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Interpreting Skills: Interpreting Everything You Hear

One of the most common questions interpreters ask is, “What do we do when a client says something rude or derogatory?” It’s a tricky situation and quite uncomfortable but there’s a clear answer: interpret everything you hear. In this installment of our Interpreter Skills series, we’ll cover how to handle these incidents.

Interpreting Everything You Hear

Interpreting Everything You Hear

So, as an interpreter, you must interpret everything you hear. This includes:

  • Curse words or other foul language
  • Derogatory terms or phrases
  • Highly personal details that would typically be considered “embarrassing”
  • Insults
  • Violent language

It’s more than just the words though–interpreting everything you hear, as we discussed in the prep-session-installment, also includes:

  • Side conversations
  • Questions directed at you, the interpreter
  • Comments directed at you, the interpreter

It’s common that the parties for whom you’re interpreting will “forget” what you covered in the prep session. You’ve mentioned that you’ll interpret everything you hear. When they insist on side conversations and questions, you must persist in interpreting everything. This also includes times when one party is insulting the other in a way that’s “not meant to be interpreted.” Your role as the interpreter is to be a language conduit. As such, you must interpret absolutely everything as faithfully as possible.

Dealing with curse language

I’ve had many interpreters tell me that they’re uncomfortable using curse words, and especially, derogatory or racist language. This makes sense! It’s a good, human trait to feel uncomfortable using curse words and especially insulting, derogatory, and racist language. However, as an interpreter, you must do so in the context of an interpreting session. It goes back to cannon one of the code of ethics: Accuracy and Completeness. The code states: “Interpreters shall render a complete and accurate interpretation or sight translation, without altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation.“

It’s a tough situation—there’s no getting around it. It’s especially tough to say some words without apologizing. But you must do so. It’s important to remember that it’s not “you” speaking. Your personal feelings are not important in this session. You’re only a language conduit and professionalism dictates that you must interpret faithfully.

There’s a specific reason for this too: the words we use give an idea of our mental and emotional state. Interpreting accurately can, for example, help a doctor recognize if a patient isn’t “himself.” Language is an excellent way to show that they’re acting in a way that’s erratic. Mental health crises (as well as physical health crises, such as brain tumors) often show as mood swings and changes. An easy way to gauge this is through the language we use.

Leaving Personal Convictions

Interpreting everything you hear also means leaving your personal convictions at the door

As interpreting managers, we’ll tell you everything we know about the assignment. If possible, we’ll warn you if we think it’s going to be especially tough. Unfortunately, we often don’t know ourselves. We ask the clients for an overview or description when they put in the request, but it’s not a guarantee. Sometimes, the requester also doesn’t know the details. To act as a language conduit, you must leave your personal and religious beliefs outside of the session.

If there’s a situation where you feel unsafe, call your agency and we’ll do our best to send another interpreter. It’s also helpful if you let us know if you have personal limits as to what you’re comfortable interpreting. However, once you’re in the session, you must act as a language conduit and interpret absolutely everything. You must never render an opinion or judgement. Non-English speakers are often at appointments to discuss things that are personal and difficult to hear and say. At Global Arena, as head of interpreting, I’ve worked with interpreters and non-English speakers handling sessions that included:

  • Needing and debating hospice care
  • Child abuse
  • Sexual harassment and abuse
  • Emotional trauma and counseling sessions
  • Abortion
  • Being the victim of a violent crime
  • Cancer diagnoses

Interpreting can take an emotional toll. We’re not just professionals, we’re people, too. One of the biggest reasons for becoming an interpreter is to help people. We want to act as a resource, because we’re empathetic and compassionate and we see a need. But interpreting properly requires a level of professional detachment. This isn’t coldness, it’s faithful interpreting no matter the situation or content. It’s our responsibility to the patient to act as their voice–not our own.

Interpreting Tone of Voice

In order to faithfully interpret, interpreters must also modulate their tone of voice

The goal is to fit the tone of voice of the party for whom they’re interpreting. It’s another example of delicate balance. You must be emotive enough to interpret a sentence in exactly the way as its original delivery. However, you must not be so exaggerated that it comes off as mocking. Interpreting tone of voice also includes emphasis. It’s another way in which an interpreter becomes unobtrusive and conveys meaning. Naturally, emphasis on different words in a phrase makes a huge difference to the interpreted phrase itself. For example:

  • She SAID she didn’t take his money.
  • She said SHE didn’t take his money.
  • And also: She said she didn’t TAKE his money.
  • She said she didn’t take HIS money.
  • She said she didn’t take his MONEY.

While it seems like a subtle difference, inflection modifies the way a sentence must be interpreted. This accurately conveys and preserves meaning.

Global Arena’s Interpreter Training Program

Looking for a place to learn more interpreting skills and refine the ones you’ve already developed?

Global Arena’s interpreting program covers the four main types of interpreting assignments: medical, school, business, and legal. Our goal is to create a foundation for new interpreters just starting in the industry. Experienced interpreters also benefit from brushing up on their skills and industry knowledge—as well as being resources during discussions. The training takes place over zoom, on four consecutive days. It’s at the same time each day: from 8:30 am- 12:30 PM EST. Participants receive a welcome packet with reference materials, including activity pages and glossaries. You’ll also receive a certificate of completion upon passing exam score: useful for interpreting applications and resume-building. Sign up or learn more about Global Arena’s Interpreter Training Program

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