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: 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?

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?