The interpreter cannot be responsible for the agency’s mistakes.
July 13, 2016 § 6 Comments
The interpreters’ work is very difficult and complex. We have to prepare for every assignment, pay attention to many details; and on assignment day, we are expected to be on top of our game. Any mistakes, misuse of words, or omission could be critical and carry dire consequences.
We know this. We understand that, as court interpreters we need to do a complete and accurate rendition keeping the correct registry so that the judge and jury can assess the credibility of a witness. We are fully aware of the importance of an accurate and culturally precise interpretation in the emergency room. We know that people go to a conference to learn and be informed; and we never forget that those in attendance have paid a lot of money to listen to the speaker, or were sent by their nation or organization to defend or advance an idea that could affect the lives of millions. This is all part of our job. As professionals we embrace it, and we strive to render interpretations of the highest quality and precision. As interpreters, we also know that sometimes we have to reach our goal under adverse and unfriendly conditions.
The difference between a professional interpreter and somebody attempting to interpret, is that resourcefulness and professionalism let us do our job not just by excelling in the booth, courtroom or hospital, but by anticipating and solving many problems that can arise during a medical examination, a trial, or a keynote speech. We come prepared, and direct clients, promoters, agencies, courts and hospitals know it. This is a fact and we are proud of it; however, we should never take the blame for an agency’s mistake, or take on the burden of solving a situation when it is clearly the agency’s duty to do so.
I know so many cases when good, solid, reliable interpreters have damaged their reputation because they covered up for the agency. In my opinion this is a huge mistake.
As professionals, we should own our mistakes and shortcomings; we should also assist the agency and protect them in force majeure cases and when it does not harm our own interests. This does not mean that we need to fall on our swords for a language services agency.
I am not saying we should rat or snitch. I did not say that we should become an additional problem either. All I am saying is that just as we should own our mistakes, the agency must do the same. The good news is that all reputable professional agencies do. The bad news is that many mediocre organizations find it convenient to blame it on the interpreter to save their behind. This is unacceptable. We are talking about our profession and livelihood.
If something happens to the interpreting equipment in the middle of a speech, we should solve the problem by applying our knowledge, skill and experience. Sometimes a little console or headset adjustment can save the day. On occasion, we will have to leave the booth and interpret consecutively while the tech support team works frantically to fix the problem. This is expected from a top-notch professional interpreter; but let it be clear that we must never assume the liability or take the rap for mistakes of the agency.
Let me explain: If a judge complains that the interpreter is mixing up the names of the parties to a controversy, or is referring to a male individual as female because the agency (or court) failed to provide the proper documentation before the hearing, the interpreter should say so. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault, and the powers that be need to know it.
If an interpreter fails to properly interpret a patient’s idiomatic expression because she was not privy to the individual’s nationality, let the physician know that despite your efforts to learn more about the patient and his medical condition, the agency, hospital, or nurse, refused to share that information with you. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it.
If the interpreters show up to an assignment one hour before the conference starts, and they learn that there are no working microphones or headsets in the booth, they need to let the speaker and organizers know. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it. Even if the interpreters decide to start the event with a consecutive rendition, they have to make sure that all interested parties know that it was not their fault, and if they decide to walk away from the assignment, they will be acting according to the law and protocol. They were retained to do a simultaneous interpreting assignment, not a consecutive gig. The agency would be in breach of contract and the organizers and promoters need to talk to them, not the interpreters.
Remember, from the client’s perspective, it is a matter of clarity and education. They need to learn what interpreters are responsible for, and what they are not. From the interpreters’ perspective, it is a matter of professional pride, reputation, and ethics. We will always be judged by our work in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or battlefield. We must never let the assessment extend to the responsibilities of others. This is very important.
Fortunately, this that I write will be a welcome affirmation to all real professional high-level agencies. They know their responsibilities, and they strive, just like we do, to deliver an immaculate service every time they are retained. Unfortunately, this will be read by para-professional wannabe interpreting “agencies” who will feel offended and threatened by the suggestion that interpreters should act professionally while, at the same time, cover their reputation and protect their careers by letting the end-client know that they made a mistake by retaining high quality professional interpreters and a mediocre agency. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your comments on this extremely important subject for the education of our clients and our professional reputation and livelihood.
You know as well as I do that, however much others may be to blame for things that go wrong (failing interpreting equipment, no equipment, being given the wrong time to show up, etc. etc.) you, as the interpreter, will get the blame as the person who was present at the time! I have been in a situation where the equipment failed and I was the organiser of the interpreters. One delegate got so furious that he threatened me with violence! The equipment was of the portable kind for which no engineer is present, this had been made clear to the client when they booked it. The woman doing the booking was there and stated that she had asked for booth equipment with an engineer, which was a lie. The hire company sent an engineer very quickly and replaced the interpreter’s microphone but of course my company lost the client through no fault of our own.
[…] Dear Colleagues: The interpreters’ work is very difficult and complex. We have to prepare for every assignment, pay attention to many details; and on assignment day, we are expected to be on top of our game. Any mistakes, misuse of words, or omission could be critical and carry dire consequences. We know this. We understand… […]
You read my mind, Tony. I’ve said this before. Here’s a blog post I wrote about this some time before, with a nice chart people can use to ask the right questions before a medical appointment. Adapt it to other situations as needed.
Thank you, Helen.
I am sure your chart will be useful to our new colleagues.
“Remember, from the client’s perspective, it is a matter of clarity and education.” Absolutely agree! But there are mistakes not only made by the agencies, but by the clients /generally speaking/ themselves – how can I as an interpreter be correct when I see and understand the mistake, but am not in the position to “correct” him. Or, it’s an option too, the primar client knows that it is a mistake and uses the interpreter to be blamed for possible error in the future…
Entirely agree with you Ivelina. I had such a “case” last week. After endless mails with the agency, for whom I never worked before, they offered me work and I agreed. It was a business discussion,and I had to interprete from Dutch into French, so it was agreed. At location, it seemed to be an interpretation from English into French! I have tried to make the best of it, because too late to cancel.
I have a long year experience in interpreting from Dutch into French. So don’t blame me if there was a misunderstanding between the agency and the company…What me worries the most is that the interpreter is between those two parties and loses credibility and good name!