If you’re a patient or physician, attorney or client, it’s quite probable that at one time or another you’ll use the services of a foreign-language interpreter. Some ideas and suggestions to keep in mind:
- An interpreter converts spoken dialogue from one language to another, a translator with written text. Two separate professions, two distinct sets of skills (though there are professionals who perform both, at a high level).
- Whenever possible, use the services of a professional interpreter certified by one of the following: Legal: The Supreme Court of your state (Certified is the highest level, while Registered means the person has not passed all of the required examinations), the Federal Courts, or NAJIT. Medical: IMIA, CCHI, or NBCMI. (The ATA certifies translators.) These certifications represent an important level of reliability and professionalism. And they can be verified; falsely claiming certification is fraud—an illegal act.
- It’s very common for bilingual children or friends to be used as interpreters. In legal and medical matters particularly, this is not advisable. There’s too much at stake to leave things in amateur hands. And there are issues that minor children should not be hearing and interpreting.
- Though it doesn’t feel natural, make every effort to look into the eyes of the person you’re talking to, of addressing them directly as “you”—almost as if the interpreter weren’t there. The interpreter is part of the interaction, facilitating your conversation, but is not part of the conversation, so you shouldn’t look at the interpreter and say, “Tell the doctor that…” The interpreter must use the first person, “I” (Spanish yo) except when speaking for him or herself, and then it’s the third person: “The interpreter wishes to clarify…”
- There are two main modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive, an individual speaks, then pauses while the interpreter interprets what was just said. If you’re using consecutive interpreting, it’s important that you keep your sentences short, so that the interpreter can be as accurate and complete as possible. If you’re stating numbers, addresses, or dates, say them slowly. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter conveys what’s being said in “real time”; a skilled professional interpreter can keep up with the pace of the person, or persons, for whom he or she is interpreting, usually with just 1 or 2 seconds’ delay.
- Interpreting is one of the most complex activities the human brain can perform. The pressure on the interpreter is great, especially in the legal and medical fields, and is mentally and physically exhausting. Respect the interpreter’s need for breaks (or the interpreters’ need, if the interaction is lengthy and there is more than one interpreter assigned to it), not just out of concern for that person’s health, but also in order to assure the highest possible level of work.
- If you’re unsure a word was interpreted (translated) correctly, just politely ask to go back to it.
- If the interpreter pauses to ask a question or get clarification of a particular point, don’t be alarmed: almost always, that is a sign of professionalism.
- If the interpreter’s utterances are significantly shorter, or longer, than those of the persons being interpreted, there could be a problem. The interpreter is not supposed to give a summary of what was said, nor embellish or add to it. It’s not a matter of the word count or timing being exactly the same, but the length and degree of detail between the original language and the interpreter’s version should be roughly comparable.
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT, has more than 25 years of professional experience as interpreter and translator. As an interpreter, he is Certified by the Supreme Court of Tennessee and has passed the Federal Courts’ Written Examination. He performs varied interpreting work, with a legal/judicial specialization as well as work in medical and other fields. As a conference interpreter, he has worked with distinguished world personalities including Rigoberta Menchu Tum (Nobel Peace Prize laureate), theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz, journalist David Bacon, the late writer Julio Cortázar, and others.