Interpreters Are Worthless

–    By Ana Garza G’z © 2016

Ana Garza G’z has been working as a community interpreter and translator in Central California for the past fifteen years. She became court certified a couple of years ago, and like many other freelance language professionals, she divides her time between interpreting assignments and other jobs, mostly part-time teaching. Her love of language was what made her enter the field, but her curiosity about the relationship between language and situation is what keeps her happily at work.

This is her first contribution to The NAJIT Observer, and we look forward to many more.

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Ana Garza G'z

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 LEP customer, who are speaking on the sort of single-bar cell-phone connection that transmits one out of three syllables, LEP customer also comply, bellowing the repetition in the tone most people reserve for the truly stupid. When clients get the wrong answer, they accuse the interpreter of mis-delivering the question, which she actually took great pains to translate with the same amount of ambiguity, and when LEP customer get 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:

Interpreter with mike

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 you’re 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.

Ugh. RI_interpreter

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 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 (not just LEP customers) involved 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.

 

5 Comments
  • Gio Lester
    Posted at 15:35h, 08 July Reply

    “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.”

    Some days we have to make do with that.

    Thank you, Ana, for reminding us that we are a link in the chain that has been grinding into the client’s life and that some of the emotions are not really directed at us. Detachment can be difficult.

  • K-Rae Nelson
    Posted at 08:49h, 09 July Reply

    It reminds me that non-English speakers almost always meet me when they’re in a vulnerable position and that 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.

    You are a GEM and a beautiful and rare gift to the profession! Keep up the amazing work and know that your supportive attitude helps many – even if they don’t realize it

  • Rebecca
    Posted at 09:29h, 09 July Reply

    What a beautiful article. I is wonderful to be able to turn situations like that around. Congratulations.

  • P Diane Schneider
    Posted at 10:40h, 09 July Reply

    I was called to interpret for an independent psychiatric evaluation. When I arrived, the LEP stated she did not want me to interpret for her. She asserted that I had interpreted for her for a preliminary appointment with her treating therapist and that I had been very rude to her. Staff checked around and after consulting with schedulers told her there was no other interpreter available so if she refused this interpreter she would have to consult with her claims manager about rescheduling with another interpreter. I did not recall her at all so I was completely mystified at her accusation that I had been rude to her. She finally agreed that I could interpret for her and during the interview I did recall some of the details of the case. There were no further difficulties during the interview. After the interview I told her I did remember her after all. She seemed relieved. She then apologized for her behavior. She said she had been surprised at my appearance the first time we met as I appeared to be non-hispanic. Her traumatic experience for which she was receiving treatment was quite severe. I of course told her I quite understood her emotional state and that an apology was unnecessary. I myself was relieved as I had never had that reaction from an LEP before.

  • Zoi White
    Posted at 00:36h, 10 July Reply

    “When clients get the wrong answer, they accuse the interpreter of mis-delivering the question, which she actually took great pains to translate with the same amount of ambiguity, and when LEP customer get 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.”

    This resonates with me loud and clear and is so true. It happens more often than I would like to think about. The assumptions and conclusions that the LEP or the client make in many conversations about the interpreter not having the ability to accurately convert words in two different languages are simply amazing. We are professional linguists and have devoted many hours to conquer our languages so that they may enjoy the fruits of our efforts and they make idle claims that we are the one who is worthless. Keep up the great work interpreters and don’t let these people get in our way as we will always triumph in the end by being the proud professionals that we chose to be.

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