Kovács and Kováts have a blogpost on an interpreter making a mistake in the European Parliament Plenary session. Painful of course and possibly not very professional (I say possibly, because I don’t know the reasons behind it).
Many things influence interpreting quality, technology (sound quality, other technology, the speaker and the speaker’s delivery, and of course the interpreters proficiency, language knowledge, health and so forth). Still, needless to say interpreters make mistakes. One of the more infamous mistakes were made by the Japanese-English interpreter in the negotiations between President Nixon and Primeminister Sato in the textile conflict in 1970. Sato apparently replied to Nixon’s demand by saying in Japanese “Senshu Itasimashu”, literally meaning “I will do my best”, but with the more figurative meaning “I will look into it”. What the interpreter actually said is apparently not known, but Nixon went hope believing that he had a promise from Sato and when things didn’t happen as expected, Nixon got extremely upset and it sent Japan out in the cold for years to come.
As one of the bloggers in the meeting with the Hungarian Presidency said: “Interpreting is stressful because so much can be at stake”. Your interpreting may be the reason for somebody believing that he or she is dying when in fact it’s only a routine examination. Your interpreting may be the reason for deep misunderstandings between heads of states.
On the other hand it is also stressful because people used to interpreting will use the interpreter as a good excuse for not upsetting the counter party. If the other party’s reaction showed that he or she did not appreciate your comment you will immediately rephrase and add “I’m sure the interpretation got it wrong” – very handy excuse which most interperters will faithfully translate without comment.
But what can you do as a speaker to avoid mistakes?
1) Use your mother tongue more, i.e use interpreters more: If there is a constant demand for interpreting to and from a certain language the interpreters will get very skilled and more skilled people will train to become interpreters. On top of that you are probably a better speaker in your mother tongue.
2) Provide the interpreters with plenty of documentation and briefings: Rule of thumb: the more prepared the interpreter, the better the interpretation.
3) Pay your interpreters: Just as for any service or product, you pay for quality.
4) Demand trained interperters with good credentials: Interpreting is not something language students do for fun. Most professional interpreters have degrees or have passed certification or ackreditation tests. If an interpreter cannot show such professional credentials chances are you’re not dealing with a professional interpreters.
5) Complain: If you have done all the above and you are still not satisfied – complain. If you complain you have a chance to improve the interpreters preformance or understand the reason for why it did not work as expected.
And what do the interpreters do to avoid mistakes?
1) We prepare: Interpreters spend a lot of time preparing, reading up on back ground information, keeping generally informed, making word lists and so forth.
2) We help each other: At least if we are working in a team (unfortunately not very often for court, medical or social interpreters), colleagues help each other with terminology, figures and misunderstandings.
3) We are always honest with our mistakes: If we discover that we have made a mistake it is our duty to inform our customers. In simultaneous interpretation you will hear either “sorry, it should be…” or “the interpreters corrects…”. In court or social it is easier to interrupt and explain that a mistake was made.
4) We don’t take assignments that we are not trained for: In the interpreting Code of Ethichs it is very clearly stated that we should not accept an assignment that we are not trained for either linguistically or thematically. Of course we do not have to be trained lawyers to do court interpreting, but without basic knowledge of court we should not accept court interpreting for instance. The European Union spend much effort to train their interpreters in EU-matters.
Of course interpreters still make mistakes, but the lesson to be learned is to be attentive to it, and immediately correct it.