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Interpreting through Uncomfortable Situations

As an interpreter, you’ll inevitably encounter times when you feel uncomfortable on the job. Some clients or non-English speakers will speak in a way you feel is inappropriate, offensive, or derogatory. You may feel personally insulted by the comments, regardless of if they’re directed at you. In the most extreme circumstances, they may be directed at you. Interpreting is an emotionally demanding job as well as a physically demanding one. When in doubt, always keep in mind that canon one of the Ethical Code is Accuracy and Completeness. It is our job as interpreters to interpret everything we hear, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. But how far does that rule go? What do we mean by, “Interpret everything you hear?”

Interpreting Through Uncomfortable Moments

Interpreting Everything you Hear

Interpreting everything you hear isn’t just the most important part of being a language conduit. It also applies to out-of-the-ordinary situations, such as:

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

And it’s more than just the words–interpreting everything you hear 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 already said that that you’ll interpret everything you hear and now you must persist in doing so. This also includes when one party is insulting the other in a way that’s clearly “not meant to be interpreted.” Your role as the interpreter is to be a language conduit and you must interpret everything as faithfully as possible.

At Global Arena, we have many interpreters tell us that they’re uncomfortable using curse words and derogatory or racist language. This is good on a personal level. 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 when one of the parties for whom you’re interpreting uses that language. As we mentioned, It goes back to canon one of the Interpreting Code of Ethics. The entire canon reads thus:

Accuracy and Completeness:

Interpreters shall render a complete and accurate interpretation. Without altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated or written, and without explanation.”

It’s a difficult part of being an interpreter. There’s no way around it. It helps to remember that It’s not “you,” speaking. Frankly, you and your personal feelings are not important in this session. You are “only” a language conduit and professionalism dictates that you must interpret faithfully, regardless of your personal feelings.

There’s another practical reason for this, too. Along with the fact that it’s our job to interpret accurately, 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 helps identify erratic or out-of-the-ordinary behavior. 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 at the Door

Interpreting everything you hear also means leaving your personal convictions at the door. If you’re working with an agency, we’ll tell you everything we know about the assignment. We’ll try to warn you if we think it’s going to be especially tough, but we often don’t know ourselves. We ask the clients for a brief description when they put in the request, but it’s not a guarantee. Sometimes, the requester also doesn’t know the details. As an interpreter, you must leave your personal and religious beliefs and convictions outside of the interpreting session.

There are, however, exceptions. If there’s a situation where you feel physically unsafe, please always call your agency. They’ll do their best to send another interpreter. It’s also extremely helpful to gauge your own limits and share them with the agency. If there’s a situation for which you’re absolutely uncomfortable interpreting, you must tell them. However, once you’re in the session, you must act as a language conduit. Your role is to interpret absolutely everything, never rendering an opinion or judgement. Non-English speakers are often at appointments specifically to discuss things that are personal and difficult to hear and say. At Global Arena, as head of interpreting, I worked with interpreters and non-English speakers. handling different sessions.

Those sessions 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, but faithful interpreting no matter the situation or content. It’s our responsibility to the patient to act as their voice–not our own. This is what separates a bilingual speaker from a trained interpreter.

Global Arena’s 16-Hour Interpreter Training

Interpreting is more than a job; it’s a consuming career that requires consistent education and self-reflection.

A great way to start is to sign up for our monthly Interpreter Training Course. The course is 16 hours (spread over four days) of group discussion, practice, and information. On the last day, you’ll take an exam to receive your training certificate with a passing score. You’ll also create a network of other interpreters to build your professional community.

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