Interrupting Without Intruding

“One moment, the interpreter needs a repetition,” I said in English, followed by “Excuse me, could you repeat that for the interpreter?” in rapid-fire Spanish. It was about fifteen minutes into the interpretation, and the fourth time I had interrupted. I was feeling a bit embarrassed by this point; the asylum seeker being interviewed on the other end of the phone tended to speak at length. I needed to interrupt before I had reached maximum saturation, and given phone lags and delays, this had to be done strategically. We got to the end of the call, and the interviewer thanked me. He seemed genuine, and I felt flooded with relief. I was about to apologize for the numerous interruptions when he said, “This was the best interpreting experience I have ever had. Thank you so much for everything you did. You really made having the conversation easy.”

Obviously, I was thrilled—clients are not always so grateful. But more importantly, that interpreting assignment confirmed something I had suspected for some time—interrupting without intruding is possible, and the interpreter who does it well will actually move the conversation forward.

It has actually been 6 years since I wrote about this concept of “People Management.” But because it has been a while, I decided to give this topic another go. Interpreters are often expected to be like some sort of machine: input language A, output language B. This simplistic expectation crumbles when faced with the realities of day-to-day interpreting. A mumbled phrase, a door slamming in the background, a term you’ve never heard before—all these problems can arise, and if you don’t want to guess at what was said (which you should never do), then you need to be able to insert yourself into the conversation, quickly and transparently, resolve the issue, and then disappear once more into the background.

The importance of a pre-session

This is a magical act, and not an easy one. I firmly believe that it begins with knowledge of all parties involved. In medical interpreting, we teach the concept of the “pre-session,” or interpreter’s introduction. This is your 30-second elevator pitch, and its importance cannot be understated. The idea is to anticipate possible problems, and put everyone on the same page right from the beginning. You want to engage your listener, explain yourself clearly, and most importantly, explain why you are asking for these things. As an example, in my pre-session I say, “Please feel free to speak directly to the patient/provider. I’ll interpret everything that is said, as if I were you. This will allow the session to go more smoothly.” Of course, five minutes into the session, one of them will inevitably slip up and say, “tell her XYZ.” Hey, I don’t blame them—what we’re asking our clients to do feels awkward at the beginning, even if it will be more effective in the long run. It takes time for concepts like “speak directly to the other person” to sink in. However, now that I’ve already done my pre-session, all I have to do is give them a friendly reminder—“Speaking as the interpreter, it will actually be much smoother for all of us if you speak directly to them. I’ll speak as though I were you.” This is the second time they are hearing this. They are implicated. They are involved. They are therefore more likely to change their behavior, ultimately guaranteeing better outcomes.

I firmly believe that all interpreting assignments should begin with this sort of introduction. It will only benefit everyone in the long run. Sure, it will take an extra minute at the beginning of the assignment, but it will save time because the sessions will become more efficient.

Pre-sessions in legal settings

It is unclear to me why this is still not common practice in legal settings. One big objection is that any sort of side conversation with either party is strictly forbidden. However, you can easily introduce yourself in the presence of all the parties involved. Either way, you’ll still have to deal with any issues later on, interrupting in the process, and if there has been no introduction, it’s sort of like agreeing to the rules once the game has already started.

With COVID forcing more and more interpreting encounters online, proper interventions are even more crucial for positive outcomes. Interpreters need to be able to establish basic guidelines for a dialogue that is very different from a normal, monolingual conversation. Once those guidelines are established, a skilled interpreter can intervene when necessary, “interrupting without intruding.” None of this happens as much as it ought to, and if it did occur more, then everyone-LEP, interpreter, and English-speaking party-would be the happier for it. Or anyway, that’s what I think. Let me know your thoughts below.


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

13 thoughts on “Interrupting Without Intruding”

  1. Buen trabajoo, Athena. Siempre da gusto leerte.

  2. Kathleen M. Morris says:

    More important than ever during Zoom court hearings. By now, many judges “get” the need to pause between utterances. Some attorneys, however, just go on and on, neither knowing nor caring if or how interpretation is taking place. We just do our “magic act”!

  3. Michele Wade says:

    Great points Athena. Thank you for sharing your techniques and observations.

  4. Ezequiel Quijano says:

    When interpreting at depositions, I always make it a point to ask both parties for permission to address the witness – before we start – and “explain the mechanics of working through an interpreter.” I summarize what I will address with the witness, and I never get any push back. It certainly does make the process smoother and, believe it or not, everyone’s appreciation for that is often expressed at the end of the session.

  5. Vicki Bermudez says:

    Hurray! As a certified healthcare interpreter, who routinely does pre-sessions according to protocol and training, I completely agree with you re a pre-session in the legal realm! Whenever possible, (attorney/client conversations for depositions or jail meetings, for eg.), I do that, but It’s rarely possible for courtroom appearances. I wonder if it’s something we could start advocating for, through NAJIT.

    As far as long-winded attorneys, it seems that they are the hardest ones to deal with! I’m learning to take better notes, as well as to feel less awkward when I have to interrupt them. After a few times, the judge will often remind them…but even then it doesn’t usually help!

  6. Seth Hammock says:

    Agreed with the above. Just got off a depo. The pre-session is so important. It allows me to determine speaking style, potential issues with audio, and hopefully put the witness at ease. However, it can happen that I simply wind up saying to myself, ‘This could be a long depo.’

  7. Judith Kenigson Kristy says:

    Spot on! “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

  8. Sandra J Aidar-McDermott says:

    Great article Athena! I was just telling a colleague about my experience yesterday working in WebEx court with another colleague who is not certified yet. Her language skills were good but she had omissions and misunderstandings in her rendition. While I asked for repetitions and clarifications she wouldn’t. It takes training, knowledge and a commitment to the integrity of the process to dare to interrupt.

  9. Susana Gee says:

    Exactly, why is there no pre-session in legal settings? My biggest struggle is in family court where there are so many parties, everyone mumbles their name when making their introductions on the record, there is always a progress report to be read at high speed and because the parents are deeply invested in the outcome of the proceeding tend to have long-winded testimony with few pauses.
    Before I begin, I attempt to get the names of each party, the agency they represent, the name of the child or children involved and I take a deep breath. I have no complaint with the judges though, they have always been supportive of the interpreters and are able to read when an interpreter needs attention.


    Thank you, Athena, for highlighting the importance of a pre-session introduction. In the pre-Covid days, I found that it was also helpful to include a quick statement about how I would be signaling when I would be intervening, e.g., a hand signal, a lean forward. In the world of OPI, VRI, this has become a challenge. It is indeed disconcerting to have to intervene, but intervene we must for a variety of reasons in order to interpret in a professional and effective manner. One way to avoid some of the awkwardness is to prepare and memorize short one or two sentence scripts for the most common situations that give rise to the need for intervening (need for repetition, request for clarification of a term/acronym, need to manage communication flow, etc.). I agree that pre-sessions are lacking in court interpreting settings. Since the pandemic, I’m doing OPI/VRI for our State courts. I have been very disappointed that many Judges are not providing any kind of pre-hearing guidance to the participants that, i.e., the mechanics of how the hearing is to be conducted regarding the use of an interpreter. So now, when I make initial contact, besides announcing my presence as the interpreter, if the Judge hasn’t taken the bench yet I take advantage of the opportunity to provide my own very brief pre-session in both languages. That has made things run much more smoothly and minimizes the need for interventions.

  11. Jacqueline Guldris says:

    Great perspectives from everyone. Learning everyday new tips and techniques. I generally also give pre-session instructions. Initially, I also notice that some judges want the interpreter to give a summary when the exchanges are long between speakers with no interruptions. I quickly let them know that is against our code of ethics. I’ve also noticed lately that many are getting used to allowing for the translation between speakers or short Q&As. Thank you Athena!

  12. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I’m glad this seems to be relevant. I appreciate reading about all of your experiences, and how a few guidelines at the beginning of a session can help everything go more smoothly. Keep on advocating for what you need, and good luck!

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