Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.
April 3, 2015 § 28 Comments
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.