Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.

April 3, 2015 § 29 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a difficult profession built on the principle that the interpreter is well equipped to handle anything in a conversation, negotiation, presentation, litigation, and many other situations. Interpreters are expected to possess the language skills, professional resources, knowledge, and understanding of the topic being addressed. That is the reality we live in.

Of course we all know that an interpreter cannot know everything about all topics under the sun, but we understand that we need to have the basic knowledge to figure out the subject matter and the sources to deepen our understanding of the topic at hand.  What is not always clear among interpreters is the realization that we must know enough about many subjects to take us over that bridge that leads to the source materials, and to have the general knowledge necessary to save the day when a topic just appears out of the blue, without notice.

Ours is a very demanding profession because it asks us to be fluent in at least two languages, to know all necessary interpreting techniques needed to provide a professional service, to keep pace with ever-changing technology, and to have a vast general knowledge that encompasses many topics: from the trivial to the transcendental, from the artistic to the scientific, from the widely accepted to the controversial.  My friends, a good interpreter needs to know enough about a subject to be able to understand what the speaker is saying, to know where to start a research project, and to continue with the rendition while his partner digs up more information on the topic right there in the booth.

I must admit that I am often puzzled at some of my colleagues’ answers when I ask them about a topic they are about to interpret, and they simply tell me that they do not know the subject.  The first thing that comes to mind is: what were you thinking when you agreed to do the assignment then? How did you decide that you were right for the interpretation? The fact is that many colleagues do not think of this as essential to their performance. I have had a long career and I have seen and heard many things throughout the years, but some of them stuck because of the absurdity, at least to me, of the answer given to one of my questions, or the actions taken by the interpreter faced with the situation. I will never forget when I asked a staff managing interpreter how many judges they had in their court and she told me that she did not know, dismissed the question, and moved on to another “more important” topic. To this day I recall a time when I was interpreting a conference on airplanes, and all of a sudden an individual asked a question about airplane carriers. My colleague in the booth, who was interpreting at the time, did not know basic concepts about a ship. She did not even know her port from her starboard or her bow from her stern. It was clear that this was not the subject matter we were supposed to prepare for, but these things happen all the time, and we must possess enough general knowledge to save the day.  A little knowledge is even necessary to decide where to start your research of an issue. On the other hand, good interpreters apply their general knowledge to the situation and get the job done.

Several years ago I was retained to interpret for a conference on Pre-Hispanic archaeological sites.  This was a large event and there were going to be many Spanish booths working in different rooms at the same time. I was retained to interpret the plenary, and also in one of these rooms. The organizers told me who my partner for the plenary was and I was thrilled. This was an excellent colleague with a lot of experience, and we had worked together many times in the past. When I agreed to do the assignment I was asked to recommend another interpreter to work in the booth with me. The event was quite large and it took place during the busy conference season, so it would be difficult to find a suitable experienced colleague.

I gave it some thought and I decided to invite a newcomer to the conference interpreting scene. She was not a rookie. I had worked with this interpreter in court many times, she was quite good at court interpreting, and I assumed that she would do a good job at the conference as well. She agreed to do the job and I provided all study and research materials for the conference. She studied them with dedication. I know because I saw her do it. Finally, on the day of the conference, we got ready in the booth, I gave her some pep talk and told her that everything was going to be fine. We decided that I would go first, so I started my rendition. My first shift went fine, and so did hers. It was during her second time around that the speaker switched gears and instead of talking about archaeological sites, he spoke about Pre-Hispanic religion and mythology in Mesoamerica. All of a sudden my colleague froze and did not utter a sound! I looked at her and I saw the face of despair and panic. She just could not interpret the topic. After a few seconds, that felt like an eternity, I took over the rendition and finished her shift. During the mid-morning break she seemed quite angry, I guess because of her realization that she was not prepared to do the interpretation, and she told me that she was not going back to the booth, that she had studied many hours and she knew the topic of the assignment, but she knew nothing about native Mesoamerican religion and mythology.  I talked to her, convinced her to go back to the booth to observe, and I did the second leg of the morning all by myself.

After the assignment was over, she indicated that she was very impressed that I had been able to save the event, and she said that she could not do this type of work because you were expected to know about everything.  Her last comment was right on target. Interpreters, in general, are expected to know about everything related to their line of work. Court interpreters should know about the law, procedure, ethics, and some of the fields that closely and often intersect with their work, such as forensics, criminology, chemistry, etc. Healthcare interpreters, even if they always interpret for patients with very little knowledge of medicine, should always be ready to interpret concepts of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, search and rescue, police protocol and practices, etc.

Interpreters who work in conference need to have a very broad base of knowledge and they need to be up to speed on current affairs. To me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of the profession, we are always studying, we are constantly learning. We need to be the person who always knows the answers to the questions they ask on the TV game shows, we need to be the individual who knows the latest news around the world; we have to be prepared to interpret at a moment’s notice, we need to have that desire to study, that curiosity to research, that need to know. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue that in my opinion is so important, that it separates the good interpreters from the best interpreters.

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§ 29 Responses to Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.

  • Mercedes says:

    Amazing post, thanks so much.

  • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

    Well, I agree with everything you wrote. But I would add: When you really do not know how to translate a word or an expression, neither the colleague in the booth knows, you must be poker-faced enough in order to invent the translation, in order to try to meet your target. And if you have years and years of experience, you will certainly meet it – most of the time…

  • Thank you for that reminder Tony!

  • Silvia Uribe says:

    Tony, I completely agree with you. Having the curiosity and the need for learning is the most important thing that an interpreter should have in his or her toolkit. We may not be specialists in anything -other than in interpreting or translating- but we must otherwise be “in depth” generalists in order to, as you said, save the day. This aspect of our profession. I believe it is what makes our live so interesting and rich, and what takes us away from boredom. Our profession exposes us to topics to which, for the most part, other professionals are never exposed. After 25 years interpreting, it never gets old. Fun!

  • P Diane Schneider says:

    I have long said that I believe no one sould be an interpreter until he/she has already had a career or two. It does no good to simply know words without understanding the concepts behind them. It troubles me that many interpreters and clients of interpreters do not seem to understand this. In fact I have had more than one interpreter respond to the question: “Where did you study interpretating?” With “Oh I don’t need to study interpreting. I am a native speaker.”. Aren’t we all native speakers of at least one language? It is this kind of interpreter who interferes with educated and trained interpreters being able to earn a living wage.

    • oxana says:

      Having had a number of careers and varied interests to the degree these were pursued using all the languages you do your interpreting in is indeed invaluable.

      As to native speakers, consistently by far the most impressive interpreters one comes across are those who are both native in their language combination(s) and have had higher education i.e. continued didactic exposure to their native languages into adulthood.

      Which only makes sense since this allows such folk to fully marshal their cognitive faculties in the service of getting the meaning across rather than partially drained off by the effort required getting the language right. The latter being an ordeal non-natives have to continually struggle with only to be rewarded with imperfection.

      Though even native speakers can occasionally be spied using words such as “interpretating”. 😉

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Great subject, Tony!

    On your September 2014 segment titled “The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2”, in the Seventh item, I alluded to some of the elements that are suited and that can be used and applied to this particular post.

    My lifelong desire and my perennial curiosity about everything have certainly given me a leg up on several occasions. Ever since I was a little boy I wanted to know why and how a clock ticks, how an airplane flies, why the sky was blue and the vegetation green, or the difference between a diesel, gasoline and steam engine is and how they propel the vehicle, how a house is built, etc, etc, etc.

    My potential lack of knowledge about a subject created in me a phobia which in turn evolved into a mania which like a locust, made me devour everything in my path because I wanted to be ready for anything at any given time, whether in court, conference or just in everyday conversation. This is something that each one of us has to cultivate individually and tailor to our needs specifically, and in which the level of curiosity is directly proportional to the level of proficiency.

    In the interest of fairness, I believe that the men might have an advantage over the women in certain subjects, because some professions such as construction, machine operation, mechanics and the like, are mostly and traditionally associated with a male rather than a female occupation. Make no mistake though, my service advisor at the auto dealership where I have my vehicle serviced is a lady who is one of the finest automotive experts I know, and who probably has forgotten more about auto mechanics than most people I know have ever learned.

    To this day I sharpen my everyday knowledge of all things around me. I make a concerted effort in attempting to read selected articles from seven to eight daily newspapers in the three languages I speak, I try to be up to snuff with the latest local news and just stay current with everything possible. I feel now as I have felt always, that it is my personal duty, responsibility and obligation as an interpreter and a translator to be as savvy as possible because I never know when I will have to refer to that particular subject in my work. Additionally, and up to a certain degree, I think that my clients are expecting it from me.

    As you so eloquently put it, “… we must know enough about many subjects to take us over that bridge that leads to the source materials, and to have the general knowledge necessary to save the day when a topic just appears out of the blue, without notice.”

    André Csihás, FCCI

    • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

      Well, I would like to know why the sky is blue..

      • storm says:

        Blue being the last color, of human perception, to bend, is what we are left with.
        Yes, I’m an interpreter!

  • Alice Milne says:

    Good topic.
    I agree with everything said and by and large most of the comments above.
    However, regarding André’s comment about men and mechanics, I have to say “in the interest of fairness” 🙂 that – going by my 30-year-plus SI experience – of the twenty-five percent of interpreters who are male, most are not very mechanically minded and they are no better at technical interpreting than my female colleagues. In case you’re wondering how I can judge, I do have theoretical (university) and practical (industrial) technical training. The majority of conference interpreters (male and female) have never been inside an industrial workshop and couldn’t tell a monkey wrench from an Allen key in real life. And that is really noticeable in technical conferences when a speaker strays off the subject.

  • xmarta9 says:

    Thanks for the amazing post! Good reminder of what it takes to be a good interpreter. As a student, I find it fascinating because it is one of the reasons I became interested in interpreting! 🙂

  • […] Source: Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more. […]

  • oxana says:

    “Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.”

    And those who have their specialized digital dictionaries, glossaries, google and wikipedia up and running at their fingertips trump those who don’t..

  • As the Merovingian said in the Matrix: “It is my business to know.” Reality is FAR more interesting than TV and entertainment; so, I enjoy spending tons of time learning. I can honestly say that I simply know about everything there is to know –at least a little. I know a lot about molecular biochemistry because I have a gorgeous Down Syndrome child; and so, I’ve naturally learned about the human genome. Interestingly, my conference-level Dept. of State orals included something about that, and I slam-dunked it, and passed the battery. I just chose to wait before serving them because of my small kids, but “life” prepared me.

    Life will “teach” you everything you need to know. Investing time wisely, you will not be broadsided by not knowing anything about pre-colombian history. If you are a one of the “best interpreters” like Tony correctly says, you cannot afford to not know about the most important cultures in this hemisphere! You cannot afford to not know at least 100 terms/subjects about ships. Everything in this world is at some point on a ship! Commit to heart the terminology, but more importantly, the inner workings. I remember my first interpretation on an aircraft carrier and how I memorized with hand motions: “babor, estribor, proa, y popa; obra viva, obra muerta, eslora, etc.”

    If you hear in the news that a near earth object almost smashes into Earth wiping us out into oblivion, guess what? You need to learn the basics, spending some hours on comets, asteroid belts, trajectories, orbits, etc. You may not want to specialize in that. Understood. But there’s no excuse to not know anything at all about one of the few things that could wipe us out instantly. Of course, if I get called for an astrophysics conference (and I am well versed in that field), I would still refer my FCCI friend in VA who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Don’t try to cram 10, 20, 30 hours before a conference. Always study ALL the time, not just do what we all do: cramming countless hours before a conference. It’s hard to assimilate stuff like that.

    We must be humble. I challenge my kids to ask me anything. They get a kick when they “stomp,” me, the supposed “super” interpreter. They laugh their heads off when I can’t interpret something. “Ah-ha-ha, na-na- na-na-na-na!” they taunt. You’re possibly not a “best” interpreter if you don’t know the meaning of these: superoxide dismutase, neutrinos, DSM-V, azipods, eschatology, Yax-K’uk-Mo, circle of Willis, Melchizedek, theophostic therapy, dual overhead cam, Thermopylae, GPU heat sink, vector thrust, etc. These are basic things in our lives. About six thousand assignments ago, I misinterpreted the name of a little-known country! Well, we MUST know every country and big city on this planet. Do you know where Novosibirsk is, yes? We need to.

    Someone here said that men might have an advantage over women on certain subjects. I don’t think so. I’ve worked with FCCI and AIIC female interpreters who are THE best in neonatology, aeronautical engineering, court of appeals matters, etc. Most of the conference interpreters I know are women; remember, they have more than triple the connections in the corpus callosum than us men! You do know what the corpus callosum is?

    As the “Most Interesting Man in the World” (the XX guy) said: “Stay thirsty, my friends.” He was talking about bear. We’re talking about knowledge for this amazing profession that we have!

    • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

      Was he talking about “bear” or about “beer”?

      • Ha! Thank you for catching that. Yes, “BEER” not “BEAR!” I was in the middle of a huge transcription project –taking a break– and my brain was struggling. Also, it’s “get a kick OUT of” and not “get a kick.” Thank you good doctor!

      • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

        Such things happen to the best interpreters! There was a dear colleague in Rio de Janeiro who made, our of distraction, many, many years ago to mistakes, about which all of our clan in Brazil (herself included) laughed along years. The first one happened during a medical congress, where she interpreted “we give the patient a shot” as “damos um tiro no paciente.” The second was during a seminar on cattle breeding, where she translated “frozen semen” as “marinheiros congelados”. Historical mistakes, isn’t it?

      • André Csihás, FCCI says:

        Also, it’s “pre-columbian” not “pre-colombian” history, because it was before Columbus and not before Colombia (a country I lived in for 15 years!)

  • James Couture says:

    I could not have said it better myself. But if I can add one thing, it is this: read, read and read some more. I am a voracious reader of all types of material, in both French and English. No matter the topic, I read it. I found this helps prepare you for the unexpected. Like I have said many times, no one knows every word, but you can be the one who knows most of them.

  • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

    My last text had three typing errors, which I would like to correct. I should read:
    Such things happen to the best interpreters! There was a dear colleague in Rio de Janeiro who made, out of distraction, many, many years ago two mistakes, about which all of our clan in Brazil (herself included) laughed along years. The first one happened during a medical congress, where she interpreted “we give the patient a shot” as “damos um tiro no paciente.” The second was during a seminar on cattle breeding, where she translated “frozen semen” as “marinheiros congelados”. Historical mistakes, isn’t it?

    • This reminds me of my trainers from Monterey Institute of International Studies, one of whom told us of the time in court where the defendant kept saying “la llorona,” and the interpreter interpreted that as “the weeping lady,” but the defendant was really trying to say: “La Your Honor” (a female judge).

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    ¡Hola Tony!

    En innumerables ocasiones me he preguntado si has considerado recibir respuestas en español a tu blog.

    Entiendo perfectamente que el inglés es el idioma universal pero pese a ello, sería interesante recibir comentarios y opiniones de otros en un idioma que quizás les sería más conveniente para su expresión personal. ¡Potencialmente, tu cobertura se expandiría hasta los anillos de Saturno!

    Es simplemente una sugerencia y lo hago con el mayor respeto y la mayor consideración a tu valiosísimo blog al cual me deleito inmensamente en participar.

    Un abrazo,

    André Csihás (se pronuncia: CHI-JAS), FCCi

    • Querido André, gracias por tu sugerencia. El tema ha surgido anteriormente y lo estoy considerando. Tal vez en el futuro. Dear André, thank you for the suggestion. This issue came up before and I am considering the possibility of having contributions from readers in other languages. Perhaps in the future.

  • Matro says:

    Reblogged this on MATRO.

  • Amtul F Atifa says:

    There is no doubt that most interpreters risk inappropriate spill-over while enriching the target language. Also they help substantially to facilitate one’s understanding..Hats off to every interpreter.

  • Diana Nisterenková-Chester says:

    Being a good intepreter is a life time commitment to learning , researching new words, concepts, meanings and discovering new horizons.

    There is always going to be something one does not know.

    But it is also the most fascinating profession, vocation , actually I would say a calling ….everytime we learn, acquire knowledge there is another discovery waiting to be unravelled.You need many, many years of training, studying , listening, reading, observing, maturing before you start to feel that finally you are able to make almost perfect interpretation…you are always chasing after that ephemeral meaning that lasts only that given moment of the given time and than becomes again intangible as there is only a passing memory, an impression etched in the minds of your listeners and then again you start another chase, another search, another journey in order to capture the MEANING.

    One might know many subjects, may become a walking and talking animated encyclopaedia but the most important is to be able to put one’s heart and soul with a bit of a special magic touch in order to become “The Master Interpreter”.

  • Iffah says:

    I found this so helpful, i am a self-made interpreter in the training and have been studying sixteen languages including arabic and mandarin. Interpreters are life savers because specific words do not exist in some languages and we need to find synonyms in real time otherwise our fluency and literacy is attacked. To avoid the situation where you cannot interpret a topic i like to invest my time in interpreting politics, media, economy, law, and business terminolgy. I just hope when i get a job in interpreting i am allowed the topics of disucussion to the very pinochle of detail so that i am not caught up in the position your friend was in, which sounds like a nightmare. i think the whole point of languages is it is ongoing and i frikkin love that because its soothing to know that it wont ever come to an end unlike everything else that does, it is that deep

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