The Interpreter Simile Shortfall


It is good to see a growing number of news articles that highlight the work of interpreters. For most of the general public, it is probably an eye-opening realization to discover that there is a need for interpreters right in their very own community.  Although interpreters are frequently referred to as translators in these articles, there is a different concern, well, we’ll say observation, that I’ve made. 

I’m referring to attempts on the part of the interpreter to explain what it is we do. It is easy to say what an interpreter does. It is another thing altogether to do what an interpreter does. 

Unless you’ve actually ever interpreted, it’s really hard to appreciate how challenging and complex it is to interpret. 

An interpreter colleague once shared this anecdote with me:

He was interpreting simultaneously in a group therapy setting.  After the encounter, one of the other group members approached him and said that he (the group member) had been trying to repeat everything that everyone else was saying, just to get a feel for what the interpreter was doing. He (again, the group member) said he had a really hard time trying to keep up, didn’t do a very good job, and that was without trying to switch all the messages over to another language! It was eye opening. 

Most people don’t even try to put themselves in the interpreter’s shoes. Usually, it’s up to the interpreter to explain what the interpreter does.  Sometimes this results in interpreters using similes such as “like a machine” or “like a tool” or “like a telephone.”

Likening the interpreter to a "telephone" is an attempt to illustrate the interpreter’s impartiality and faithfulness to the message. Telephones, after all, don’t add their own two cents or change the speakers’ messages in any way. 

Likening an interpreter to a “machine” is perhaps an attempt to illustrate the cool, collected, non-biased, non-judgmental demeanor the interpreter demonstrates so as to avoid disrupting the communication. Machines don't snort in derision, gasp in shock or heave with laughter. 

Likening the interpreter to a “tool” is probably an attempt to illustrate that the interpreter is useful, helpful and valuable to the people relying on them. Ever tried building a house without any tools? I can’t even imagine it. Just like I can’t even imagine trying to get through a medical appointment without understanding a word that is being said, but oddly enough, people still try to do just that. Alas, I’m getting off track. 

Interpreters, however, are also not at all like telephones, tools, and machines. 

Interpreters are not easy-to-replace gadgets sitting on the shelves at the local hardware store. There is no interpreter factory that mass-produces or custom-designs interpreters. Interpreters are engaged and invested in the work they do. They are concerned with the outcomes and the reputations of the people involved.  

Can’t say that about a tool.  

Furthermore, the work that interpreters do is far more complex than can be captured in a one-word analogy. Not only do interpreters navigate the words with which they have been entrusted, they must also navigate the environment in which they are working. In healthcare settings, this environment includes a full spectrum of medical incidents. Take a moment to think about a hospital. . . and all of its departments. . . and all of its ancillary departments. . . and everything that can happen in each of those areas. Interpreters have the potential to be responsible for navigating these very diverse situations with poise, proficiency and professionalism.  
Now think about all the people that are involved in all of those situations. . . and all of their unique concerns, priorities, and personalities. Likewise, the interpreter must engage with each person with respect, consideration, and care.  The interpreter must be able to think critically, act ethically, and perform proficiently at every beat. This means sorting through ethical conundrums with confidence and speed to ensure the best possible outcome, insofar as the interpreter has influence, for all parties involved. This means keeping emotional reactions in check, even when every ounce of our humanity is hurting, cringing, raging, or rejoicing. This means giving precedence to others’ needs over our own. 

Can’t say that about a tool, either.  

I can only speak to the experience of medical interpreters, but I suspect interpreters in other fields of practice have similar experiences. 

I do appreciate the simplicity of one-word analogies, and I understand that most people want a 15-second explanation, not an in-depth analysis. I wonder, though, if we might try to find a different way to share what we do to get the point across quickly without oversimplifying the work of interpreters. 

Perhaps we could buffer our similes with built-in caveats:

Well, in some ways interpreters are kind of like a [insert your simile of choice], but the skills required of an interpreter are really quite complex. 

I facilitate communication between English-speaking medical teams and their Spanish-speaking patients and family, which is easy to say, but isn’t always that easy to do, as you can probably imagine. 

Depending on the circumstances, it might also be helpful to point people to the ATA's publication on interpreting (and translating, too):

It is good that people are curious about interpreters and interpreting.  Let’s help non-interpreters get to as clear of an understanding as possible of what it’s like and what it takes to be an interpreter.  With any luck, doing so will continue to highlight the unique skills that interpreters have and the important service that they provide in their communities. It just might even inspire even more people to pursue this challenging and fulfilling career. 

Who knows, it might even save someone a trip to the hardware store.

Posted on February 23, 2016 and filed under Interpreter, Manager, Medical Team, Newbie, Trainer.