How to be an interpreter

23 Apr

Many of you will know that as well as being a writer and editor, I also interpret and translate Albanian to English. Since the war in Ukraine began, I’ve already been asked how someone can become an interpreter, and I expect there are a lot of people asking the same question. As more Ukrainians arrive, there is a greater need for Ukrainian interpreters, and there are Ukrainians with good English who would like to plug that gap.

But although non-linguists assume that to be an interpreter you just need to speak both languages, there’s actually a bit more to it than that. Obviously, speaking both languages very well is the baseline, but this post is about all the other stuff that professional interpreting involves. Please share it with anyone who might find it helpful.

[Talking about the people you’re interpreting for can be confusing, so for the sake of clarity I’m going to use ‘service user‘ for the person who doesn’t speak English (or the relevant local language) and ‘client‘ for the person or agency who does speak the local language. Usually the client will be paying for the interpreting, but there are cases where a service user may hire an interpreter directly.]

Doing the job

This section is about the practicalities of working between two languages.

Say what they said

Ideally, the client and the service user would be able to communicate directly. When they can’t, your job is to make it as close to direct communication as you can. To do that, you speak in the first person (I, me, my) and you don’t summarise or abbreviate what they say. For example, if a service user says:

“I’ve been having this terrible pain in my side and it keeps me up in the night and my sister says it could be cancer, ‘cos her friend had cancer last year, but I don’t think so, but I’m scared, you know?”

You don’t translate that as “She’s got a bad pain in her side that’s worrying her.”

Instead, you translate it as: “I’ve been having this terrible pain in my side and it keeps me up in the night and my sister says it could be cancer, ‘cos her friend had cancer last year, but I don’t think so, but I’m scared, you know?”

Match the register

Another thing that makes the communication as authentic as possible is matching the speech register. In simple terms, that’s how posh the language is. So if the client says, “When did you most recently have a bowel movement?” you don’t translate that as “When did you last poo?” And in the same way, if somebody says, “My boobs are killing me”, you don’t translate that as “I have a terrible pain in my breasts.” Yes, the meaning is the same, but as far as possible, you should also convey how they said it.

It’s not always possible to match register exactly in different languages, but you should have a go. Unfortunately, matching register also means that if they swear, you have to swear. I never knew any swearwords in Albanian until I became an interpreter. 🙄

Interrupt if you need to

With practice, your audio memory will get better. You can also use notes to help you remember the main points (destroy them afterwards, though). However, your memory has a limit, and sometimes clients and service users forget this.

If they keep talking, and you’re getting to the end of what you can safely recall, politely interrupt, saying something like, “Let me just interpret up to there,” and then, when you’ve caught up, “Please carry on.” It’s better to interrupt than to forget what you’re supposed to be translating.

You should also interrupt if you don’t understand something – it might be an unfamiliar word, a technical term, or maybe you just didn’t catch what they said. Don’t be shy! It’s better to interrupt than to get it wrong.

(By the way, in court you have to refer to yourself as ‘the interpreter’ for clarity on the written record. So it’s “I’m sorry, the interpreter didn’t catch that,” not, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” But you won’t start off by interpreting in court, so don’t worry about that for now.)

Only explain if you have special knowledge

It can be very frustrating when the client and service user can’t understand each other because one of them is being unclear – but it is not for you to try to fix that. Ask yourself, would they be having this difficulty if they were speaking the same language? If the answer is ‘yes’, just translate as accurately as possible and let them work it out themselves.

For example, the service user may say, “He said that he would go, but he didn’t want to go that day, or take that thing, but he said that they had to go that day and take the thingamajig with them, you know, the whatsit.” That’s meaningless, without clarity over who they various ‘he’s and things are, but it would be just the same if you weren’t translating, so let it slide.

On the other hand, if you know that there’s a cultural misunderstanding, you can and should clarify. For example, in Albanian, ‘three hours’ can mean three hours but it can also mean an unspecified long time – like the English word ‘ages’. In the same way, the English phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed” always implies the second part “try, try again”. A non-native has no way of knowing that, so it’s your job to make it clear.

By the way, this principle also means that, if the client or service user lies, and you know they are lying, you still translate it as is. Your job is to convey the information, not to fact-check it.

But do explain what’s going on

Sometimes it will take a while to get an answer to a question – you may have to get a name spelled out, or overcome a misunderstanding or a difference in dialect. Or maybe the client is checking with you when you are free for another meeting before telling the service user the date. When that happens, keep the other party informed – remember, they have no idea what is going on or why you are still speaking!

Quickly turn to the other person and say “I’m just rephrasing because she didn’t understand me” or “We’re just discussing what dates we are both free” before returning to the conversation. Otherwise it can quite an alienating experience for the person who doesn’t understand.

Playing the part

The next lot of things are about being a professional. Interpreting isn’t actually regulated in this country, but if you want to be treated (and paid) like a professional, you have to act like one.

Confidentiality

This is one of the most important things for interpreters. It is included in the code of conduct of every interpreting agency, but it matters just as much if you are not working through an agency. Service users have to be able to tell their lawyer/therapist/doctor anything, without fear of it getting back to their community. You have to keep it to yourself, and make it clear that you will do so. For example, if a service user asks about another service user, e.g. “What is she here for?”, “Where does he come from?”, you have to say that you cannot pass on any details about other service users. Hopefully, this will reassure them that you also won’t pass on their details.

Punctuality

As with any job, you have to turn up on time. It can be tempting to take on too many jobs, as you’re freelance and so many appointments get cancelled anyway, but if you can’t make it to your second job because you’re still at your first, you’re inconveniencing the service user, the client and sometimes an entire court. You’re also getting a bad reputation and may be given fewer jobs in the future.

Appearance

This is especially important in court, but it’s a good principle at every job. Dress like a professional. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, but aim for ‘business casual’ – no jeans, no trainers, and no slogan t-shirts or revealing clothing.

Looking after yourself

The final part is about making things easier on yourself. You can make your own judgments, but this is what my experience has taught me.

Don’t be their friend

You have to establish a professional relationship from the start, otherwise you can get into an awkward situation. When a service user has been unable to communicate with anyone, and then they meet someone who speaks their language (you), it’s very easy for them to grasp at you like a lifeline, pouring out all their woes and asking for advice that you are not qualified to give.

Some service users also think that, as you speak both languages, you should help them with every single thing they need translated, all the time. It’s understandable, and you will probably want to help, but you will make your life very difficult if you become your service users’ friend, confidant and unpaid translator.

For this reason, never give service users your private number, and hide your number if you have to call them (e.g. to notify them of appointments). Keep your demeanour friendly but cool, and where possible, don’t spent time with the client before or after the appointment. This isn’t always possible if you have to wait in the same waiting room, but where there is a separate interpreters’ room, use it. It may seem cold, but interpreting is emotionally exhausting as it is, and not particularly well-paid. Don’t take on extra, unremunerated burdens.

Be prepared!

In interpreting, there’s a lot of waiting around, and also a lot of rushing between jobs. Your life will be more pleasant if you remember to bring with you snacks, water (your mouth gets dry when you’re talking so much) and something to do. A smartphone contains endless entertainment, but you won’t always be allowed to use one, and you may not have any signal, so a book, magazine or crochet/knitting can be better options.


I hope this has been of some use. If you have specific questions, or if you’re an interpreter or client and want to add your own advice, please use the comments section below.

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