The burden of a successful interpretation encounter often feels like it rests with the person interpreting the conversation. But there are things you, as a person requesting an interpreter, can do to make sure the conversation goes off without a hitch. (There are also things you can do to ensure the conversation is emotionally exhausting for everyone!)
Some of the most important keys to success occur before the conversation even begins:
1. Let the interpreter know what the general topic of conversation will be. If you are working with a contractor, tell the agency when you make the request. This allows the interpreter to prepare the words, concepts, skills, and stamina they will need.
2. Reduce or remove distractions if you can. Ask for TVs to be turned off, occupy children if needed, ask for quiet.
3. If you are working with an agency interpreter, provide an opportunity to remove internal distractions. Offer space/time for the interpreter to do any of the following: use the bathroom, drink water or coffee, eat a snack. They are about to do a mental workout, you need them to render peak performance, and you don’t know what they just came from.
4. Plan for breaks, or for two interpreters. The standard amount of time you should expect quality performance from an interpreter is 30 – 60 minutes. Research shows that after an hour, interpreters begin to make mistakes without realizing it. If you can’t give your interpreter a break after that amount of time, you need to think of this conversation as a relay race. Plan to have a second interpreter who can swap out with your first interpreter. If need be, after another 30-60 minutes, your first interpreter can swap back in.
In the flow of conversation:
5. Prioritize turn taking, especially when a bilingual person is present. Politely enforce it if the other person in the conversation doesn’t. You can say, “Sorry, could you please let the interpreter finish speaking, so we can all stay on the same page?”
6. Pause to give your interpreter time to interpret, and once they start, don’t interrupt them. Don’t start speaking again until they have finished repeating (in the target language) what you’ve said.
7. If your interpreter seems to flounder or struggle, try saying fewer things at a time. Shorter is easier to remember, and therefore easier to repeat well (meaning accurately)
8. Manage interruptions on behalf of the interpreter – defend their turn to speak. If someone interrupts them, defend the interpreter from interruption so they don’t have to. Pausing an interpretation taxes concentration and makes it way harder to correctly repeat (meaning interpret) what you said. If you can’t prevent the interruption, just repeat what you said yourself, or ask the speaker to repeat themselves, so the interpreter can start fresh. You can say, “as I was saying,” and then repeat yourself or ask “what did you say before?”
After the conversation:
9. Debrief the encounter. If there was a moment when something seemed off, ask your interpreter if they noticed anything about it, and if so what. They may be able to share additional linguistic or cultural insight, or may have picked up on an emotion you missed. An interpreter can give you more information about what they observed in the encounter, and you can compare notes, or decide on things you’d like to go back and ask about. This is a great learning opportunity for you, and a de-stressing moment for the interpreter – professionalism requires that we hold our own voices back during the encounter, but we sometimes have valuable perspectives or information to share afterwards.
10. Remember to thank your interpreter. Acknowledge what they did. Give compliments if they’re warranted.
Interpreting is very much like an intense practice for a trained athlete. Your brain gets genuinely tired. In the most recent episode of her podcast Unlocking Us, Brene Brown explains research describing how the bodies of chess players in a tournament have similar blood pressure, muscle tension, and energy expenditure as elite athletes – all because of the mental work of the tournament. Interpreting is similarly intense! Treat your interpreter like someone who is actively working out in your presence, so that you can talk to a client or patient or colleague about things that matter to you both.
Kate Dzubinski is a Certified Medical Interpreter whose background draws from the southern US, Austria, and northeastern Spain. She grew up speaking four languages, and currently works as a hospital interpreter, continuing education developer and lead facilitator in the Interpreter Training department at ALTA Language Services.