Team Interpreting Standards – Are we ready?

I remember it well. I had just begun my interpreting career, and I was placed with a more experienced interpreter to provide services for a competency hearing. I had been interpreting simultaneously for a while, and now it was my partner’s turn. She switched to consecutive as the judge began to question the witness. And then suddenly, I heard my colleague say something in English that was an absolute misinterpretation of the original Spanish, and vital to the judge’s decision-making. My heart started to thud in my chest as I frantically tried to decide what to do.

This experience, it turns out, is not all that unusual when working in a team. Interpreting is hard enough already without having to struggle with the interpersonal dynamics of people who have been trained differently from you. Where should we sit? Can we take breaks? How do we handle corrections? All of these issues must be handled delicately, and it is no easy task to tell your more experienced colleague that you have heard an error, as was the case for me that day.

So, in September of 2017, Agustín de la Mora and I decided to lay the groundwork for standards on team interpreting. We began at the California Federation of Interpreter’s conference in Oakland, and with a group of 50+ participants, we broke into working groups and presented to the rest of the team. I have typed the results of that meeting into a document which you can see here.

In the time that has passed since, I have led three different ethics workshops, and in every single one of these interactions, interpreters of all languages and from everywhere within the US have related very similar experiences. Everyone agrees that the interactions between teammates are not set in stone. At best, working within a team is a satisfying and mutually beneficial learning experience, serving as a relief from the responsibility and exhaustion brought on by interpreting alone. But at worst it is extremely challenging and detrimental to the interpreting process, leading many to be wary and attempt to interpret on their own, even when doing so will expose them to interpreter fatigue and they run the risk of committing errors.

Our hope is to bring all this information together and create a set of interpreting standards, to promote uniformity no matter who you are interpreting with. The goal, too, is to create a structure that allows for fruitful dialogue, so that both interpreters understand how to give and receive feedback.

Our working draft contains the following proposals:

  • A formalized pre-session between interpreters to establish basic guidelines for working as a team before each team-interpreted encounter.
  • A standardized method for passing on information in an ongoing interpreting situation from one day to the next.
  • An actual code by which both interpreters can abide.

To see these suggestions fully explained, please go to the document accessible here.

To finish up my story about the competency hearing: At the time, I just had my training and my gut instincts to go on. I did end up confronting my colleague, as tactfully as I could. She did not agree that she had misinterpreted the term, so we decided to defer to the supervisor of interpreters, a Spanish interpreter herself, who did confirm that a mistranslation had occurred. I then went on the record because my colleague preferred not to, even though she had been the one to make the mistake. It was not fun or easy, especially because I was less experienced and lacked confidence in myself.

I contend that such feedback and interpreter corrections within a team do not have to be this difficult. If we had better training on team interpreting, accompanied by uniform standards with which we were all familiar, such issues would simply become simple and routine.

I’m sure that all of you have had a similar experience to this one. Please do share your thoughts and suggestions below, and look out for a codified Standards for Team Interpreting, coming to you soon!


Portraint of Ahtena 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: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

11 Comments
  • Nicholas Luttinger
    Posted at 17:51h, 06 July Reply

    The supposed links to the document you keep referring back to do not work.

  • Maria Mori
    Posted at 18:03h, 06 July Reply

    Side bar with your partner, and if doesn’t work, go to the Senior interpreter,

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 14:22h, 08 July Reply

      Yep. 🙂 That’s exactly what we did. It just felt a little bit more complicated at the time!

  • Berty Reid
    Posted at 18:51h, 06 July Reply

    I would suggest asking the judge for a five minutes break to inform the judge of the misinterpretation in front of the other interpreter.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 14:22h, 08 July Reply

      I agree with that, but I think that both interpreters should ideally be in agreement before that happens. Otherwise, you are calling your partner out in public which is not going to foster good communication in the future.

  • Terence
    Posted at 19:16h, 06 July Reply

    If I understand, you told the interpreter that they had made a mistake, and you asked them to correct their rendition on the record — but the other interpreter disagreed with your interpretation and declined. So you involved another interpreter (who wasn’t present originally) and decided to inform the court that your colleague had made a mistake, and then offered your own rendition.

    Where exactly in statutes or codes of procedures do you find the standing to do this? I understand that you were motivated by a desire for correctness, but I see many problems with the approach you adopted.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 14:17h, 08 July Reply

      Hi Terence,

      What happened was that my colleague made a misinterpretation (to protect privacy, I don’t want to go into exact details. However, she mis-interpreted the actual charge from Spanish into English, and the judge needed to know if the defendant understood the charge, so remedying the mistake was vital to the outcome of the case). At first she did not think she had made a mistake, so she was the one who suggested we defer to the senior interpreter (we could have just as easily consulted a dictionary). At that point she agreed she had made a mistake, but she still didn’t feel comfortable correcting it on the record, and asked me to instead.

      My whole point is that there *are* no statutes or codes of procedures to know what to do in this kind of situation, and I think that there should be.

  • martin anderson
    Posted at 17:12h, 07 July Reply

    This is a very useful discussion and I anticipate progress to come from it.
    Not all errors of this type are really problematic. I worked a trial somewhere in New Jersey almost 20 years ago with a very experienced and skilled colleague. It was hot, the AC wasn’t working, and the windows were open allowing a lot of street noise to enter. My partner interpreted “lata” (can as in tin can) as “laptop.” Later we had a good laugh over it and agreed that no great harm had been done.
    My first experience in team interpreting was also nearly 20 years ago, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. My partner was Claudia Villalba. She was unbelievably prepared for everything, including working with a relatively new interpreter as a partner. I can say it was the best on-the-job learning experience I ever had. I think team interpreting is the best opportunity for training new interpreters.

    • Athena Matilsky
      Posted at 14:20h, 08 July Reply

      Hi Martin,

      I agree. Deciding when an error is important enough to correct is vital to good team interpretation, and I’ve seen both sides; sometimes people are too eager to correct each other when it’s really not helpful, and sometimes nobody speaks up when they ought to. I believe you that Claudia Villalba was well-prepared! 🙂 It is wonderful when we are able to have good experiences with a partner while interpreting.

  • David Mintz
    Posted at 14:51h, 10 July Reply

    This debate has been going on at least as long as I’ve been around — over 25 years — and no doubt since before my time. I wrote an opinion piece about this for Proteus in like 1993.

    I think the one great issue we need to get our heads around is that there will always be an element of subjectivity. Interpreters have to decide whether something is wrong or right, and while obviously some cases are clear, a great many are marginal and require judgment calls. Then, interpreters have to decide if something is wrong enough to warrant taking action. I would argue that some things just aren’t worth making a scene over. But the determination of what is substantial and what is inconsequential is essentially a subjective one. It also usually requires a pretty good grasp of the full context. But we need to be comfortable with the fact that we have to use our judgment. There is no manual or flow chart to steer us through every situation.

    I think this article points to the most important thing: train people in ethics so that they are well tuned to what is happening, and their gut will show them the way. All well-trained interpreters know that when something goes really wrong, the sensation is both physical and unmistakeable.

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