Challenges from Outside the Profession: Friend or Foe?

**Flashback First Friday**

This was originally posted on the NAJIT Blog back in 2012. Leave a comment about being challenged!

A good, healthy session of constructive criticism by a senior colleague about our performance or skills as interpreters is something I venture to say we would all embrace at some level, right? Whether meant as gentle guidance or a harsh reality check, at the end of the day we’ve grown just a little if we heed these words of advice. But what if we’re being challenged by someone who hasn’t been where we’ve been? How do we position ourselves to best respond?

What is it that places interpreters in a position where outsiders would think to challenge us? Well, I know a lot about my car, and when I take it to a mechanic for something I have an inkling about, I’d probably speak up if I had an idea. Same thing goes when I take my child to the doctor because, after all, I usually have information to complement his medical opinion.

How we handle ourselves in any given interpreting situation happens in the open, and seemingly, a lot of the people around us have some level of understanding about what we do. So, yes, there is often a critical eye observing us, and feeling empowered to give opinions. The courts in California have attempted to address part of the issue of challenges by bilingual jurors who believe they hear an interpreter error on the witness stand. To a certain degree, the jury instruction[1] typically given does acknowledge the interpreter’s skills and abilities by saying that the jury must rely on the interpreter’s version. Although it goes on to allow for the challenge, the deference to the professional is understood.

We know that we are subject to both challenges and criticism, but so are other professions. A couple of factors that make it more difficult for us when we are targeted may be how our training is perceived, in general, and specifically, how we present ourselves.

We’ve heard that outside the US, linguist careers are already requiring university degrees, whereas so many training programs here are more similar to trade school certificates. Although I think there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue of “to be or not to be” university trained in the profession (often, great linguists come from other industries before joining our ranks), we have to acknowledge that kids here aren’t born into a culture that holds interpreting among the most highly regarded professions. I hope this will someday change, but in the meantime, although the knowledge we can gain over the span of a career can rival that of doctors and lawyers and scientists (we speak their words— so much of it sticks!!), when we do our jobs correctly, we simply work in their shadows.

How much of this perception can we personally chip away at in our daily dealings? If it’s all about perception, then it’s no longer a matter of only great performances and consistently upholding ethics; what we have to do is “represent” our profession in all we do. A courteous reaction to somebody who has no business challenging how I do things would be to educate, to calmly explain myself—even when my blood is boiling. But even before we are in a position to explain ourselves, if we are perceived by others as someone who has their act together, rather than some “second-class professional,” our reaction is better supported and more credible. This is probably quite individual, but we can all agree that the more we take our responsibility to the profession to heart, the fewer words we’ll need for explaining ourselves, and the more likely we’ll see those around us defer to our expertise.

On a side note, challenges from clients can be handled in a variety of ways, up to and including our decision to terminate the business relationship. When the challenge comes from an employer, however, this can be a stickier situation. Hopefully, we’ll have the backing of national organizations such as NAJIT and ATA (American Translators Association), state organizations and professional unions if, for example, an employer considers that professional ethics and the mechanics of how we complete our task must take a backseat to internal policy. In any case, holding steadfast to what we know is correct is sometimes easier said than done.

So, is the challenge from outside the profession friend or foe? Likely, it is all in how we react. A calm, reasoned answer will hopefully turn even an outrageous perception on how we do things into mutual understanding. At the end of the day, the challenges that we are facing should definitely not go on in silence. Personally, I find it very valuable when colleagues from afar share what they are going through, because all of us become more aware and prepared if similar things happen to us. Unless and until the interpretation and translation hold a place in the hierarchy that is widely recognized and understood as the highly specialized professions they are, we should embrace all challenges as “friend”, and know we will only become stronger as a result.

[1] CALIFORNIA JURY INSTRUCTIONS: CRIMINAL. 121. Duty to Abide by Translation Provided in Court. Some testimony may be given in <insert name or description of language other than English>. An interpreter will provide a translation for you at the time that the testimony is given. You must rely on the translation provided by the interpreter, even if you understand the language spoken by the witness. Do not retranslate any testimony for other jurors. If you believe the court interpreter translated testimony incorrectly, let me know immediately by writing a note and giving it to the  (clerk/bailiff).”   (emphasis added)(

One thought on “Challenges from Outside the Profession: Friend or Foe?”

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