Ideas to explain our profession to others

As judiciary interpreters, we often run into misunderstandings about our profession as a specialized skill. Unfortunately, in many arenas, the interpreting profession is an obscure concept. It’s surrounded by a halo of “anyone can do it.” You’ll also often hear the words “translator” and “interpreter” used interchangeably – my personal pet peeve when it comes to referring to language access. In my mind, understanding our profession is how you begin to respect it.

I have found over the years that it is useful, when you want to educate the public about our profession, to come up with easy-to-understand analogies.  I know these may seem simplistic to the interpreters reading them here, but you may find them useful when helping others outside of our profession understand what we do.

I hope you find this style of explaining our work inspiring to continue to tell the world who we are and what we do.

Interpreting vs. Translation

What do singing and dancing have in common? Music or rhythm, you might say. Does this mean anyone who is a good dancer is also a good singer? Sometimes. Do you need different abilities and training for these activities? Absolutely.

Now, back to interpreting and translation: Transferring ideas from one language to another is the common ground. But just like singing and dancing, they require a different set of abilities. Not everyone who is a good translator is a good interpreter, although some individuals will master both. In case you’re wondering, translation is written, and interpretation is spoken.

Who is an interpreter?

Here comes the million-dollar question: Who can interpret? Well, anyone can. Any person, regardless of speaking two languages, can interpret. You can figure out a lot from context and pick up a word here and there, and then spout out your “rendition.” When Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most respected leaders, died, there was a sign-language interpreter at his funeral. The “interpreter” did not know sign language, but somehow, he was able to fool someone into giving him the job. There you are – anyone can interpret.

The better question is: Who can interpret accurately? In general, professional language interpreters have a combination of the following: equal command of two languages (being bilingual), experience communicating with people in different settings and language registers, higher education in areas related or unrelated to languages, and training in the field of interpreting.

We all believe in the power of education and training. Of course, if you train and study in a certain field, you are bound to get better at it. Yet there is another component when it comes to interpreting. As with singing or dancing, some people have an innate talent to interpret, and others do not. In my view, a good interpreter must have both training and a natural talent for language access.

Going back to our singing-and-dancing analogies, we can all dance at a party or sing in the shower.  That does not make us singers and dancers.  An interpreter is someone who possesses the training and skill to interpret accurately in different modes.  Anyone else is a person trying to interpret.


Reme Bashi has been a certified court interpreter in Wisconsin since 2008.  She began her career as an interpreter and translator in Mexico, at the University of Veracruz, where she majored in pedagogy. Being bilingual in English and Spanish lead her to language teaching and then to translation and interpreting.  She was a conference interpreter for several years, interpreting for the media and government events in Mexico.

In the Midwest, Bashi has interpreted in a variety of settings – education, manufacturing, legal, and community. When she’s not interpreting, she likes to learn about new subjects, something that she considers pivotal to becoming a more proficient language access professional. Recently she has immersed herself in hospitality, urban gardening, and ancestry research. Contact: reme_sullivan@yahoo.com

Main photo by cottonbro at Pexels. Text body images (1, 2) from Papa Yaw and Pixabay at Pexels.

19 thoughts on “Ideas to explain our profession to others”

  1. Laura Neri says:

    thank you for this simple yet effective way to explain our professsion.

    1. Reme says:

      Thanks for commenting, I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  2. Ezequiel Quijano says:

    Reme, I loved your last comment. “An interpreter is … and anyone else is a person trying to interpret.” So true! Just like being a good cook at home doesn’t make you a professional chef.

    My father, who was also an interpreter, always said that “Being bilingual does not an interpreter make.” Another part of the analogy could be that knowing how to read music or the words to a song (knowing the languages) doesn’t make you a singer/dancer, either.

    1. Reme says:

      Yes, indeed! Bilingual person and interpreter are not synonymous. I’m also a second generation interpreter. Your dad is right!

  3. Edith says:

    Dancing and singing… what a perfect analogy to explain our profession.

    Thank you for the article!

    1. Reme says:

      I think it makes it a mote relatable concept, and people usually laugh when you say “singing in the shower” (:
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Jaime M de Castellvi says:

    Love the inspired analogies. I do believe they are a great way to get the point across to the laypeople. Thank you!

    1. Reme says:

      Thank you so much for commenting! I hope you an use these analogies and come up with new ones!

  5. Leonor Valderrama de Sillers says:

    Excellent article. Concise and to the point. This article should be published in the Attorney´s Journals, for example Minnesota has the “Attorney at Law” magazine, and the “Minnesota Lawyer”. North Dakota has “The Gavel Magazine”. I am sure other states have similar publications. This article would provide wonderful information for the courts and the attorneys.
    Thank you for supporting the profession.

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Great idea, Leonor! Thanks so much for your encouragement.

  6. Margaret van Naerssen says:

    I like the concreteness, simplicity of your examples. I shared this with some colleagues in applied linguistics and forensic linguistics communities. We also continue to try to explain our work to others. We need to follow your strategy, to keep it simple.
    Also, In our linguistics work in forensic contexts, we are frequently are involved with interpreting and translating issues in our analyses, reporting, and testifying–explaining to attorneys and fact finders (judges/ jury). Thank you.
    One challenge is explaining that interpreters are not simply “conduits”.

  7. Ricardo says:

    Thank you! Very insightful and useful

  8. Ruth G. says:

    ¡Bravo colega! Very well said and easy to understand.

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Gracias!

  9. Reme thank you for this article. I spend a lot of my time educating clients and I use many examples. Your suggestion does come in very handy.
    Funny but when it comes to “speaker speed”, I like to remind my clients to ” Think Obama”. They love the example because asking them to mind their speed is a very subjective questions.

    Regards,
    Juanita

    1. Reme Bashi says:

      Yes! Thanks for sharing

  10. José A Navarrete says:

    For all the fuss that goes into differentiating between “translating” and “interpreting”, what is actually true is that a good interpreter must first be a good translator. By virtue of the years of preparation and training that goes into becoming a court certified interpreter, there is no other way. By its very nature, the Law is a strictly WRITTEN medium; when we are interpreting jury instructions, arraignment proceedings, etc, we are merely voicing our ‘translation’ of these texts. When we take Sight Translation courses on our way to becoming certified, the class work consists of producing written translations. The two tasks are not exactly mutually exclusive.

    So some people call us “translators” instead of “interpreters”…..who cares? To me, that’s not the issue. The problem is that public and private agencies in and out of the court system then use this fallacious dichotomy to outsource translations of court forms and other documents to under-qualified bilinguals or folks certified by the ATA—which is nothing but an exclusive club that charges too much money for a title that has no official meaning or weight.

    The real problem is that those of us who are certified to interpret are vastly outnumbered by the legions of “bilinguals” who work in the many private and public agencies that employ poor Spanish to communicate with LEP users. And they use the same lame excuses, like wanting to target a more “colloquial” audience, clearly a insult! Contrary to popular belief, working class Mexicans/Central Americans are NOT too dumb and unsophisticated to understand Spanish when it’s spoken and written well.

    Our voice is ultimately muted. No one recognizes or appreciates quality language access because they don’t have to, as we have no value or authority in society. despite our extensive training.

    1. Observer Editor says:

      “Contrary to popular belief, working class Mexicans/Central Americans are NOT too dumb and unsophisticated to understand Spanish when it’s spoken and written well.”

      Couldn’t agree more. It does sound like a rather dull excuse to employ an underqualified person based on a supposed want to sound “more colloquial,” “closer to the people”! Last I checked, English-speaking Americans of all educational levels are able to understand most if not all of what is said in court or in other settings where more formal or archaic language is used.

  11. Carmen Sáenz says:

    Excellent article! Very simple and effective explanation of our profession. Thank you for sharing,

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