Interpreters Are Worthless

It was one of those weeks when everyone hates the interpreter. Weather is bad. Call quality is awful. And tempers are slightly more miserable than the shift.

Of course, everything the interpreter does makes things worse. When she asks clients to speak up over the static, clients comply, after pausing long and sighing longer, the way teenagers do when they roll their eyes. When she says “say that again slowly” to the LEP customer, who is speaking on the sort of single-bar cell-phone connection that transmits one out of three syllables, the LEP customer also complies, bellowing the repetition in the tone most people reserve for the truly stupid. When clients get the wrong answer, they accuse the interpreter of misdelivering the question, which she actually took great pains to translate with the same amount of ambiguity, and when the LEP customer gets an answer they don’t like, they accuse her of making up additional information that clouds the issue and confuses the situation, even though she’s only reading from her notes. Then every hour and a half or so, an LEP customer responds to her friendly greeting of “Your Spanish interpreter is on the line to help with the call” by saying, “I asked for someone who speaks Spanish. I don’t want an interpreter. Interpreters are worthless.” But that isn’t as bad as the LEP customer who agrees to work with the “damn interpreter” after all, only to grumble about her to whomever is in the car with him: “They’ll let me know as soon as the damn interpreter finishes talking.” “They must be paying the damn interpreter by the minute.” “Oh, I think the damn interpreter is talking to me. What was that?

The last call of the last shift of the week started in pretty much the same way:

“Your Spanish interpreter is on the line to help with the call. How may we help you?

I selected the Spanish option because I wanted to speak to someone in Spanish. I have had negative experiences with interpreters and would rather not work with one.

That’s fine, sir,” the client said pleasantly, “I’d be happy to take your name and number for someone to call you back next week. We have a limited number of Spanish-speaking staff, and none are available this evening. I can have someone return your call in one to two business days, or I can try to help you now.

After a little more discussion and a few highly detailed reminiscences about incompetent interpreters, the caller went ahead with his question, a complicated matter involving medical insurance for his children.

Under the best of conditions, the call would have been hard work. It was very long, and it was full of service dates, claim numbers, diagnostic codes; proper nouns for providers, medical centers, streets, small towns whose pronunciations borrowed from both languages; and quasi-legal insurance terminology. But with a rough start, poor sound quality, and a week of stored-up interpreter bitterness, it was exhausting. What was especially hard to want to bother about were the little pleasantries that surround requests for repetition and the clever turns of phrase that suggest developing rapport between the caller and the insurance-company rep. The only thing that made it tolerable was knowing my shift would probably be over when the call ended.

After about forty-five minutes (way past the end of my shift), the insurance company representative said he would need to transfer us to another department, where the caller would be able to enroll in a different type of coverage, which would give his children the same level of protection they previously enjoyed.

If I can put you on a brief hold, I can get the two of you right over.

So you’ll be transferring the interpreter, too?

The question was sharp, and after I delivered it, the insurance-company representative hesitated, no doubt remembering the caller’s initial resistance.

Would you like to continue working with the same interpreter,” he asked carefully, “or would you like me to request a new one?

This one.” The answer was equally sharp.

All right.” The insurance company representative went through his closing script before ending with, “I’ll transfer the two of you. Please hold.

The line clicked, and in the dead air between us, the caller mumbled, “At least this one can speak Spanish.


It was one of the rudest, most grudging compliments I’ve ever gotten, but the week had been so long and so demoralizing that it felt like a pair of wings. Despite my lack of motivation and despite the caller’s unwillingness to work with me, we managed to get the job done. He was able to resolve his issue, relax enough to interact with the insurance-company representative in the comfortable way of two people acting without an intermediary, and even trust the interpreter enough to willingly conduct the second part of his encounter with her help, and I was certain that he’d stopped being fully aware of me for much of the call, which was the true compliment for me.

I keep this incident in mind when I’m in the middle of a difficult encounter, tempted to blow through a proceeding or behave unprofessionally for the best or worst reasons. It reminds me that non-English speakers almost always meet me when they’re in a vulnerable position and that to them, I represent a history of encounters I’m not aware of. For that reason, how I do my job—the parts that go beyond accurate rendition—matters. It can make an encounter easier or more difficult, whether the people involved (not just LEP customers) appreciate it or not. By focusing on the message and on my options as a language and cultural expert, I’m able to lose myself in the voices of the people I’m interpreting for, and they’re able to draw on whatever strength they need to get through their moment of crisis. Whether this is actually the case or not, I’ll never know—unless, of course, a mumbled compliment makes me feel I did something right.


Note: This post first appeared in July 2016 on The NAJIT Observer. Written by Ana Garza G’z.

Main photo taken from “Italia podrá almacenar datos telefónicos y de internet durante 6 años” by Antonella Napolitano at LIBERTIES, under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license. First body photo taken from “CONSTRUYENDO UN SISTEMA FIREWALL/ANTISPAM TELEFÓNICO” by Lorenzo Martínez at, under the CC BY-NC 2.5 ES license. Second body photo “Micrófono en la Radio Universidad Nacional de La Plata” by LR11 Radio Universidad Nacional de La Plata at Wikimedia Commons, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

7 thoughts on “Interpreters Are Worthless”

  1. M Leslie Tabarez says:

    These difficulties can actually be heightened when it is a video call rather than a telephone call. To start with, not only do they say they don’t want an interpreter, but rather a Spanish speaking representative, when they see someone who doesn’t “look” like a Spanish interpreter (blonde hair, blue eyes), their complaints are even worse. Then there’s Spanglish and the fact that we have no idea what the situation we’re going to interpret for consists of.. I was interpreting for someone who had injured himself by falling off some pipes he had been standing on. When asked to describe the circumstances of his accident, he said he had fallen from “paipos”. Not knowing ahead of time what type of job he had or where he worked, or anything else, I had NO idea what he meant by “paipos” and I asked for a repetition. He kept repeating “paipos” over and over. I explained to the judge and attorneys (in the proper format) that I was not familiar with the term and needed to look it up (not even knowing where to start).. Although his attorney knew how he had fallen, he didn’t help me out and the judge, also having read info about the case beforehand simply complained that he needed an interpreter who actually spoke Spanish and not one who had to look words up in dictionaries. It was a very stressful moment until his attorney finally said he had slipped on pipes, and I was able to continue interpreting accurately.

  2. Thank you Ana for this article. I share your pain and I think many of us have ended an encounter or two feeling like we are worthless. I do blame big agencies for that though. I spend much of my time creating awareness on what to expect from an interpreter and I find many people have had terrible experiences with interpreters who don’t do their job well. Why? They have not been trained, are not qualified nor certified, and they do the job for a quick buck (usually much below the industry rates). I also blame big healthcare systems that do not consider interpreters part of the team and use us as simple service add-ons for the patients. Doctors are rarely trained on how to work with interpreters.
    I would love an article that combines such endeavor of creating awareness of our profession and distinguishes interpreter agencies from bilingual call centers.

  3. Elaine Starkebaum says:

    I relate to this 100%. Thank you for writing. Paipos! Lol.

  4. Georganne Weller says:

    Hi, couldn´t agree more with Leslie! Please feel free to use my name and credentials for the purpose of moving forward in educating the clients and similar. Best wishes for a wonderful conference, wish I could be there!

  5. Kathleen M Morris says:

    I now have “paipos” to add to my growing list of Spanglish terms for personal injury depos!

    Well-written article, even more relevant now with Zoom court hearings. Have encountered all these examples and more…

    The best, most recent one: (Our new judges are instructed, during “new judge training”, to use the 1st person form of address.)

    It’s not uncommon for them to forget this, though, when working with an interpreter they are meeting for the first time. Most, when gently reminded, will switch back to “first person”.

    But the judge handling my latest Zoom hearing took offense to this request. After initially being prompted by me, he correctly switched to “first person”. But once the hearing was concluding, he ragged on me for making him do this, and for asking speakers not to interrupt each other (I was working in consecutive mode, since most of our hearings are not long enough to merit SI Zoom feature).

    For some reason, judges who always used “1st person” for in-person, pre-pandemic hearings, now seem to think that they must revert to “3rd person” on Zoom hearings!

    Oh, well…it’s a continuing client education process!

  6. Reme Bashi says:

    I got a headache just form reading about the situation. Such unfavorable working conditions! And to be expected to continue interpreting after 45 minutes? Unacceptable if you ask me. I have not experienced this type of remote interpreting setting, but it seems clear some drastic changes are needed. You are a valuable professional, I{m sorry you had this experience. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. C Carrera says:

    Thank you very much for sharing. It helps me understand what happens to colleagues in other languages. Yes, we do encounter similar situations with Tagalog LEP’s and clients. Sometimes, we also see how we can be misunderstood.

    I’m curious why your introduction to the LEP is not in the first person (“Your Spanish imterpreter is on the line to help with the call”). While reading your piece, I didn’t get right away whether someone else was introducing you.

    As an SOP, I ask permission from the English speaker that I would like to inrtoduce myself and inquire on language. Or, after I am introduced by the English speaker, I say to the latter that I would like to inquire on the Philippine language (we have several different ones and this prevents miscommunication when the LEP is just trying to understand Tagalog and is more fluent in another Philippine language). In that introduction/ inquiry, it will be very confusing if I refer to myself in the 2nd person. Just my thoughts 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *