Hire an interpreter, not a linguist.

March 19, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear friends and colleagues:

I have noticed there is confusion among clients, and some interpreters, about the meaning of the term “linguist”; this is due, in part, to its obscure definition in the English language dictionaries, but mainly because of a calculated campaign by some transnational agencies who found a way to profit from the confusion.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “linguist” as: “(1) A person skilled in foreign languages. (2) A person who studies linguistics.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Merriam-Webster defines it as: “(1) A person accomplished in languages; especially: one who speaks several languages. (2) A person who specializes in linguistics.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

According to Oxford, an “interpreter” is: “(1) A person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally or into sign language.” The word comes from Old French “interpreteur”, this one from late Latin “interpretator”, which comes from Latin “interpretari.”  (Oxford English Dictionary).

Merriam-Webster tells us that “interpreter” is ” (1) One that interprets: such as (a): one who translates orally for parties conversing in different languages. (b) one who explains or expounds.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Widely used and universally recognized Oxford gives us two scenarios where an individual can be referred to as a “linguist”: individuals who study linguistics (pretty clear), and someone skilled in foreign languages, such as trilinguals or multilinguals. Apparently the definition would not apply to a bilingual persons because they would be skilled in their mother language and only one foreign language (singular). We all know that speaking a foreign language is light years from being an interpreter or translator. A French, Russian, and Italian speaking individual may do many things, but interpreting or translating will not be among their skills unless they have actively studied and trained themselves in interpreting or translation.

The more Americanized Merriam-Webster Dictionary creates confusion in the United States because it calls linguist a person accomplished in languages; especially: one who speaks several languages. Many Americans equate speaking several languages with being an interpreter or translator. This mistake comes from the belief that “linguistics” means speaking several languages and therefore interpreting from one into another. “Linguistics” is a discipline to describe and explain phenomena such as morphology, phonetics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, aiming for generalizations that hold across all languages (David Crystal. Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press).

Many countries have legislation regulating interpreting services, limiting professional practice to those with a college degree or a license to practice the profession, to a requirement of holding a certification, accreditation, or qualification by a government agency or a professional association.

Depending on their language combination, to appear in court, interpreters in the United States must be certified, accredited or qualified. Black’s Law Dictionary gives us a legal definition of interpreter as: “a person sworn at a trial to interpret the evidence of a foreigner or a deaf person to the court”. Federal and State legislation set the requirements to perform this service, staring with a certification/accreditation program.

Most interpreters are not, and need not be, linguists. They must be interpreters. Unlike a mere bilingual individual, they have invested time, effort, and money in their education and training. While they command professional fees, those who speak a foreign language, but hold no degree, certification, or accreditation, cannot demand a professional income and sometimes they are not even aware of the professionals.

For this reason, and to attract customers by offering “interpreters” at very low cost, many transnational interpreting and translation agencies, usually in the legal, community, and healthcare interpreting fields, offer the services of their “linguists”, avoiding liability if their envoys do a poor job, and murking the waters of certification compliance requirements. Most people do not know what a linguist does, and they pay little attention because they trust the agency they just hired.

It is essential we make it very clear to our clients that we are professional interpreters, certified, accredited, licensed, qualified, or any other similar term used where you practice to separate you from the “paraprofessionals”.

Other languages, like Spanish, do not have this problem because the two terms are clearly different in the dictionary. I suggest you look into your other work language and see if the difference is clear, and if so, go to your non-English speaking clients and show them the definitions to back up your explanation. (Diccionario de la lengua Española, antes RAE. Diccionario de uso del español. Maria Moliner). I always demand a change in my contract when I notice I am “the linguist” instead of “the interpreter”.

We cannot allow these agencies to hijack our language, our professions, and our terminology so they can advance their destructive cause.

The English dictionary does not give us another definition of “linguist” but we can tell our colleagues and clients there is an unauthorized definition by the transnational agencies that goes like this:

<Linguist. An agency’s code name for non-certified interpreters and translators willing to work for insulting, rock-bottom fees the “industry” calls “rates”, to make the individual feel more like a laborer and less like a professional>.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this practice by the agencies.

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§ 10 Responses to Hire an interpreter, not a linguist.

  • Jaime M. de Castellví says:

    I always keep saying this and nobody much listens anyway… “if you let them call you linguini, they’ll have you for lunch!”

  • Liviu-Lee Roth says:

    Excellent! I remember a PM who replied to me that translating a highly specialized legal document “is not rocket science; any linguist can do it”!

  • Kathleen Morris says:

    Tony is correct. The term “linguist”, as commonly used by translation agencies (out of ignorance or simply a desire to obtain “bilingual workers” at cut rates) is omnipresent today. It has recently led to confusion among interpreters themselves, causing them to misclassify themselves as ‘linguists’, for client solicitation and marketing purposes.

    Its incorrect use, when applied to qualified interpreters and translators, does a huge disservice to actual linguists. These highly skilled professionals are usually not interpreters, and do not claim to be. Let us eliminate confusion, once and for all, and call apples apples and oranges oranges, for the good of clients, interpreters, and real linguists alike.

  • vkeves says:

    I believe the conclusion is wrong. Just think about it. Agencies don’t actually need to call their unqualified interpreters linguists. They can happily call them interpreters. According to the UK law, or the lack of it, anybody can work as an interpreter. Even the lady in my local takeaway who sells Chinese food can call herself an interpreter if she wants to. That is the real problem! Linguist, as you have rightfully pointed out, is a person skilled in foreign languages. Agencies and other companies are simply using that term because they understand the basic rule of internet marketing which is – if your customers are looking for fruit, offer them fruit. They will never even find you if you, I suppose rightfully, insist on marketing apples only as apples and pears only as pears.

    • Clarence says:

      I agree with you fully. I was dubbed a linguist by the federal government and have stuck with that description in addition to being a hard working interpreter, translator, and area specialist. One organization even dubbed me to be a subject matter expert. What counts is the quality of the work one does: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet;” what’s in a name, and etcetera, etcetera… When is come to certain work, the client will benefit the most from the interpreter, translator, linguist, area specialist and all around good, dependable person after the just compensation arrangements are secured by both parties.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    This is a comparable situation to that of some people who refer to the court interpreter as a “translator”.

    I’ve experienced this on several occasions in court, in which attorneys have referred to me as “the translator” and to which I’ve replied —with the court’s permission— “Counselor, do you need a ‘translator’ or do you need an ‘interpreter’ because I can do both.”

    When quizzed as to what the difference was, I’ve told them that “interpreter” is spoken, and that “translator” is written.

    They soon realized the difference!

    Note: As someone who is fluent in three languages, no one has ever referred to me as “linguist”, not even at the conferences I’ve interpreted.

    André Csihás, FCCI

    • Clarence says:

      That gets a bit tricky when both overlap, particularly in the courtroom when sight reading is done since it is done from a written document; not to create entanglements with your post.

      • André Csihás, FCCI says:

        My friend Clarence:

        What I meant was, that I’ve had the privilege of translating three historical fiction novels from English into Spanish, and a book of surreal short stories from Spanish into English, and that was the “translator” facet I was referring to in my comment. Sometimes people are not aware of the this literal difference.

        Obviously, those of us in court interpretation are well familiar with “sight translation”, which simply put, is a document written in one language and read out loud in another language.

        Many have been the times when the Court —meaning the judge—, has requested from the interpreter, that a certain document be “translated”; and that means that you give the document a cursory reading in the source language and then begin to speak its contents in the target language.

        Pax erit obis, amici mei.

        André Csihás, FCCI

  • This is precisely why I never signed up to become a member of the Institute of Linguists (although in fact part of my degree was in Linguistics, so I *am* a linguist!), but only the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. I wanted an institute which actually reflected my profession, rather than lumping me in with language teachers, bilingual secretaries and so on.

  • Elizabeth M. Lewis says:

    I was very pleased to read this, as the misuse of the word “linguist” has been stuck in my craw for a long time now. And I am sorry to say that the place where I have seen it the most (aside from US government contract work) as been in the publications of the ATA. They use it a lot. Ooops.

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