Just how hard is it to be a good interpreter? (AKA using your knowledge to inform the message without deforming it).

Post date: Mar 18, 2016 10:14:27 AM

Good interpreters have to learn fast, and stay informed. Learning all you can about a subject, and building a store of specialist terminology that you can call on, are vital parts of the job. And when you have been working with clients on site for a couple of weeks, this knowledge is supplemented by a deep familiarity with the issues under discussion, and the events and activities observed. In this kind of environment, it is tempting for interpreters to use this knowledge and familiarity to inform their interpretation of individual segments, even though the clients may not specifically refer to past events themselves.

Here's an example of how an innocent attempt to bring one's immediate past experience to bear to facilitate understanding can actually distort the interpreted message: if a source language customer says "I think we could perhaps modify your assessment of this issue", and it is clear what (s)he is referring to, the interpreter does not need to add, for the benefit of the target language receiver, "This relates to that time you saw those two workers performing that maintenance activity". If the interpreter does add that detail (which was not mentioned by the SL speaker, but which may appear to be superficially helpful), it immediately brings different information to the mind of the client in receipt of the target language message. The source language interlocutor may have been intending to convey a finely calibrated message, deliberately refraining from making reference to specific events. If the interpreter ignores this, and adds information based on his/her knowledge and recent experience, the original point may be lost, and the discussion may head in a direction that was unintended by the source language speaker, and was unintentionally determined by the interpreter. (See below for an absurdist extrapolation of where this kind of input could lead.)

In a similar but subtly different situation, it may also be tempting for interpreters to show off their technical knowledge and experience to a participant in the discussions, or to an external observer, by adding information to an interpreted segment. Many (if not all) of us have been tempted by this at one time or another, but clients are rightly very suspicious of such input; it is not part of the interpreter's role to add technical information to the discussion unless they are specifically asked to do so, or unless their role goes beyond that of an interpreter. (The humorous - and invented - segment below also contains some examples of this superfluous input).

I hope that's clear. The main point is: don't add information based on your knowledge, unless there is a very good reason for doing so (for example if you are asked to do so, or if there is a safety risk, or a risk of serious misunderstanding). By all means use your knowledge to inform your interpreting, but don't use it to change or supplement the message. Inform, don't deform. T-shirt slogan? Maybe not.

French Engineer: “Pourrait-on peut-être reformuler ce constat?”

Interpreter: “I don’t agree with what you said about the issue that relates to that time you saw those two guys lifting that positive displacement pump on the chilled water system for the administration building using four paper clips, a coat hanger and a screwdriver which, obviously, should really only be used for a specific type of round-headed cap bolt.”