The Importance of Messy Interpreting

It’s a sad fact that interpreting is still not seen as a particularly difficult and useful skill by many members of the public. After all, it’s just like having a walking dictionary, isn’t it? Interpreters hear words in one language and find their equivalents in another. Surely a computer could do the job.

Professionals might laugh at such opinions (in fact, we have laughed at them before) but it is worth pausing a little to figure out why people might have such a simplistic view of our work. True, it could be due to seeing communication between human beings as being similar to communication between computers. You put information in, process it a bit and then output some more information. Interpreters then become machines. Their job is just to find the “right words” in order to give an “accurate translation” of what they have heard.

The quotation marks are very necessary here. Interpret for five minutes and you know that phrases like “right words” and “accurate translation” are loaded and troublesome. There are, of course, many different ways to “accurately” interpret the same sentence depending on context, clients, speed, and a whole host of different factors. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the vocabulary and phrasing an interpreter might use when consecutively interpreting the cross-examination of a defendant in a court might be very different to the ones they would use when using interpreting the same defendant’s discussions with their barrister.

Life gets even more complicated when you take into account that interpreters in many contexts have to make a variety of ethical decisions as to what to interpret and how to interpret it. (See our interviews with Robyn Dean). Some researchers have pointed out that sometimes the most “accurate” version of what was said might not be the “right” version for a given context.

Andrew Clifford points to a case where, if the interpreter had given the most “accurate” version of what a doctor had said, a patient might not have been able to concentrate on the vital details of how they could be treated. Cases like this might not be found in any textbook but they are the daily realities of interpreting in many settings.

The problem is that, as Ebru Diriker has pointed out in her book, De-/Re-contextualizing Conference Interpreting, on the rare occasions when interpreters get into the public eye, we tend to shy away from discussing the messier aspects of our work. We talk a lot about our language skills, our speaking skills and the importance of our work. We might, very occasionally, talk about the times when we had trouble interpreting or when we needed to be a bit more creative than usual but we quickly reassert that we are still always “accurate” and “trustworthy.”

Faced with such evidence from interpreters themselves, the public have no real choice but to assume that interpreting really is as easy as they thought. If accuracy can be taken for granted then why do interpreters need to be so well paid? If it’s all just a matter of linguistic abilities, why bother with training? If there are never any real decisions to be made, why not let computers do it? In short, if interpreting is just relaying information, why on earth would it be important to have trained, skilled professionals doing it?

Perhaps, in our quest to present ourselves as trustworthy and accurate, we have made it harder to present our work as skilled and worthy of respect. What do you think?

0 thoughts on “The Importance of Messy Interpreting

  1. I don’t think people think about it at all; until they are in the situation where they have to use an interpreter or are witness to one being used. The one great shame in the UK is that most people are not bilingual and therefore have a lack of understanding of the complexities of working between two languages and two cultures. In addition, a lack of deaf awareness amongst both monolinguals and bilingual people means a lack of awareness of the issues relating to language acquisition, education, lack of incidental language etc.

    I genuinely think, in the main, the people who do think about sign language or interpreting consider it to be a system of sign-for-word gestures and therefore not a complex process. In an increasing number of situations we are using SSE or SEE so to the untrained observer, it’s English with signs that all deaf people must use.

    One of the other difficulties is that the people calling themselves interpreters, CSWs, signers, communicators and a whole range of other names have such a hugely varied skill set and background, experience and so on, without regulation, assessment and benchmarks. I think the latter point can create mistrust and a lack of confidence – in one’s own ability, the ability of others and our clients. This can leave us open and vulnerable and feeling like we must justify what we do, why we do it the way we do and of course, our ability to express those points also greatly varies.

  2. Some of the greatest “a-ha!” moments I have had with clients have occured when I worked more consecutively, and asked for clarification. Anytime I need to clarify, I try to get in and get out. I’ll ask for what I’m looking for, trying to make I easier on the client. They don’t seem to like repeating a lengthy piece haha! But also by doing this they have the chance to realize that interpreting is more than word matching. I love to see those “Oh!” faces when they get it. And I don’t have to do a messy interpretation to get there. I have no idea how this could be converted to simultaneous conference interpreting though.

    At least we can start talking more about the interpreting process/task. I think doing so will take us, as a profession, further than talking about solely about languages and language learning. Really enjoyed the article!

  3. Thanks for your comments everyone, keep them coming! Oh and Jill, congratulations on giving us our 100th comment!

    Back to the subject, Max mentioned that when interpreters are successful, we are invisible. Do we think that is always the case? There have been discussions about translators making themselves more “visible” but some of the strategies suggested have not received positive responses from the profession. What do you think increasing the visibility of good interpreting might mean for us?

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  5. My perspective is a little bit different because I am in-house. I work directly between a Japanese VP and an American President of a Japanese company in the US. The more fluid and invisible I am, the more they realize my value. When they try to have a discussion in broken English and bits of Japanese, both of them will get frustrated. But if I, sitting in between them, make their conversations smooth (without making myself “visible”), they sense the value of my work because they realize that without me they would be getting no where. But I am in the room with them.

    I think it is much harder for conference interpreters up in a booth. Listeners do think that the process is somewhat automatic. And just like Jill mentioned about the UK, here in the US people don’t understand how other languages work. They don’t know that the complexity of changing one language into another. One of the things that did help build visibility recently was the Super-storm Sandy disaster. New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had a sign language interpreter on TV with him. She got a lot of press coverage because she was very animated in her interpretation. I think she kind of spoke well for all of us.

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  7. An interesting post that deserves elaboration.

    The public view of language skills (including interpreting) as “easy” to replicate is not the result of bad PR.

    Rather it is a complex series of experiential impressions based on the perception that language acquisition is a normal human skill set. Afterall even babies speak.

    Moreover not every situation requires professional interpreters let alone accurate ones.

    The best bulwark against what I would call “machine interpreting” is to focus the profession on a multi-pronged campaign of public education, accreditation of Language Service Companies and individual interpreters.

    But enough for one comment. I think a blogpost on will allow a more complete response.

    In any case: interesting article!


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