Interpreters Are Not Editors


If you’ve watched the news recently, you’ve probably been concerned about the United States’ foreign affairs. Is Kim Jong-un testing another nuclear missile? How is the U.S. responding? My biggest concern, though, is this: How are interpreters handling the situation? Is everything being communicated accurately?


Among the interpreting community, President Donald Trump has earned the reputation of being someone who is particularly difficult to interpret for. Whether you are a fan or not of his more colloquial style of speaking, you cannot argue with the interpreters who say that it’s challenging to convert that message into a highly structured target language. Alina Cincan, a Romanian interpreter and translator, told Newsweek that if you interpret Trump exactly as he talks, “some may judge your interpreting abilities as poor.” On the flip side, if interpreters were to interpret what Trump said into grammatically correct style in the target language, “you’ll make him sound better.”


If you’re a healthcare interpreter, you’ve probably struggled with this same issue. Let’s say a physical therapist asks a patient the following: “What number is your pain at on a scale of 1-10?” The response should be a number, right? Well, sometimes it is. But many times, you’ll get something like this: “Well, when I had my accident it didn’t hurt right away, but now it hurts really bad, and at night I can’t stand the pain, it wakes me up and when I’m walking I limp and my boss is going to fire me unless I’m back to 100% soon…”

Can I get a show of hands of all the interpreters who wished they could get a big red pen out and edit a message before having to interpret it? And it’s not just patients. Sometimes providers tend to talk in circles, too, or seemingly relish in using high register medical terminology. In these cases, interpreters need to remember the NCIHC National Standards of Practice for Interpreters In Health Care, which say: “The interpreter renders all messages accurately and completely, without adding, omitting, or substituting. For example, an interpreter repeats all that is said, even if it seems redundant, irrelevant, or rude.”


In other words, it is ultimately not the interpreter’s responsibility to fix the patient’s or provider’s speaking style. In the case of providers using the high register medical terminology, though, there is an exception—an interpreter may ask for the providers to re-expressthemselves in more easily understood language if patients are showing obvious signs of confusion.


The key, though, is that interpreters must remember to maintain role boundaries and set the editor’s red pen (however reluctantly) aside. It means an interpreter needs to convey not just an accurate message, but an accurate speaking style, too. An interpreter is not an editor.