Bridge over the Mississippi River during sunset

Muddying the Waters of Interpreting

Exactly a week ago today, you would have found me in New Orleans with a colleague at an oyster bar on the banks of the Mississippi, discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty simple. Basically, the more you know, the less you think you know. The idea is that as you come to know a subject extremely well, you begin to understand how much more there is to that subject. You understand the nuances. The subtleties.

The smarter you get…the dumber you think you are.little girls in blue, sitting in bed, reading a large book, with a globe and the world map as background

This has happened to me more than once! I currently teach a 40-hour training on medical interpreting, and as I try to do the topic justice for my students, I am terrified by the vast ocean of my own ignorance. Did you know how much there is to the human body? It is incredibly overwhelming. And I’m fairly knowledgeable on the subject; I read books on biology just for fun! Yet for every concept I master, five more appear that I didn’t even realize were a thing!

But back to the oyster bar: I happened to be in The Big Easy because this year that was the location of the American Translator’s Association’s 59th annual conference. I led several presentations, and during one workshop (Two Roads Diverge: Medical Interpreting versus Legal Interpreting), we abandoned my carefully planned PowerPoint slides. That’s because by minute two, the session had turned into an animated discussion extending to a passionate and opinionated audience. It was the best departure from a lesson plan that I’ve ever had.

We talked about a lot of things, and it seemed that the more we talked, the more confusing everything became.

Know the environment, know the role

Take the concept of “collaborative environment” versus “adversarial environment.” This is the basic premise that guides us when deciding which role we can step into; legal interpreting role for the latter, community interpreting role for the former.

We draw this distinction because in the United States there is a drastic difference in the level of intervention permitted for community interpreters versus legal interpreters. In court, our role is very limited. Do we happen to witness a breakdown in communication due to a cultural difference that we know perfectly well how to resolve? Too bad. We’re in an adversarial situation and must stick to the role of conduit (that is, interpreting exactly what’s said while pretending we’re invisible, even though—and here’s the clincher—we aren’t). We want the LEP individual to have the same experience that an English-speaking person would have if we weren’t there. Essentially, we are facilitating equally imperfect access to justice. On the other hand, in community interpreting (and therefore medical interpreting, which falls under the community umbrella) there is more leeway for cultural mediation and even for advocacy, which carries its own set of difficulties.

Environment vs Purpose

While having our hands tied in legal interpreting encounters can be frustrating, at the very least it seems pretty straightforward: Know the environment, know the role.

Enter the Dunning-Krueger effect.

First of all, how do we define our environments? I’ve been taught that we look to the purpose of the encounter; if we are facilitating access to community services, we are a community interpreter. We should also consider the fact that medical interpreters are part of a team working for the benefit of the LEP patient’s health, whereas in court settings we are a neutral in-betweener. We have to clearly define what role we are performing where, and it’s not all about terminology: You can be a court interpreter diving into complex medical expert witness descriptions, and you may find yourself deciphering high-register legal documents while working as a medical interpreter. So, we don’t look to content necessarily; we look at purpose.

Muddying the waters…

But what if we are interpreting for an attorney and a client in what is very much a collaborative setting, or a probation officer and a defendant, where the goal is not exactly adversarial? It’s kind of collaborative on the one hand, and adversarial on the other. And what about a medical interview in the context of a civil litigation? If we think of our ultimate goal as teaming with the doctor to provide services in the form of a proper diagnosis, then we are obligated to help navigate cultural differences. Yet at the same time, we must keep our mouths shut on the assumption that the encounter is serving an over-arching adversarial goal, so we can’t take sides or do anything but interpret.

Why shouldn’t we be cultural mediators in an adversarial situation? We are supposed to facilitate equal access to justice for those who don’t speak English. However, our LEP clients have an added disadvantage: their cultural backgrounds, and that will almost inevitably impact their access to justice.

Individuals who speak enough English to communicate, regardless of their cultural background, would not benefit from the services of interpreters to help them navigate cultural differences. Therefore, the consensus is that when interpreters act as cultural brokers in a court setting, they are giving LEP individuals an unfair advantage over their opponents. The issue is that, much like in a medical setting, LEP individuals are already at a disadvantage by needing to communicate through an interpreter, and there are times when cultural differences make communication (and therefore interpreting) extremely difficult.

As you can see, we start muddying the interpretation waters really quickly.

So, there you have it. The Dunning-Kruger effect in real time. I have more questions than answers right now, and that’s why I love this field. It’s young, it’s new, and it’s evolving. We don’t know everything, but there is room for a passionate group of voices to be heard, even as the interpreting waters grow as muddy as the Mississipi.

I’m sure y’all will have opinions too. Feel free to comment below, and maybe we’ll continue the discussion at the NAJIT conference in Nashville this May!

Photo credit: Feature photo via Good Free Photos; small photos by Frans Van Heerden and Tina Nord from Pexels.

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:


10 thoughts on “Muddying the Waters of Interpreting”

  1. Gila Khabbaza says:

    Thanks Athena,

    I agree! The more I learn the more I realize the things I do not know. This happened when I first went to night school at Queens College, New York, and then later on as I pursued my masters. I find that the smartest people I have met in life are the ones who are most humble and most honest with the not knowing. Because this is how we search for answers and how we learn. Thank you for this Athena. I thought I was just getting old. Now it seems I am getting younger again, because I see the world through the eyes of a child searching for answers, and exploring and learning new things. Thank you. Your drive and ambition amazes me and I am so happy to have you as our speaker! 🙂

    – Gila

  2. Well, Athena, I cannot help but agree totally with you. Your post is very-well written and right on point.
    As a long time judicial interpreter, I find that you refreshingly set forth the difficulties we encounter and the delicate balance we need to play when interpreting in different settings. Kudos to you dear colleague!

  3. Clarence E. Williamson says:

    Ms. Matilsky quite sufficiently delves deep into an aspect of part of the work I labor over on many occasions. I work with the Korean language in both the legal and medical environs. This is particularly difficult because many of the LEP Koreans I encounter, especially those who have resided in the United States for a considerable number of years, believe they have a good understanding of the issues facing them; but the problem is during their lives in here in America they largely interact within the Korean subculture community wherein what in my opinion they have developed a third language that they are not even aware they speak.
    Believing their time and interaction here in America has left them with a level of English all Americans understand, they speak in what has long known to be Konglish, a hodgepodge of their native Korean intermixed with English. The result is when testifying in court or communicating with a physician at a clinic, they start out using their Korean language then unconsciously revert to Konglish; wherein, English words are used wrongly and pronounced nearly unrecognizably leading to confusing the listeners, even me at times..
    At issue here is the native Korean LEP having a fundamental Korean culture background modified to the American Korean subculture background interfacing with the mainstream norms and English language of the courts and medical fields. Age too is very important in these cases where the proper register and respect factor is to be maintained.
    The importance of appropriately rendering the meanings and intents of the communicating parties involves interfacing significantly different cultures. That is facilitated and even solved as best as is humanly possible with an in-depth understanding of both cultures involved at the moment and in accord with the event. Doing so helps to clear the mud of the waters of interpreting that can get muddy for sure.
    It is always good to read the works of Ms. Matilsky.

  4. A great post, Athena. Thank you very much for sharing. I’m currently teaching an Intro to Interpreting class at the Université de Moncton in Moncton, Canada. I’m introducing translation students to the world of interpreting and the various settings that interpreters work in. We’ve spent time looking at the role of the interpreter and the challenges that arise in each setting but I’ve never thought of looking at the issue from an adversarial/collaborative lens. Very interesting indeed! And yes, it does muddy the waters, but that’s life. Things are rarely black and white!

  5. Vicki Santamaria says:

    Clarence, the situation with Spanish speakers is exactly the same. I once interpreted for a lady who had actually been born in Texas and had spent her whole life in the border region. She wasn’t fully fluent in English, but not in Spanish either. What she spoke was a hybrid of the two languages. It’s similar to the case of deaf people who grow up without a formal education. They and their families work out a sign language which isn’t necessarily understood by other deaf people.

  6. Alfredo Babler says:

    Hi goddess! ¿Cómo te va en la Cañada? Hope you’re doing well. Great writing.

    “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

    It’s called the Socratic Paradox, but I was actually Plato who wrote a similar phrase in relation to Socrates.
    It will sit a cocky bastard right down. Lol. There’s a whole thing about how someone who thinks they know it all usually ends up being in the lower tier of cognitive ability. IDK if that makes Forrest Gump a genius and Sergeant Schultz absolutely brilliant….

  7. Thank you, everyone, for your insightful comments! It was an interesting topic to write about, and tough too, because there are so many angles and it is so complex. I am glad that some of what I wrote resonated with all of you, and it has been fascinating to hear your own examples.

  8. Hilda Shymanik says:

    Great post, Athena! I will just have to disagree with you “maestra”. In the paragraph below at least I will add that although at times things got for sure muddy, by the time we left you had clarified our doubts and perhaps your own. Questions will always remain but you gave us great tools to identify each situation, the rest is up to us to keep enquiring and finding answers.

    “We talked about a lot of things, and it seemed that the more we talked, the more confusing everything became”.

  9. Carmen Mustile says:

    Great article, as usual, very candid and informative. The comments too. Thank you.

    My experience as a healthcare and judicial interpreter has thought me that when the parties ( medical doctor, lawyer, judge) are informed and educated about the basics of the the role of the medical interpreter and/or the judicial interpreter, the communication and the interpretation has less chance to become muddy, provided the interpreter delivers the interpretation according to the cannons.
    I have been in situations in which the lack of patience by doctors, can make the environment vs. purpose frustrating, I found myself the interpreter, fully understanding the commitment to the therapy as oppose the medical staff, for the benefit of LEP! In other words I can’t emphasize the importance of a certain action by the LEP to make the therapy work! The latter, the emphasis should come from the professionals in medicine.
    I find that in legal deposition, the lawyers from both side are better informed about the role of the conduit, also a deposition setting, I feel, is more conducive to the clarifications, should they arise, during delivery of the service.
    I personally finds the healthcare delivery of interpretation, much less brain taxing, thus easier and less prone do muddiness.

    Thank you.

  10. Very good post, Athena. Thank you for asking out loud the questions that challenge the orthodox dogmata, AND for not answering them, as that would create the illusion that easy answers exist.

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