Intervening with the Proper Terminology: How to navigate situations while interpreting

– By Armando Ezquerra Hasbun © 2016

Professional interpreters are aware that the scope of their rendition starts and ends with the source message. Accuracy and completeness are the primary considerations. But what about the standards of practice for intervening?  Our ongoing efforts to elevate our profession and obtain the recognition we desire should also include an interest in adopting and consistently deploying the proper intervention techniques. A suitable set of ready-made phrases to help us carry out our professional duties constitute a key resource as we continue improving and expanding our professional tool box. Observing the protocol and using the proper phraseology for intervening are a mark of distinction and an indicator of accomplished interpreters.

Intervening, you say?  Yes, any time we have to ask for a repetition, we seek clarification or request a much needed break, we are intervening. Anytime we speak in the third person we are intervening. Anytime we say something that is not part of the source message we are interpreting, we are intervening, and we better do it in a manner that has a minimal impact on the exchange where we act as linguistic mediators. Intervening is not interpreting but it is also not interfering either.

What are then the key steps or components of intervening with the proper phraseology?

1) Make a quick and accurate assessment of the situation you believe justifies intervening: The interpreter is the one party who can perceive, anticipate and recognize barriers to interlanguage communication. As we convert messages into the target language, and especially when working as a team, we are also simultaneously carrying out our own quality control. When we detect an error, it’s our duty to assess its significance, the need for correction and the adequate timing for bringing it up.

When we encounter an impediment to interpreting, we should intervene in the hope that it can be eliminated and for future reference, that the record reflects that we were working under adverse conditions. An important skill at this stage, in addition to knowing how to say something, is to know when to remain silent. There are few more embarrassing experiences than attempting to correct something that was not incorrect in the first place.Intervening is not interfering

2) Speak up with the proper phraseology to the individuals with the authority to resolve the situation seeking their permission to engage the limited English subject (LES) in order to do it: 
The proper phraseology consists of a set of phrases that have been prepared in advance, memorized or used consistently enough, which amounts to the same thing, so that they can be easily deployed as needed. Directing them at a presiding judge, attorneys handling a deposition or probation officer during an interview shows that though we intervene, we don’t exercise control over the outcome of the situation. Addressing them in English to request, say, a simple repetition from the LES, instead of addressing her directly in our foreign language, recognizes their authority, since by getting their approval first, they know ahead what we will be asking the LES to do next. This is also a good practice as we reinforce our commitment to transparency.

What are then, the characteristics of proper phraseology?

3) There are three components in a phrase that expresses the desired outcome of our intervention:

A) It is brief: To paraphrase Billie Holliday, “Don’t explain” (too much): Novice interpreters often lose credibility when over explaining an impediment to interpreting, a request they may have, or when challenged, their rationale for having chosen one semantic option over another. A succinct, well-crafted phrase that expresses a need or a concern is better that a long explanation about why a matter is of concern.

B) It is directed to the parties with the power to permit you to implement a solution (if any): This is easily achieved by the use of the modal verb “May” in the final part of a phrase when a request is made “The interpreter requires clarification/repetition, may the interpreter proceed?” “May the interpreter ask the witness to speak up?”

C) It is used consistently across segments, time and settings when it refers to the same issue: An interpreter that comes up with different phrases at different times in response to the same issues comes across as less proficient than a colleague who reliably uses the same phrase for the same situation.

Here are some phrases that are for the most part self-explanatory—and that you may have been using for years—that exemplify some of these principles:

1) “The interpreter requests clarification, may the interpreter proceed?”
2) “The interpreter couldn’t hear the last part of the response; may the interpreter proceed? “
3) “The interpreter has been interpreting for one hour, may the interpreter take 5 minutes?”
4) “May the interpreter verify the meaning of a term in context.”
5) “The interpreter is unable to hear the witness; may the interpreter ask him to speak up?”
6) “The interpreter stands by his/her interpretation.”

What phrase do you find yourself using when you must intervene?


  • Maksym Kozub
    Posted at 21:33h, 04 April Reply

    Years ago, I created a phrase that I have been using in this sort of situations. I tried to make it as clear and neutral as possible. The phrase is this: “Interpreter’s intervention; the interpreter is now speaking on his own behalf”. E.g. when interpreting during videotaped depositions for a U.S. court, I used this phrase when I could not hear the witness properly: “Interpreter’s intervention; the interpreter is now speaking on his own behalf. Dear attorneys, may I ask the witness to repeat what he just said, because there was some noise and I could not hear it properly?”.

    • Maksym Kozub
      Posted at 14:02h, 05 April Reply

      I just forgot to mention that at the end of my question etc. I would say, in the same formal way, “End of interpreter’s intervention”, to clearly mark the point where I switch back to interpreting.

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