Eight rules for using an interpreter

communication

Using an interpreter effectively is a high level skill that requires time and practice to develop. Ideally both sides, or more for multiparty discussions, will have their own interpreter.

An interpreter is YOUR tool but is also a person who may have their own personal insecurities and performance anxiety. You may need to encourage and congratulate them to make them feel relaxed and happy. People perform better this way.

Make sure you have established some ground rules with your interpreter and of course with the person you are talking to. It might be useful to go over these rules explicitly between you all at the beginning of the session.

1. YOU are in charge. The interpreter is not in charge and will know that.

2. The person you are talking to must look at you and talk to you. They shouldn’t talk to the interpreter; they are talking to you. You may need to remind them of this so don’t be afraid to do so.

3. Make sure the person you are talking to knows that the session is likely to take twice as long, at least, as without an interpreter. Why? Because the messages have to be repeated and sometimes clarified. Everyone has to give the interpreter time to finish interpreting before starting again. People using an interpreter should understand that short sentences are better. Metaphors should be used with care or perhaps not used at all. Sometimes metaphors are difficult to interpret and they also put an extra cognitive load on the interpreter, particularly in simultaneous interpreting. If you feel a metaphor is needed, perhaps draw special attention to it, but be aware that it might not “translate” very well and might need dedicated time to discuss its meaning. Having the time can be fun and create shared bonds, but it depends on the circumstance. In simultaneous interpreting I have seen interpreters simply ignore metaphors.

4. EVERYTHING that’s said must be interpreted. All sides should know this. Some interpreting guides say listen to the advice of the interpreter in culturally tricky or sensitive situations. That’s fine, but it’s your decision if you want to override the interpreter’s advice. The interpreter should be totally happy with this.

5. The interpreter must promise everyone that if they are not 100% sure of something, they will clarify. That works both ways ie they must clarify with you and with the person you are talking when needed. All sides should understand this.

6. Use one simple sentence at a time until you are confident of the interpreter’s abilities. If you are not sure the message is getting across, say it again or rephrase it.

7. If you are unsure that the interpreter is interpreting well, ask the person you are talking to to paraphrase what you have said. For example, “You know a minute or two ago I spoke of A? Would you mind repeating back to me what I said about A.” If the message doesn’t come back to you more or less intact, then there’s a problem somewhere. The problem may be with the interpreter or it may be with the person you’re talking to. And hey, it might be a problem with you too. Communication is a two way street which is hard enough; but here it’s a three way street. Communication is understanding the other person in order to understand them, not merely to make a quick riposte.

8. If you discover a problem in the communication you should say so. “I think we might have a communication problem here. Let’s try to sort it out.” It’s better to be honest about it straight away. The interpreter should be totally comfortable with this too.

Finally a note for interpreters. A good interpreting session is one where the people talking to each other forget that the interpreter is there. Interpreters will know the feeling and love it.

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