The client wants a term interpreted in a certain way, but the native speaker is saying something else.
March 6, 2023 § 4 Comments
Most of us have been in a situation where the client indicates their preferred translation, sometimes their only acceptable translation, of a term, title, name, or expression. Usually, we get these requests as “official” glossaries by a company, government agency, or international organization; occasionally, we get a letter or a memo from the client specifically asking for that desired translation. Interpreters usually use the requested terminology, unless the translation is inaccurate, outdated, or offensive to the target audience. In these cases, we contact the client, make our case for a better translation, and then we go with whatever the client decided: the translation they suggested originally, or our recommendation. There is nothing unusual on the scenarios above.
Unfortunately, sometimes lack of communication by the client, or by the interpreter, emotions, stubbornness, or negligence, put us where the interpreters’ rendition is not what the client wanted it to be. This is not an easy situation, and sometimes it gets more complicated when the foreign language speaker is using names, expressions, or terms different from those expected by the client. In this case, using the client’s preferred terms while interpreting a foreign speaker would not be “interpreting”. We cannot do that, even if we think it would make our client happy.
I can recall two instances during my career when I faced this dilemma and I took two very different approaches, one more fortunate than the other:
Providing my services as a court interpreter decades ago, when I had been an interpreter for just a few years, I found myself interpreting a criminal case hearing; this court procedure is called “Change of Plea Hearing”, and it is the opportunity a defendant has to waive trial, admit responsibility for the commission of a crime, and hope for a lighter penalty than the one they could have received if found guilty by the court. These hearings result from a negotiation between the defendant’s attorneys and the prosecution, and they involve an agreement where the prosecutor agrees to reduce the charges, or to dismiss some of the charges on the indictment in exchange for an admission of guilt to a lesser offense.
Here, the defendant, a Spanish speaker, was going to plead guilty to a crime that carried a shorter term in prison than the charges originally charged. For the plea of guilty to be accepted, the judge had to be convinced that the defendant was acting free of coercion. As always, the judge went through a series of questions that the defendant had to answer through the interpreter (me). Everything was going fine until the judge asked the defendant if they were entering the guilty plea because in fact, they had committed the crime. The defendant responded (in Spanish) by sharing their version of what happened, and repeating time and again that they were innocent; that the person who committed the crime was somebody else. The hearing was interpreted consecutively, so I started my rendition. After I finished, the defense attorney, quite upset, addressed the judge and ask for me, the interpreter, to be removed from the hearing, for the defendant’s statement declaring his innocence to be taken off the record of the hearing, and for a replacement interpreter to be brought in. The complaint was that I was not interpreting what the defendant was saying, because, the defendant’s attorney said, they “were there to plead guilty to the lesser included charge.”
I immediately understood what was happening. The attorney was not happy with the defendant’s answers to the judge’s questions, and was looking for a way to fix the situation; the first thing that came to mind was to blame the interpreter. The judge hesitated for a moment, turned and asked me if I had anything to say in response to what the defense attorney had argued. I knew I was right. I had no doubt I had interpreted everything the defendant said as it was said in Spanish, so I respectfully stood by my interpretation. The defense attorney then argued that I was not telling the truth, because, although the defense lawyer did not speak Spanish, they had gone over the hearing and the plea with the defendant many times, so they knew what to say in court. This went on for a few minutes that felt like hours, and when the judge allowed me to reply, I answered in what I now understand was an emotional way. I told the court that “…I was interpreting what the defendant was saying, and I (was) very sorry the defendant was not saying what (their) attorney wanted (them) to say, but I could not change the statement so that the defense attorney (was) happy…” Eventually, the defendant continued to maintain their innocence, so it was clear that I had made no mistake.
My actions drove the point home, protected the rendition, kept the court record accurate, and showed the judge and others in the courtroom I made no mistake. I was proud of myself. However, as the years and decades went by, I realized that at the beginning of my career I sometimes was too emotional, and that subtracted from my image as a professional.
Let’s fast forward a few decades. This time, as a conference interpreter, I faced a similar situation in a diplomatic setting:
About a week before an assignment, the client contacted me in writing to let me know there were certain terms in the foreign language they liked to be interpreted into English in a certain way because these were the terms found in legislation, doctrine, contracts. I had no problem with that, so I acknowledged receiving the memo and assured the client their preferred terminology would be used during the assignment.
On the day of the event, my client was the first one to address the conference and we translated all terms into Spanish as requested. Next a delegate from a Spanish-speaking country addressed the attendees on the same topic, but they did not use the terms given to the interpreters as “preferred” by our English-speaking client. In fact, the Spanish speaker was using very different terms that could mean the same, but were equivocal. I made a split-second decision during my simultaneous rendition, to translate the terms used by the Spanish speaker as they translate into English, not as the English-speaking client expected us to translate the terms previously provided. I did this intentionally because the terms used by the Spanish presenter were equivocal and I was in no position to decide whether or not this person was referring to the same issues as the first speaker did when they spoke in English. I decided to let the two speakers, experts in the topic, determine if they were referring to the same or not.
Nothing happened and the conference continued. Some forty-five minutes later, the Spanish speaker intervened, and once again, they used the same terms as they had used earlier that day. I interpreted as I had previously done. This time, the English speaker client interrupted the Spanish speaker in their speech and said: “…I am sorry to interrupt, but I have to correct the interpreter, because he is not using the correct terminology for these issues. Instead of using ˂X˃ and ˂Y˃, he is saying ˂A˃ and ˂B˃.”
This is what I wanted to see happening from the start of the session, and it was finally happening. Unfortunately, the client blamed it on me, the interpreter, instead of asking the Spanish speaker if they were referring to the same issues, in which case, they would rather have them use the preferred terminology for legal, technical, and practical purposes. Fortunately, the Spanish speaking diplomat remarked that it had not been an interpretation issue, that they indeed were using different terms, that they had used these terms for a long time, but if the English speaker wanted them to use their ”preferred” terms for all the reasons already stated, they had no problem changing the wording of their documents, and thus using the terminology the English-speaking delegation felt more comfortable with. From that point on, everyone in the interpreting team used the “preferred” terminology and things went smoother. I was pleased the situation was clarified without me having to actively intervene, as I was ready to bring this up to my English-speaking client during the first break. Fortunately, it was unnecessary.
A few days later, I took this situation as an opportunity to explain the client why we cannot change things said during an interpretation just to make the client happy, and I asked them to use this experience as a lesson, so next time a similar situation arises, they ask the other party instead of assuming the interpreter made a mistake. The client wrote me back, thanking me for the note and apologizing for throwing the interpreter under the bus.
As a professional interpreter, I compared the two situations I describe here, and saw how although they were both resolved favorably, I acted emotionally the first time, and now, many years later, I acted professionally, set the conditions for the issue to be worked out by the parties involved, and sending a note to the client, telling them, respectfully that interpreters cannot change what is said in a foreign language, just to please a client.
I always love reading your articles and I have learned lots from you.
Dear Khin Lin, thank you for your comments. I hope you continue to read the blog.
Thanks for sharing these interesting anecdotes from your experience as a conference interpreter. Regarding the court experience, would you do the same today? From what you explained, I would say so, just less emotionally involved. Did I understand your point?
Dear Natalia, thank you for your your comments. I would probably do something similar, but more diplomatic and less emotional; I really cannot tell for sure. In those days I was not well known and for that reason my renditions and opinions carried less weight than today. Good question.