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?