23 May 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?”
“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 Securitybydefault.com, 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.