Interpreting Messy Dialogues


A while back I wrote a post for providers letting them know how important their words are. We, interpreters, treat their words and everyone’s words like gold. We are vigilant about capturing and conveying the complete message, from the smallest nuance to the overarching theme. We never let anything get by us. We are the defenders and stewards of effective communication among all people who are present.

But, dang! Sometimes this is really hard to achieve!

In dialogue encounters, there is no guarantee that individuals will follow norms of social discourse, like turn-taking or logical progression of expressed thoughts. I suppose this is true for any dialogue-type encounter, such as a polite dialogue between political dignitaries. I suspect, though, that this is most especially true for dialogues that take place in the medical setting. This can make treating everyone’s words like gold a bit. . . well. . . challenging for interpreters who valiantly work in this sector.

Oh, sure. There are plenty of times when there is a predictable structure to the communication:

  • Speaker 1: Asks a question.
  • Speaker 2: Answers the question.
  • Speaker 1: Asks another question.
  • Speaker 2: Answers the other question.

There are plenty of other times when the communication is a little, well, messier. Take these situations, for example:

  • One of the speakers does not, cannot or will not pause for the interpreter to speak. (Think of highly emotional encounters, for one example.)
  • Something happens to interrupt the interpreter part way through an interpretation. (Think of a patient suddenly having a seizure and everyone immediately responding to the medical need, dropping whatever topic had been the focus up until that point.)
  • Participants do not adhere to turn-taking protocols. (Think of times when Speaker 2 starts talking before Speaker 1 has finished speaking as if the interpreter could magically produce an interpretation of the two voices using the interpreter’s one mouth at the same time.)

So what is an interpreter to do? Well, like most situations interpreters face, it depends. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Switch to simultaneous mode. Although consecutive tends to be the ideal mode of interpreting for dialogue encounters, there are times when simultaneous is the better option.
  • When the interrupting event is over or has been resolved, inform the individuals that your interpretation was interrupted, and therefore, incomplete. Prompt the speaker to restate the comments, giving the speaker an anchor if possible. (Tip: Don’t assume people will realize that you didn’t get to finish your interpretation. They won’t realize this. Trust me.)
  • Employ a modified “talking stick” technique in which the interpreter is the keeper of the talking stick - giving it, keeping it and taking it away at will. I’m kidding. This probably wouldn’t go over very well.

The point, of course, is to do everything humanly possible to maintain the integrity of the communication, adjusting and responding to the real challenges that happen in the moment. Be creative. Be transparent. Be responsive to the situations and responsible for the communication.

Interpreters, what are some of the challenges you have experienced when facilitating communication in dialogue encounters? How have you navigated those challenges?

Posted on March 31, 2016 and filed under Interpreter.