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 Interpreters usually use the requested terminology, unless the translation is inaccurate, outdated, or offensive to the target audience.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.
When you have to choose between 2 good clients or assignments.
August 17, 2015 § 2 Comments
Interpreters have to make work-related choices on a daily basis: from the word that best conveys the message in the target language, to the subject matter we are willing to interpret, to the work conditions we agree to. All decisions are very important for our professional development and lifestyle, but today I want to talk about another decision that all interpreters, especially freelancers, have to make every now and then.
We all know that the work of the interpreter goes beyond what people notice when they see us in the booth, the courtroom, boardroom, or hospital. We have to set aside time to study, prepare for an event, travel, and perform administrative duties. Most people do not see us while we are taking care of these activities, which are time-consuming and essential to our work. These aspects of our profession, however, allow some flexibility. Unlike real-time interpreting which needs to happen when the conference, court hearing, or business meeting take place, all other duties can be fulfilled whenever we decide to do them: weekends, nighttime, and so on. They rarely create a conflict in our work schedule.
As interpreters we all know that there is an “unwritten rule” that says that you can go without an assignment for some time, but when a very good one comes your way, another one, as good as the first one will follow shortly, often on the same dates. We can be available four days in a week, but the two good assignments will require of your services on the same three days. Most of you can relate to this dilemma, and those who cannot… just wait a few years and you will.
Deciding which one of these assignments you will have to turn down is one of the most difficult things we face as interpreters, especially when both clients are good, loyal companies or individuals who have had a long professional relationship with you. And it gets more painful when you particularly like the assignments, when you have enjoyed doing them in the past, and when they pay really well. To complicate things even more, it is common to take a job just to get another offer for one that pays even better a few minutes later. My question is: What should we do when this happens?
I recently faced this situation twice: I agreed to do a very prestigious and interesting conference and a few days later I was asked to do a sports interpreting assignment that I truly enjoy; the only problem: they were on the same dates. A few weeks later, I was already preparing for a conference when I was asked to do another event on the same dates at a beautiful beach resort.
The logical thing is to turn down the second offer, and that is exactly what I did on both occasions, but it really hurt. I agonized over these decisions not just because the second assignment was something I love to do in the first case, or because it was in a place I enjoy visiting in the second case. The decision was complicated because these were all good clients who count on me for these events. The concern of losing the client was more important than missing the assignment.
There are times when you have to take the risk of upsetting the client, even after you do everything you can to explain the reasons why you cannot say yes to the job, but you can do certain things to minimize the damage and to keep the client whose assignment you are turning down: My rule is that when this happens, I talk to the client who requested my services second, I explain to them that it is not personal, that I truly enjoy working with them, and that I will be there for them when the next one comes around. I offer to help in every way I can, short of interpreting, to make sure they have a successful event. I even refer them to some trusted capable colleagues who I know will do a great job and will not try to “steal” the client. Depending on the circumstances, I may even provide the interpreters who will subcontract with me. All these points are explained to the client, and they usually agree.
However, there are times when after assessing the two assignments, I opt for the second event, and do the same I explained above, but for the first, original client. I rarely do this, but I do it when the subject matter, location of the assignments, and other factors lead me to believe that both clients will be better served if I physically work the second event. Many times the original client agrees, the services are top notch at both assignments, and I get to keep both clients happy. Of course, I would not even dare to attempt this option with a client I know may get upset or feel abandoned by me if I were to propose different interpreters after I already told them I would personally do the job. You need to know your clients very well before you do something like this.
In those cases when neither client agrees to a “Plan B”, and they both demand that I physically interpret the event, I had to make the always tough choice of deciding which client I rather keep. If I concluded that the second client was more valuable to me in the long run, I have graciously declined the first assignment, provided that I was not exposing myself to civil liability, and never doing it at the very last minute. That is the life of a freelancer.
Years ago, when I did more court interpreting, I would sometimes double-book myself in cases when I knew that the chances of a case going to trial were very slim. I would let the second client know that there was a small chance that I would not do the job myself because of that potential trial, and that if that happened, I would provide other trusted and capable professional interpreters to cover the event for me. As those of you who regularly work in court know, the trial almost never happened, and I did not lose work. The courthouse did not need to know because my commitment to the trial was absolute; in other words, if there was a trial, I would be there, no question about it. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and experiences when presented with this situation, and please tell us how you dealt with this problem.