Day 17 My best interpreting memory

This is one of the hardest questions to answer. What is my best interpreting memory? And by that I don’t mean that I need to have a good memory in order to interpret. But was there one really special occasion when I interpreted? Something that I will always remember.

The problem is that there are so many fantastic times. First of all purely physically, the adrenaline rush, the flow, the feeling of complete control. But then all the fantastic people that you get to interpret for, and the great colleagues you work with. Sorry if I sound a bit pathetic, and I know not all days are like that, but those are the moments you live for.

When I started working for the European Institutions, I spent quite a lot of time in Luxemburg. It’s sort of their plant school. Interpreting for the meetings in Luxemburg is usually very technical and can be extremely difficult, but I remember how much fun I had with my colleagues there, and what a team we were.

Some speakers I have interpreted for have been magic. Maybe not because they were very famous, or very important, but because they were such wonderful speakers. You get dragged into their way of speaking, and if it clicks with your way of interpreting, nothing is more rewarding.

Then there are also the situations where you feel that you really made a difference for somebody. The fact that you were there at the doctor’s appointment, or in court that day actually made a difference for the person you interpreted for. I don’t mean to say that interpreters don’t usually make a difference, but I’m sure you understand too that there are days where you are more important than other days.

So I’m not sure I can pick out my best memory. Or, yes, of course I can – it’s the day when I passed my final exams at interpreting school. Otherwise, I would not be here.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.


Day 16 Don’t you ever make mistakes?

Do you remember the list of 30 days? I’m only through half of it, and it’s well over a month, but since I designed it to cover topics that I wanted to share with my readers – here we go. I will continue down the list as soon as I have an opportunity to do so.
And to answer the question in the headline: Of course I do! It has almost become my mantra “interpreters make mistakes”, and I also treat it in a blog post here.
The question is not whether you make mistakes or not, it’s about how you deal with mistakes. Take a court or medical interpreter for instance – if you are unsure, or spot a mistake you may have made it is your duty to report it to the parties immediately. It is your absolute responsibility that you get everything right. Your domain knowledge as a court or medical is extremely important since you have less opportunity to prepare (i.e. you can get called in with just an hour or less of warning).
I don’t mean to say that your responsibility is less when you work in a booth, or at a conference. But usually you have more time to prepare AND you have colleagues that are usually willing to help you. This means that mistakes usually are spotted and corrected fairly quickly. If terminology went wrong, the correct term will probably follow in the next sentence (a colleague wrote a note), or if a line of reasoning was misunderstood it will most surely be sorted out. How does the interpreter indicate whether it’s the speaker or the interpreter who corrects him or herself in simultaneous? Well, if it’s the speaker you’ll hear “the speaker corrects him/herself” and if it’s the interpreter “the interpreter means X or Y”.
The situation I personally like the least is in court where my language knowledge has been challenged several times just as a trick (often) from the “other” party’s lawyer, in order to discredit the counter party through the interpreter. I have had to correct myself in court too, but luckily it has not happened on the same occasions where I have been challenged. I cannot imagine the courage you would have to show in order to first defend your word choice and then stop the proceedings in order to correct yourself.
I have written earlier about my embarrassing mistake when interpreting the word piracy, in this case it was easily corrected by saying “the interpreter excuses herself in this case it should be XXX.” It is also fair to say that even if I hadn’t spotted and corrected the mistake it would hardly had been the end of the world. But I cannot stress enough how these incidents can really be dangerous. It can be absolutely crucial for an individual, but also for states as I wrote about in this post.
So, as said above, the question is not whether you make mistakes or not. The question is how you deal with it. The worst thing you can do is to not be attentive, or not care about your mistakes. A good interpreter knows about damage control. A careless, or maybe inexperienced interpreter, does not care about correcting mistakes or worse, does not admit to or realise a mistake was made.

This post is part of a list, 30 days of interpreting. You can view the whole list here.

Bad interpreters or bad system?

The Swedish Tolkprojektet (interpreting project) has been working since 2008 to shed light on the situation of community interpreting in Sweden. They presented their conclusions and rounded off their project at a conference i Stockholm at the end of August. Their conclusions got quite a lot of press in Sweden, especially since they said that too many unqualified interpreters are used in court trials and hospitals. The news even made it into the Facebook and Twitter discussions. You can read articles in Swedish here, here and here. Read the conclusions here (in Swedish)

This is no news, for quite some time qualified and certified interpreters in Sweden have been struggling to get different Swedish authorities to understand that they need to raise their demands on interpreters’ qualifications. The Swedish system for recruiting community interpreters got a severe blow in the early nineties when interpreting was sold out from the municipality agencies in order to be exposed to competition. Instead of municipal interpreting agencies users of interpretation now had to deal with private agencies with a strong desire for gain. The interpreters were still the same people but now procured through different private agencies. Since agencies desired to raise their own income (private companies usually do, nothing wrong in that) and users of interpretation (hospitals, police, courts etc) were unhappy to pay more for the service, agencies started recruiting less qualified interpreters in order to lower the cost of interpreting fees.

The final blow came with the EU directive on public procurement. Interpretation services were administrated by purchasing staff also responsible for procuring paper, chairs, pens and so forth. Needless to say a ruthless race to the bottom began. Quality was nothing, low fees everything. Of course, agencies committed to always send a certified interpreter if available, but since it was more expensive for the agency to send a certified interpreter, it rarely happened. Actually interpreters reported that as they got their certification assignments went down. Another horrible tale about the agencies I heard during this period was that interpreters who were favored by the interpreting agency also were given assignments to top up their month (i.e. being able to almost survive on interpreting), the top up assignments were not necessarily in the interpreter’s working lanugages, it only had to be languages that he most likely mastered.

At that time (after the EU directive) I met with several procurement officers in my role as regional representative for AIIC trying to convince them to stress (and pay for) quality in their procurement, and they all had the same message: If the quality of the service delivered was poor, then the users would complain, the procurer had then broken his contract and would have to adapt, and worst case for the next round of call for tenders the situation would be solved.

Now, the problem with that argument is that:
1) users of interpretation rarely complain, because a) they are immigrants with little power and lack of knowledge on how to complain or b) they are stressed professionals (MDs, lawyers, social officers etc) how just deal with the situation as well as they can.
2) the conclusion that most Swedish users of interpretation draw when interpreting breaks down is often “interpreting doesn’t work” rather than “the interpreter was bad”. This is due to little experience with and exposure to interpretation.

People tend to just live with it and do the best they can. A few years ago some journalists and media started to discover the alarming situation and there were some articles, but the debate never really took off. Mostly, I believe because, again, the big group of individual users of community interpretation is a weak group with no strong public voice.

Now, it should be said that a lot of work has since then been done in Sweden to improve community interpreters’ competence and to certify as many interpreters as possible. There is also ongoing discussions about the agencies and their role in interpreting quality. Buyers of interpreting services have also increased their demand on the service delivered. But we are far from a well working, stable and situation, and for at least 10 of the past 20 years regression rather than development has been the term to describe the interpreting industry in Sweden.

And thanks to Tolkprojektet the spot light is now put on the absolute strict demand that we need to put on both courts, hospitals, police (society in short) and interpreting agencies as well as interpreters to make sure we provide good, secure interpretation for people in need of it. And of course also making sure that professional interpreters have a descent chance to survive on what they do for a living.

Read this post about outsourcing in the UK. And The liaison interpreter’s post about being “bad”.

Interpret everything – or not…

Mary from AIB Interpreters guest blogged at The Interpreter Diaries about Franz Pöchhackers presentation at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. A line in her post inspired me to write about what it is to interpret everything.

a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.

In most guidelines or professional codes for interpreters, there is a paragraph or article on interpreting “everything”. In the Swedish one‘s it says: Under tolkningen skall en auktoriserad tolk återge all information så exakt som möjligt (a certified interpreter shall, when interpreting, render all information as exactly as possible), and in the Norwegian one: Tolken skal tolke innholdet i alt som sies, intet fortie, intet tillegge, intet endre. (the interpreter shall interpret the content of everything that is said, conceal nothing, add nothing, change nothing).

In her Sense Theory, Dancia Seleskovitch says roughly that the interpreter grasps the sense beyond words in one lanugage and clads that sense in the words or the other lanugage. Thereby she elegantly tackles both the problem of word-for-word translation and also what exactly “everything” is. But “everything” is so much more than just the meaning or the sense of the utterance. If you take “everything” beyond utterances that are directed to the interlocutors, for instance.

There is of course no answer to the question “what is everything?” and “should you interpret everything?”. But there are a few interesting reflections one can make. Firstly – when conference interpreting, do you interpret everything you hear through the microphone even if the comments were not made to the audience. Everyone who understands the language in question will also understand that private comment, is it therefore my duty to interpret that in order to put all the listeners on equal footing? Or should I understand it as private an not interpret it?

In a social setting, let’s say a medical appointment, the doctor’s telephone rings or a nurse enters the room. Should you interpret what you can hear of the telephone conversation or the exchange between the nurse and the doctor? A person with the same language as the doctor would have understood it. It’s not polite to eavesdrop of course, but fairly impossible not to hear if you’re sitting right next to a person engaged in another conversation.

Another thing about “everything” is innuendos or what you read between the lines. Sometimes interpreters and translators “explicitate” to explain something to their readers or listeners that isn’t immediately understandable from the interpretation or the translated text, but which was understandable for native speakers of the source language. But how much should you explicitate? Are you sure you read correctly between the lines? Would the speaker prefer it not to be spelled out directly?

Do you interpret “everything” and how much do you explicitate?

More about Sense Theory (Interpretive Theory) from Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Translation Studies here.
And more about Explicitation also from Routledge here.

Isn’t the script changing?

The Liaison Interpreter in Japan has a blogpost on “Isn’t it time to change the Script?”. His idea is that instead of being offended by people who don’t see our job as a real job, interpreters should change their script themselves. By not accepting the “non-job” implication we change the script and ultimately (I suppose) others perception of our job. Lionel ends by saying:

Let’s shift back to the script issue. I suggest to change the script, to stop the offended therefore defensive, sly (= trying to heal the wound suffered) innuendo at those (bastards) who know NOTHING! about my JOB! Let’s try and do this, starting with the following proposition.

“My job is allowing two people who don’t speak the same language to communicate. I am a communication enabler.”

Create your own short sentence.

Now can (we) you deliver a speech, impromptu, around this not-defensive affirmation, explanatory speech of five minutes to a crowd, just explaining what your job is about, while totally avoiding the script that “contrary to what (some f…..g!) people think, not everybody can do it at the snap of the fingers”?

Probably, the best scenario would be to imagine that you have 5 minutes to explain to a class of 10 years old or less what you do for a living (and keep smiling). That would be the first step to change the script.

Not a bad suggestion. In my comment to his post I said that I believe we are already changing the script. The text that inspired his post is my translation of a Swedish colleague’s blogpost. This colleague is an active blogger, interpreters’ union worker and also the creator of a register for community interpreters in Sweden. (There is of course the official register of certified interpreters, but her idea with this register is that there is no official register of active interpreters who are not certified, and since for some languages there is no certification or the certification exam is given only on rare occasions, such a register is needed). I have another interprepreting colleague who has started an organisation for certified court interpreters in Sweden. Their aim is to make the courts use certified court interpreters as a first choice, somethting that courts don’t necessarily do since the certified interpreters are more expensive.

So based on the fact that there are interpreters out there who are blogging, organising themselves and militating for more visibility, I believe that the script is slowly changing. I also said in the comment that I thought he was a bit negative when he said that as interpreters we don’t belong to organisations and we will never meet.

Lionel did not (perhaps not surprisingly) really agree with me in his answer to my comment. And when I wanted to reply again, blogger’s comment function went down. Hence my blogpost reply. Since Lionel wanted pointers to people who militated I have provided links to the colleagues I mention above. I’m sorry that I found the tone in the article negative, I agree that a bit of sceptisism is necessary and maybe I mistook sceptisism for negativism. But positivism is not only a drug prescribed by marketing bureaus, it is a forceful power too.

It’s true that we are not running webminars yet, but Lionel I have sent you a message on Skype and why not a podcast of our discussions in this matter? This may be our first step towards a webminar. But first I have to finish proof reading this volume.

Interpreters make mistakes

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.

Interpreting – a real job?

Today I have a guest blogger, Victoria or Tolken. Victoria works as a community interpreter and this is actually my tranlation of her fabulous blogpost in Swedish on how she is percieved as an interpreter. She has kindly let me translate it at publish it here, any strange English expressions are 100 % mine. If you want to read the original it’s here.

I have not worked as an interpreter that long, but despite this I have several times been asked by the interpreter user (clerk or other official) “And what do you do for a living?”

Well, what do I do for I living? What do you mean for a living? I work as an interpreter!?

Now, I have my research paper to write (it is currently not going very well), I have the Law course I take for interpreters and translators, and I also take a unit in Lusophone African culture and reality. So I guess I have other things to do. But what bothers me tremendously is that people believe that in addition to interpretation, I have to have another job, as if interpreting did not qualify as a full-time profession? When I say that I am also studying, people ask what I will become? Teacher, perhaps?
I wonder how some people think, is interpreting not a real profession?

– No, I clarify, I am a trained interpreter, and it is my job.
– But where did you learn Portuguese, then?
– Well, my father is from Portugal so …
– Oh, so you were born with it.
– Well, there are quite a few terms that you have to study in order to become an interpreter.
– Oh, is it? But language is so much fun. Very much so. Indeed. So nice to be able to speak several languages. What did you say you do for a living?

So being an interpreter is not a real job? It’s a make-belive job that anyone can have. Well, if you know more than one language, that is. And if you were “born” with two languages it’s even better, then you know everything, don’t you? Personally, I remember how my dad always used to talked about things like “enter into foce”, “temporary asylum accommodation”, “tarsus”, “fenced pasture”, “percutaneous coronary intervention”, “the Administrative Procedure Act” and similar words, when I was a little girl. The languages ​​just came flying at me, of course it was completely effortless. Is that what people think?

And then it is sooo much fun with language, but it is of course nothing you can have as a job. As a real job, that is. Well at least not spoken languages.

Yes, the spoken language, the language form we use the most, perhaps the most underrated form of language. It is still a bit surprising that people think like this. That an interpreted conversation would not require preparation and knowledge for the interpreter. It takes a lot more to interpret than you can imagine, and not even all interpreters have mastered it or even understand what it takes. Of course, it requires preparation to interpret a conversation. Especially in the form of realia knowledge, if you do not know the topic it is almost impossible to deliver a good interpretation.

You have to understand what you interpret otherwise the risk is very high that you do misinterpretations. Add to that the whole issue of terminology. Very few, if any, functions as some sort of living dictionaries. We are humans, we forget. It is your responsibility to bring accurate dictionaries and definitions of terms and concepts. This is a task you are constantly engaged in. You should also know most of these words by heart and that requires a lot of training and a good memory.

In addition to the linguistic part, the interpreter should also know how to behave in social contexts, in interaction with other people. You becomee a kind of actor of reality. Simply put, the interpreter must master certain skills in order to be successful. To be a professional interpreter is not a make-believe profession.

It is strange that there are people in Sweden today who do not think that interpreting is a real professional. However, it seems to be quite allright to be a coach of all different kinds. Life coach, fitness coach, mental coach, job coach, school coach, nutrition coach and whatever more definitions there are available. But interpreting is not considered a real profession.
I guess I have to get a real job soon. Maybe language coach?

Interpreting in Japan in the aftermath of natural (a human created) catastrophe

Unprofessional translation recommends the Liaison interpreter in Japan, right now he is blogging about his experiences from interpreting after earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. After coming back from Sendai he has two very good posts on interpreting in a crisis zone. How do you go about interpreting when you cannot rely on any of your learned modes or strategies? Read about fingers as note taking tools in consecutive here, and read about how to visualize interpreters just as doctors, firemen and other rescue workers here. I know that AIIC has a committee on interpreters in conflict zones, supporting them, awareness raising and so forth. This is definitely something for them.

When is it right to refuse to interpret?

Translating and Interpreting has a recent post on what assignment you would decline on a moral or ethical basis. Would you for instance translate a user manual adapted to children for a rifle knowing that the target audience were children soldiers?

The translation guy’s blog started the discussion (based on input from a company presentation he had listened to) but discussed whether you would translate porn or any defense or military work.

For me as an interpreting teacher this is always an issue that comes up. Can we at some point say: no – this is my limit, I will turn off the microphone. Last autumn I taught a course on consecutive interpreting to already seasoned community interpreters, several of them mentioned the difficulty of translating very crude language or swear-words if you are deeply religious. They said they had several colleagues who would refuse to translate such things. I argued then and I have also argued earlier that insults and swearing is not an excuse to not interpret. People have the right to be angry and they have to their own language use. Although, culturally you may have to adapt the insults of course(e.g. Scandinavians use less insults with sexual connotations than southern Europeans).

Then there is of course the situation where your speaker may have a completely different conviction than yours. It may be political, religious or moral. You may not agree with your speakers very right or left wing political views, you may not share the same faith or you may not agree with the sexual abuser who is totally convinced that his behaviour is perfectly normal and that the abused woman is only a drama queen. It does not matter, they all have the right to a voice. I have a very personal relationship to my speakers, even if I don’t agree with their views I still put my heart into their story and interpret it the most faithfully I can. I have turned of the microphone to let out some steam though, but I’m convinced my different opinion did not show in my interpreting.

But what to do when it comes to situations where you find it absolutely impossible to interpret, where you believe that it’s morally, ethically or personally wrong?

First of all, on a very practical level I think that interpreting agencies have an obligation to send the right interpreter to the right place. You don’t send an eight-month-pregnant interpreter to interpret a case of sexual abuse of very young children, for instance. This happened to me once and I can tell you that it was not only awkward for me. I fulfilled my obligation to interpret of course but it was clearly a very bad matching of interpreter. Had my agency cared to ask about the nature of the interpretation or had they cared to tell me I would not have ended up there. The same goes for male interpreter to a gynaecologist and similar situations.

Secondly, you must decide beforehand if you are going to decline an assignment, you cannot do it ad hoc. It’s very unprofessional to do it on the spot. Either you decline beforehand or, if you’re already there you fullfil your obligation, but decide not to take that type of assignment again.

I have to say that in my whole career I have not had to decline one single assignment for moral or ethical reasons (I actually only know of one colleague who has done it, and I would have done the same in that case), I have declined assignments due to very bad working conditions though or clear breach of contracts from the hirers side, but that’s a different story.

Update: I have just noticed that this discussion is also going on at The thread is here

Interpreters and bloggers

I have been whining about interpreters not being present in the blogoshpere. Therefore I have to push for two blogs that I just discovered (thanks to the bloggers stopping by here!). They are in Spanish and Swedish. The Swedish blogger Tolken (yes, she uses the same alias as I do, I have to consider another one 🙂 at makes a very important work trying to create a discussion on the working conditions and general questions for community interpreters. The public service interpreting market in Sweden (as in many other countries) is appalling and in some cases threatening the rule of law. Tolken blogs on these important issues.

The Spanish blogger at writes interesting articles about conference interpreting. I’m unfortunately linguistically challenged when it comes to Spanish so I cannot fully appreciate the blog, but luckily she links to other pages. Her blogrolls of vocabulary resources, associations and other interpreter’s pages are also very impressive.

I can only recommend a visit to these two fellow bloggers.