Please do not confuse court interpreters with conference interpreters.

September 23, 2019 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.

This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:

Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)

Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language.  To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)

Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.

A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)

Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.

Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.

Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.

Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.

Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.

There are differences on the way the services are performed:

Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.

Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.

There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.

Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court.  Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.

Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.

Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.

As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.

Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.

There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.

Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they are paid less money than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.

I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.

Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known.

July 18, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During the last month we have seen plenty of diplomatic activity around the world, most of which involved the president of the United States. First, president Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore; next, he met with several heads of state in Europe during the NATO meetings, and after his visit to the United Kingdom where he needed no interpreter, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Through current 24-hour news coverage around the world, these encounters and press conferences have put diplomatic interpreters on the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Diplomats and politicians have always known the role of the diplomatic interpreter in these events, but journalists, social media users, and TV viewers are just discovering the importance and complexity of this essential function needed in all diplomatic exchanges when the parties share no common language.

The interpreting profession is growing all over the world, but most of its expansion is coming from the legal, healthcare, and community service fields; therefore, diplomatic interpreting is also new to many interpreters who never had an opportunity to do it.

Many of our colleagues seized the opportunity to highlight the difference between translating and interpreting by constantly bombarding all social media with entries correcting the term used by journalists and lay people, and making it crystal clear that (at least in languages with different words to describe interpreting and translating) those accompanying the presidents were interpreters, not translators. Many of their social media comments showed they knew little about diplomatic interpreting. Look at these remarks found on social media and interpreter forums and chatrooms: “…the interpreters working the summit hopefully demanded team interpreting…Did they consider that North Korean is a different dialect when assigning Trump’s interpreter?…Did they tell interpreters that Kim Jong Un has a Swiss accent?…Kim Jong Un speaks English, but they needed an interpreter to clean up Trump’s remarks…interpreter better watch diplomacy if president does not…Who would want to interpret for Trump?…I bet these interpreters will write a book after the summit…; or this one: “…Why would a woman interpret for Putin and Trump?…

Diplomatic interpreting is a very specialized field. It requires the same skills needed to interpret in other fields, plus other technical, cultural, ethical and diplomatic knowledge and abilities, and self-confidence, courage, stress control, and refraining from showing personal emotions and opinions. It includes a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible at presidential level, ministries, international organizations, and international military organizations.

Besides all modes of interpretation used in all other settings, diplomatic interpreting requires impeccable consecutive interpreting that goes beyond memory, note taking and visualization; it also needs of the interpreter’s insights, observations, impressions and readings derived from discreet but careful eye contact with the source and target, which must incorporate body language, gestures, and intonations to convey the most accurate rendition, this while walking on eggshells  in a world where nuances are extremely important. Often working with no equipment, diplomatic interpreters must project their voice so they can be heard by the target.

Diplomatic interpreters must possess an excellent simultaneous delivery with the right decalage and comprehension of the issues discussed to provide the right meaning in those topics being addressed at the meeting or conference. They work in the booth like all conference interpreters, but they also constantly interpret simultaneously performing chuchotage escort interpreting for the head of state. This requires additional skills not always needed in the booth, such as extreme concentration to isolate the voice of the source during a state dinner while many others are speaking. Interpreters must master this discipline so their voice can be heard by their target with clarity, while taking care of their voice so they can continue to work as interpreters. “The ability to express ideas clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must…good voice projection and especially modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight… because whispered interpretation is commonly required…” (Maria Rosaria Buri. “Interpreting in diplomatic settings”. https://aiic.net/page/7349/interpreting-in-diplomatic-settings/lang/1)

Both, consecutive and escort diplomatic interpreting are rendered at an unprecedented level of stress and pressure.

Sometimes, the job goes to somebody not qualified to be a diplomatic interpreter and the consequences can be ugly. This was the case during Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s visit to the White House in 2010 when he addressed president Barack Obama about pending immigration policy and legislation in the United States. In Spanish, Calderon’s comments were straightforward and clear as he spoke to the common values and principles that united the United States and Mexico. A halting and grammatically incoherent English rendition by the Mexican interpreter followed. The interpretation was so difficult to understand that the American delegation ignored the rendition and used a written translation instead. The Mexican delegation blamed its own translation, and from that point on, president Calderón spoke in English until another interpreter joined his team in Ottawa where his trip continued after Washington, D.C. The Mexican government indicated that the interpreter had come with the presidential delegation, but apparently this individual did not regularly interpret for Calderón. (NBC News. Copyright 2010 Associated Press. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/t/calderon-visit-marred-poor-translation/)

Those who are chosen to work as diplomatic interpreters must have broad knowledge and keep up to date with world political, social, and economic affairs. Keeping abreast of international developments and the issues at stake is essential for interpreters working in any language mediation setting.  Diplomatic interpreters must be familiar with dress codes, etiquette, demeanor, the correct form to address dignitaries, tact, and savoir-faire, the principles of being discreet and of not censoring. However, sometimes they must use harsh language when the source does so. In December 1983 then vice president George H.W. Bush went on a secret mission to El Salvador in a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, when head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State was assigned to accompany him. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government’s death squads. Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting, but he refused. “Basically, he cursed them out” Van Reigersberg said. “…having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention”. After the meeting, she realized that she had been so concentrated on her work she had lost any sense of danger until Bush remarked: “…well, I almost got us both killed, didn’t I?”

Each country has its own internal policy and criteria to select and appoint diplomatic interpreters; for security reasons, most nations choose staff interpreters vetted and cleared as ethical, professional individuals worthy of their nation’s trust. Some others select independent contractors then subjected to rigorous background checks and assigned a security clearance level, with only those with the highest level being assigned for top diplomatic interpretations. Finally, many countries have a mixed system where staff interpreters are used for the most common and widely spoken languages, while independent contractors with top security clearance are retained to interpret in less common languages. In the United States, interpreting for White House and State Department officials is provided by the Office of Language Services (part of the U.S. Department of State). The Office’s “…diplomatic and conference interpreters (are on its) staff, and conference interpreters (are on its) contractor rosters…” (https://www.state.gov/m/a/ols/c57124.htm). Often, the diplomatic interpreter accompanying the head of state is the highest interpreter in their home country. Dr. Yun Hyang Lee, who interpreted for president Donald Trump during the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the current head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State (Time. Eli Meixler, Mahita Gajanan. June 13, 2018)

A diplomatic interpreter is not just selected from an interpreters’ association directory on line. They are trusted, vetted, and tested professionals recognized for their skill and field of expertise. Thoroughness is essential in this work, it is never a matter of finding an equivalent or substituting a word; the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and its underlying meaning to interpret. Interpreters must know the specialized jargon and background information. You cannot interpret what you cannot understand. It is crucial that interpreters have all needed knowledge for each assignment. Sometimes they are privy to the same briefing the president gets; often, because of the delicate matters to discuss, information is subject to secrecy and interpreters only get it at the right moment, but always with time to be prepared for the job. Words are so important in diplomatic interpreting that sometimes they can set the mood for a negotiation: During a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C. in December 1987, president Reagan welcomed his cold war rival Gorbachev to the White House to discuss peace. During the official welcoming ceremony, Reagan stated that: “…today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many…because it represents a coming together not of allies, but of adversaries…” The U.S. interpreter on that occasion was Dimitry Zarechnak, and the Soviet interpreter was the legendary Pavel Palazhchenko. When it came the time to interpret the speech, Zarechnak told National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 he was “…agonizing over the word adversaries” because the Russian word for “adversaries” protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means “disgusting”: protivniy. “…In English, you can have a noble adversary. In Russian it sounds terrible…” he added. Instead of repeating the word “adversaries”, Zarechnak used a Russian word for “competitors” which Gorbachev liked. This same word was used by president Trump this week when he was asked if president Putin was his enemy and he replied that “…I have always said he is (my) competitor…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Occasionally, interpreters are indirect recipients of a tense internal relationship within a government structure. This can affect their work and their preparation.  During the Nixon administration, president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and had a less than friendly relationship with secretary of state William Rogers, sometimes they kept the U.S. interpreters out of the meetings for fear they would brief Rogers. This meant that sometimes the interpreters would assist in meetings between the secretary of state and foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept the interpreters in the dark. (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154).

Some say that these interpreters participate in making history. This is both: a privilege because they get to be eyewitness to some events that will be in the history books of tomorrow; and a burden because it means more stress and pressure which translate in tremendous responsibility. Interpreters like the ones who accompanied president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta, or like Irene Bruno from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State who interpreted for president Barack Obama during his visit to Havana in March of 2016.

Diplomatic interpreters are constantly studying and fine tuning their craft. They have great flexibility. On October 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of State under president Bill Clinton, met former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright had the services of U.S. Department of State Senior Korean interpreter Tong Kim. Albright’s mission was to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim learned arms control jargon, reviewed top-secret briefs, and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs. Kim later stated that he “…kept…reading every article in newspapers and academic journals…” He says that when he began interpreting he “spoke like a South Korean, and they did not seem to appreciate it…” so he perfected a North Korean accent and dialect: “I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect…and that gives them some trust…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Due to the nature of the task, these interpreters often work alone and for many hours. Although team interpreting may be feasible for the conference work in the booth (usually a press conference where the second interpreter may not need to have the same level of security clearance, even though they usually do) long consecutive and chuchotage are generally performed by the same interpreter throughout the encounter. This requires that diplomatic interpreters have great stamina and good health. An important point because it takes many years of practice and study to reach this professional level, therefore many diplomatic interpreters are not very young.  Add the stress factor, generally present in these events because of the importance of the issues being negotiated, the bilinguals in the room who may think they have a better way to say something, and the constant feeling that if something goes wrong, interpreters could be blamed, even if the mishap was not entirely their fault.

Diplomatic interpreters develop an important working relationship with their source. This relationship takes many shapes and forms; sometimes the source is quite detached, and other times they rely on the interpreter for more than interpreting. We are their cultural advisors and sometimes their local history and geography consultants. For example, Harry Obst, who interpreted for seven U.S. presidents during his career, and was the head of the U.S. Department of State Office of Language Services, recalls how President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when president John Kennedy was killed, was eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom: “…Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? It is best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154). During the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki we could see the different relationship that each president has with his interpreter, while president Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State, sat on the chair already positioned for her a few feet to the right of the president, president Putin’s interpreter walked on stage, grabbed his chair and put it next to Putin, just a few inches away.

Sometimes diplomatic interpreters working under such pressure make a mistake; they are humans. During a discussion on an open skies proposal between the 41 president of the United states, George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Soviet interpreter Igor Korchilov said the word “verifying” in English, instead of the correct term “verified”. Everybody in the White House Cabinet Room looked at him, including Gorbachev who quickly said: “No, no. I never said that…” On an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, Korchilov remarked: “…To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed…” On his memoir, Korchilov wrote: “…At the moment I wished the earth could swallow me up…” He then addressed president Bush to apologize, and the American president replied: “…Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III…” He then apologized to Gorbachev who said something all interpreters need to remember: “…Oh, don’t worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes…” (Korchilov Igor, “Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter).

Igor Korchilov made a mistake, but he was a great interpreter who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter from 1987 to 1990.

Great interpreters make mistakes like everyone else, they just make them on a world stage and everybody finds out, as it happened in the well-publicized case of the joint press conference of U.S. president Barack Obama and king Felipe VI of Spain at the Oval Office in 2015. At the time, Spain was facing an independence vote in Catalonia that could end up in a political and economic crisis for the kingdom. On his remarks, president Obama stated that the United States wanted a relationship with a strong and united Spain (“una España fuerte y unificada”) but the interpreter’s rendition was: “a stronger and united relationship with Spain” (“una relación [cada vez] más fuerte y unida [con España]”) (“El Mundo”. Sept. 2015. http://www.elmundo.es./enredados/2015/09/16/55f9477022601da52a8b45a0.html ) The king, who studied in Georgetown University and speaks English, immediately looked at his delegation and made sure that the Spanish press got the correct presidential statement and not the mistake. Moreover, since interpreter renditions into the foreign language (in this case Spanish) are not shown on American media where they broadcast the president’s remarks in English, nobody noticed the mistake on the American media, but it was big news all over Spain. Once again, this interpreter had faced tougher situations many times.

I hope this gives you all a better idea of what diplomatic interpreters do, who they are, and how they work. I leave you with a quote from David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers”:

“They appear in the shadow of the mighty…the interpreters. They have been around forever or, at least, ever since different languages and cultures have met. The discretion that goes with their job makes interpreters very inconspicuous people. But behind the cloak of professional neutrality, one can discover a cast of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to their craft with the utmost passion” (David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers” http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-whisperers-2#uebersicht)

What makes a good interpreter?

April 16, 2018 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Often when we attend a social event and start a conversation with people we do not know, but know about our profession, we are asked what makes a good interpreter. I know there are many answers to this question; all have value and are probably right. In my case, after being asked the same innumerable times throughout the years, in my personal and professional opinion, three things make a good interpreter.

First, the interpreter must be able to communicate concepts from a source language into a target language.  Webster tells us that an interpreter is one who translates orally for parties in different languages. The main goal is to make sure that a concept was conveyed in such a manner that the person receiving the information, who does not understand the language of the speaker, gets everything those who speak the main speaker’s language got.

To achieve this, the interpreter must understand what is being said in the source language, synthesize what was said, and orally convey it to the receiver with proper grammar and vocabulary in the target language, so it can be understood. Good interpreters “clean” the message so unnecessary words that may sound strange in the target language are eliminated. The good interpreter interprets the “meat” and gets rid of the “fat”. (I know this does not apply to some community interpreting, particularity to court interpreting where everything must be interpreted. This is a global answer, thinking of conference interpreting).  The good interpreter must understand, synthesize, and have command of grammar, culture, and vocabulary.

Second, a good interpreter must have a pleasant delivery that everybody understands. Good voice, décalage, volume, rhythm, pace. Listeners must be so comfortable they forget about the voice in their ear and concentrate in the speech. Voice modulation, clarity, enunciation, are a very important part of a rendition. Heavy breathing, coughing, slurping, rushing through the speech, and chasing speakers too close to what they just said make you look bad, even when you are a good interpreter.

Finally, my third attribute of the good interpreter is team work. The good interpreter lives in a conflict-free environment. They support their colleagues in the booth, are fair, and will go the extra mile to save a rendition. Often, a good interpreter who gets along with others is more desirable than a great interpreter who creates conflict everywhere. Do not misunderstand this attribute of a good interpreter. I never said that an interpreter willing to work more for less, or one who accepts deplorable work conditions, or a low fee are good interpreters. They are not. Easy going differs from easy to fool.

There you have it. To me a good interpreter then, is one who understands a concept, digests it, and conveys it to the client in a pleasant clear voice, so it can be understood by the foreign language speaker; and does it all while being a dedicated professional, good colleague, and decent human.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your idea of a good interpreter.

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