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.
August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
I just heard the story of an interpreter who was hired to render her services as an expert witness in a trial that took place in a small town of the American Midwest. This colleague, who I know has years of experience as an interpreter, translator, transcriber, and expert witness, was retained to examine a transcription and translation job by a transcriber/translator whose work accuracy was in question. Following some fee negotiation, and after the interpreter’s client recovered from learning what a real expert witness charges for her services, this colleague examined the transcription, reviewed the translation, and contacted her client to ask her when they should meet to discuss her report. To her surprise, the attorney who hired her stated that a meeting was not necessary and that a simple oral report over the phone would suffice. A few days later the interpreter received the subpoena to testify during the trial, and the client informed her that there would be no expert witness-attorney meeting before the trial.
Under these circumstances, this very experienced interpreter appeared in court ready to testify as an expert. As my court interpreter colleagues know, the testimony of an expert has two parts: First, the party offering the witness has to qualify him as an expert by asking questions about his credentials, educational background, experience, and so on. Then, once the expertise on the particular field has been established, the parties question the expert about his analysis, methodology, findings, and opinion.
In this particular case, the interpreter had just began introducing her qualifications and academic formation when the small town judge interrupted and asked the attorney doing the direct examination if “…this (was) going to take too long, because I have so many other things to take care of…” The attorney then rushed through the qualifications of this expert, and moved on to the questions about the findings. Throughout the direct examination this witness had to sit on the stand, and literally sit on her hands as the attorney asked her many irrelevant questions leaving out many critical points and relevant aspects of the expert’s opinion. It became obvious that this attorney had examined very few experts during her career, and it was apparent that this was the first time she questioned an expert in linguistics.
As the interpreter waited for the “right” questions to arrive, and as it became clear that they would not, she had to swallow her frustration and hide her impotence as she saw how the case was crumbling down before her eyes despite the fact that the attorney who retained her had an expert report clearly showing that the transcriptions/translation in question were dramatically wrong.
As I heard this story, I imagined the frustration that this expert witness went through, put myself in her shoes, and realized that the simple fact of retaining an expert is useless when the attorneys do not know what to do with the expert opinion. It is obvious that attorneys need to know how to take advantage of having a very good expert as part of their team. In this case, as in many others, it was apparent that the small town judge and attorneys did not know what to do with the expert testimony, and never understood the importance and relevance of presenting the results to the jury to advance their case. Fortunately, seasoned experts have the privilege to work with capable lawyers and experienced judges most of the time; so the question is: What do newer experts or those interpreter experts working in outlined areas need to do to “educate” the local attorneys, judges, and system? I would like to hear your opinion.