3 Tips on Dealing with Competitive Interpreting

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Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of competitive interpreting. You might have even found yourself in a competitive interpreting situation at some point already. If you haven’t, you probably will at some point in your career.

Competitive interpreting is a situation in which a bilingual individual speaks louder or faster than the professional interpreter in an effort to supplant or suppress the professional interpreter.

The bilingual individual might be a member of the medical team, but is more often than not a companion of the patient. In previous posts we’ve addressed the dynamics of interpreting when family members are present and of interpreting when you’re not wanted. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say you’ve taken the steps in the previous posts on this topic. In spite of your best efforts to approach the situation with a warm, professional demeanor and to conduct a clear and considerate pre-session, the bilingual individual still insists on interpreting. Now what?

Tip 1: Don’t panic.

It’s tempting to panic or become overwhelmed by nerves because you know the bilingual individual is going to be watching, evaluating and judging your every utterance. But remember, panic tends to be paralyzing and diminishes your ability to concentrate and interpret well. Instead of panicking, remind yourself that you’ve been observed and evaluated many times in the past – during your training to become an interpreter, by other colleagues in the field, etc. You’ve got this.

Tip 2: Don’t give up or give in.

It’s tempting to sit back and let the family member do the interpreting while you stand guard in the wings just in case the family member messes up. Don’t do this. Your entire purpose for being there is to interpret, so interpret from the get-go. Demonstrate your exemplary professional skills. Give people a chance to evaluate your abilities, and let them discover how having an interpreter take responsibility for the communication gives everyone else a chance to focus on their primary role. 

Besides, unless you happen to be an interpreter trainer who has developed the skills to evaluate someone’s performance in a live interpreting setting, it will be very difficult to monitor the bilingual person’s interpretation and identify critical errors and intervene when necessary and avoid disrupting the natural dynamics of the medical encounter and maintain a positive rapport with all parties involved.

Tip 3: Don’t engage.

Let’s say you’ve done everything possible to start out well, you haven’t panicked, you haven’t given up, and the bilingual individual still insists on cutting you off while you’re interpreting or jumping in to interpret simultaneously while you’re working to maintain a consecutive interpretation. If this is the case, don’t respond by speaking louder or faster or even at-pace with the bilingual individual. This will just add more noise and tension to the environment. Inform the medical provider of what is going on (Don’t assume it is obvious.), and let the medical provider choose the course of action. The provider might instruct the bilingual individual to allow the interpreter to interpret, or the provider might instruct you to give a “back interpretation” of what the family member says to the patient. In the latter, the provider is the one who will evaluate if the family member has skewed the provider’s message in any way. In either scenario, you avoid coming across as territorial or self-interested. After all, it’s about communication, not competition.

What are your tips for interpreters facing this type of situation?

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