When Role Boundaries Cramp Your Style


Let’s face it. Interpreters of any area or specialty are pretty awesome: diligent, discrete, professional, generous. compassionate, concerned for the human race, super-smart, and of course, humble.

The trouble is, some of these same qualities that make interpreters so great can also get in the way of interpreters feeling fulfilled. Why? Role boundaries.  As interpreters hone in on crafting and delivering the messages of the speakers, the interpreters also work very hard to set aside personal biases and beliefs. This includes refraining from becoming personally involved, or in other words, taking over the direction of the encounter.

I dare say that in many cases this isn’t a problem, especially if the area of practice or specialization aligns well with the interpreter’s personal values and beliefs. Medical interpreters probably have a strong belief in the value of achieving the best possible health outcomes. This generally aligns well with the overall goals of everyone in the medical encounter. Court interpreters probably have a strong belief in the value of achieving justice, which generally aligns well with the purpose of the court system or legal proceeding. 

Nevertheless, there are times when interpreters can feel suppressed in their professional role. The desire to intervene is sidelined by the knowledge that an intervention is not justifiable within the scope of the interpreter’s professional practice.  Bite your tongue, Interpreter. Push your own thoughts aside, Interpreter. Stick to the message, Interpreter. It can be frustrating.

It makes me so mad that this person doesn’t have a decent place to live.

It makes me so mad that this person feels stuck in an abusive relationship.

It makes me so mad that this person is living in fear about her mom’s immigration status.

It makes me so mad that this person doesn’t have healthy food to eat.

It makes me so mad that this person has no family support.

Carrying these feelings can get exhausting and leave an interpreter feeling unfulfilled. Instead of quitting the interpreting profession to get relief from these feelings, consider finding alternative ways to make a difference and contribute to areas that bring you a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Here are some ideas:

  • Write letters to your local representatives expressing your views on topics of political and social concern.
  • Volunteer for organizations that work to combat specific social problems.
  • Donate blood or plasma.
  • Be a mentor or companion to a youth or a vulnerable adult.
  • Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.
  • Participate in fund-raising efforts that benefit community organizations.

Do something on your own. Do something with your family. Do something with your interpreter colleagues. There are lots of opportunities. As interpreters, you can do this. Just make sure you’re doing it moments outside an interpreted encounter. And remember, no one person can do everything, but everyone can do something. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Find an area, and contribute in ways you can.

So, when you feel yourself thinking, “I’m really frustrated because in my role as the interpreter, I can’t do anything about [fill in the blank],” take a pause. Then, find other ways that you can make a difference in whatever area it is that stirs you to the core. Just please don’t abandon the profession. Seriously, we need a lot more dedicated professional interpreters than we already have. Can’t afford to lose you!

Interpreters, what are some of the ways that you have found to counterbalance the times you’ve felt confined by your role as interpreter?

Posted on March 28, 2017 and filed under Interpreter, Manager.