, “tell him this, tell him that,” would not feel good to them at all.

Our role as interpreters is to act as conduits and help make  communication possible between people who speak different languages. We care about our clients and want to make sure that everyone involved is kept in the loop, that’s why we should insist on interpreting everything and monitoring the flow of communication.

Interpreters care about helping their clients communicate. {photo courtesy of xdxs}

How do you introduce yourself at interpreting jobs? What are the challenges you find? I’d love to hear from you!

Good luck and happy interpreting.

Dirty Mouth: Let’s Talk Cursing (and Interpreting)

The default role of an interpreter is a conduit. Merriam Webster defines conduit as a natural or artificial channel through which something is conveyed. If we think of the channel as a telephone wire, the conduit transmits anything and everything that is received from one end to another. In other words, an interpreter relays all information that is spoken, without any omission, additions, or distortions of the message.

In medical and legal interpreting, there are times when we have to give bad news. And in times like this, the client may become upset and use curse words to express his feelings. In my medical interpreting training, someone raised a question of whether interpreters still need to relay everything in such cases, particularly if an interpreter has qualms about cursing. Despite what an interpreter’s personal feelings are toward swearing, interpreters must stay true to the original message, even if it means cursing or using words they wouldn’t necessarily use in their daily lives. Such is what’s implied in the code of ethics for interpreters.

Regardless of the cultural or social implications of cursing, if it happens that you must curse on the job, then you need to do it as part of your professionalism. I don’t curse, and haven’t really thought about how English curse words correspond with Chinese curse words, but as a responsible interpreter, I’ve put together a short list (you know, for my work, of course). Cursing is an interesting thing. You’ll notice below that the common curse words we use in English relate  to sex and excretion and mothers. Even though sex and excretion are unavoidable parts of natural human conditions, and we all love our mothers, these words are considered indecent and taboo in both the American and Chinese cultures.

  1. Bastard-王八蛋 (wáng bā dàn)、 龜孫子(guī sūn zi)
  2. Fuck [angry fuck]- 幹 (gàn)、肏 (cào)
  3. Fuck, Fuck me, Fuckin’ awesome, Holy shit [excitement]-我靠 (wǒ kào)
  4. Fuck you, Go to hell- 去你的 (qù nǐ de)、 我鳥你 (wǒ niǎo nǐ)
  5. Fuck him, Screw him-鳥他的 (niǎo tā de)、去他的 (qù tā de)
  6. Bullshit–屁 (pì)、屁話 (pì huà)、鳥話 (niǎo huà)、你個狗屁 (nǐ ge gǒu pì)
    Example: What the fuck are you talking about-你在講什麼鳥話 (nǐ zài jiǎng shén me niǎo huà)
  7. What the fuck is this?-這是什麼鬼? (zhè shì shén me guǐ)
  8. What the fuck are you doing?-你搞什麼鬼? (nǐ  gǎo shén me guǐ))
  9. Damnit- 他媽的 (tāmāde)
  10. Son of a bitch- 狗崽子 (gǒu zǎi zǐ)

These are just some common English curse words and their cursory Chinese equivalents. If you’re interested in learning about Chinese curse words, their detailed explanations, and how they relate to English, the Transparent Language blog has a good post about it that you should check out.

Happy cursing! (Just kidding. Cursing is bad.)